Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: for more on the cyanide river spill see earlier stories in the Albion Monitor.]

"Whitewash" Charged in Guyana River Disaster

by Judith Perera

(IPS) LONDON -- Native communities living along the Omai and Essequibo rivers in Guyana are facing disaster as a result of a gold mine accident which occurred last August. They are expecting nothing from the official inquiry into the incident which began at the end of October and have described it as a "whitewash."

Last August, a dam belonging to the Omai Gold Mine in Guyana, 160 kilometers south of the Capital Georgetown, burst releasing 3.5 million cubic meters of toxic wastes into the nearby river system.

The wastes included cyanide and heavy metals and local residents were immediately asked not to use the river water or catch fish -- the livelihood of many of the Native communities in the area.

"Its long-term environmental and social impact can only be guessed at"

The $240 million mine was opened in 1992 with the blessing of the World Bank which had been pressing Guyana to allow in foreign mining companies as part of its structural adjustment program.

The mine, which produced 252,000 ounces of gold in 1994, has increased Guyana's overall gold output fourfold. Omai Gold Mines Ltd (OGML) is owned 65 per cent by the Canadian firm Cambior, 30 per cent by Golden Star Resources (GSR), also of Canada, and 5 per cent by the Guyanese Government.

GSR was founded by Robert Friedland whose company in the USA, Galactic Resources, went bankrupt in 1993 following a similar mine accident at the Summitville Mine in Colorado.

The subsequent clean up operation cost the US Environmental Protection Agency over $100 million in order to protect the Rio Grande from contamination. Friedland still owns 30 per cent of GSR which is active elsewhere in Guyana, drilling for diamonds on the land of the Akawaio Indians in the upper Mazaruni River.

The company's activities in Surinam and French Guyana are also centered on lands belonging to indigenous communities. Friedland is also the biggest shareholder in Diamond Field Resources which is planning to open a huge copper, cobalt and nickel mine on the land of the Innu people of eastern Canada, despite protests and demonstrations against the destruction of their land and burial sites.

Jonatha Mazower of the London-based Survival International sees the Omai disaster as "yet another example of profit and greed being put before the lives of indigenous peoples."

Before the mine was opened both the World Bank and the Guyanese government approved an Environmental Impact statement. Yet the London-based environmental group Minewatch predicted last March that a serious accident was inevitable because the tailing pond for the wastes was inadequate.

However the mine continued operating even after a smaller leakage in May killed hundreds of fish in the Omai River.

"The short term effects of the cyanide discharges include severe skin burns, lethal food poisoning and the death of livestock and fish," says Survival International. "Its long-term environmental and social impact can only be guessed at."

The local people are still waiting for OGML to make good promises to provide them with drinkable water.

Natives are a very low priority for the government and the communities have no funds of their own

The full extent of the impact on the Natives is not known.

"No-one will bother to go and investigate," explains Pauline Melville, a writer of Native extraction now living in London. "The Natives are a very low priority for the government and the communities have no funds of their own. But we have had reports of blistering of the skin and other effects."

Some 90 per cent of the Guyanese are of African or East Indian origin and live mainly along the coast. The "coastlanders," as the Natives call them, however, are slowly encroaching on the interior.

There are nine different Native peoples in Guyana each with their own language and culture. They fall into two main groups -- the savannah and the forest people. "But mining and logging companies are increasingly destroying their forest lands," explains Melville.

In a letter to the Guyana Catholic Standard last week, Thomas George, an Native community leader in the Rupununi region, asked the authorities to act quickly to prevent conflict between the villagers and settlers who were encroaching on their lands.

"My community is flanked by a large piece of state land occupied by settlers brought in from the coastland and many of these people frequently cause problems and trouble within the Native community," he says.

George and one of his counselors are at present in Lethem Public Hospital after being attacked by the settlers. His arm is broken in two places and his colleague was unconscious for two days.

"He has a busted head and face and other parts of his body are swollen and painful. He is still spitting blood," says George. The hospital has no x-ray machine and they have to go across the border to Brazil at their own expense to get x-rays.

"We request the authorities concerned to deal with the matter seriously because this type of behavior is causing tension between the two communities and will surely lead to racial conflict," he warns.

Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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