Friday, January 17, 2014

Gold in Guyana

Gold mine in Guyana.  Click for photo credit.
Gold mining in Guyana is proving to be a blessing and a curse.

It's South America week here at On the Brink and I am writing posts this week on environmental and sustainability issues in this intriguing continent.  Yesterday, I wrote about sustainability planning in Venezuela's oil industry.  Today, we turn to a neighbor of Venezuela to discuss gold mining in Guyana.

I first became aware of environmental issues in Guyana through my fellow Ph.D. student at UW-Milwaukee, Robert Ramjaj, who was from Guyana.  Since we both graduated, he has written quite a bit about population and environmental issues in that country.  You can see his book on Guyana here.

Dr. Maya Trotz.  Engineering
Professor at USF and expert on
environmental issues in
However, more recently, I became good friends with Maya Trotz, a Guyanese I worked with at the University of South Florida.  I became familiar with her work with others on mercury pollution in the gold mining fields of Guyana.  You can read about her interest on environmental issues in Guyana here.  Her students sometimes read this blog.  Go Bulls!

Guyana is a small country rich in mineral resources and water.  It has a small population of about 740,000 people.  The largest city is Georgetown which has a population of about 235,000.  The next largest city, Linden, has a population of about 45,000.  The country's landscape is quite rural with tropical forests and grasslands dominating the ecosystem.

Gold and other minerals have been extracted from Guyana for centuries, leaving behind telltale signs of human impacts from landscape disruptions and chemical pollution.  Of particular concern in today's modern gold rush is mercury.  This liquid metal is used as an amalgam in gold mining.  In professional gold mining operations, the mercury is usually handled carefully to try to avoid environmental contamination.  However, in gold rush conditions when many informal gold mining operations are underway, the mercury use is largely uncontrolled.  Pollution issues occur.

Guyana is not alone with this problem.  For example, there are still heavily contaminated areas in California from its 19th century gold rush.  A recent study demonstrated that the mercury contamination from that era will last about 10,000 years.

Thus, many in Guyana are concerned over the expanded gold rush.  Gold prices are high.  Plus, the price has dropped on sugar and aluminum, Guyana's other major products.  This has driven even more into the formal and informal gold business.  Check out this recent article on the state of Guyana's gold industry here from today's Guyana's newspaper, Stabroek News.

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