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SRDC Launches Water Monitoring Pilot to Protect the Wapichanao Right to Water:
The Global Justice Clinic and Water Scientist Lend Support to Crucial New Effort
From March 26-29, the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC) hosted a four-day water monitoring workshop which was co-facilitated by the Global Justice Clinic of NYU School of Law and Dr Beth Hoagland in Aishalton Village, Guyana. Since 2013, the SRDC has been monitoring violations of their land rights – particularly environmental degradation and illegal mining. This workshop launched the SRDC’s water monitoring pilot as an extension of the SRDC’s existing monitoring program to include monitoring the adverse impacts of mining on Wapichan territory.
The workshop served as a knowledge exchange between participants with complementary expertise. Wapichan, Kapong (Akawaio) and Pemon (Arecuna) monitors from the South Rupununi (Region 9) and the Upper Mazaruni (Region 7) shared extensive cultural and intergenerational knowledge of their environment. Monitors also shared their goals for water monitoring, their insights from years of experience participating in the SRDC’s and the Upper Mazaruni District Council’s (UMDC) existing monitoring programs, and their first-hand knowledge of the destructive impacts of mining. They applied this knowledge to prepare a detailed map of proposed water monitoring sites which will inform comprehensive water monitoring plans in their respective regions. In addition, monitors applied lessons from other countries, including Guinea, El Salvador and Haiti to generate advocacy ideas using the data collected from the water monitoring program.
Dr Hoagland, a water expert from the Colorado School of Mines, shared lessons in hydrology–the scientific study of water. This included the principles of water monitoring, water sources and the impacts of mining. In addition, Dr Hoagland demonstrated the use of field-based water monitoring equipment and the process for collecting water samples for lab testing of dissolved metals, including mercury. Professor Meg Satterthwaite, Professor of Clinical Law at New York University together with her Global Justice Clinic team of human rights lawyers and law students, shared lessons on human rights, legal empowerment and advocacy. This encompassed the legal framework behind water monitoring, including international laws that protect the rights of indigenous peoples and human rights such as the rights to water and a healthy environment, as well as Guyanese laws that regulate mining. Participants discussed the legal justifications behind a custom-made questionnaire to capture water monitoring data, and how that data can be analysed and converted into meaningful reports by the SRDC and UMDC for legal empowerment and advocacy purposes.
Having participated in the workshop, a SRDC Monitor said:
“Since I was 11 years old, I’ve been visiting Marudi Mountain and Mazao Mountain which are sacred sites for us–the Wapichan People. Over the past 31 years, I’ve been watching mining grow around Marudi and Mazoa and the resulting deforestation, excavation of water ways, disruption of the natural water flow off these mountains, and the pollution of water sources that our people depend on to live.
We know about the importance of protecting our lands and our waters because this is impressed upon us by our fore-parents. I have also learned about the environment through interactions with indigenous communities and because of my connection to nature itself. This means that for a long time, I’ve been able to look at water and know from my observations and experience whether it is contaminated. However, learning about scientific principles allows me to explain changes in water quality that I have long observed but never been able to explain in scientific terms. In addition, while I have been collecting data on the environmental harm than mining is causing for the past six years, I now have a better appreciation for the importance of collecting reliable and accurate data as evidence to protect our lands and resources. Learning about the international and Guyanese laws that protect our rights strengthens our ability to use this data as information to influence both the miners who are causing harm, and also the government authorities and decision makers who have an obligation to regulate mining and protect our environment, but are presently falling short of their responsibilities.
In the past, the water around our community was safe to use and drink but this was before miners contaminated our water sources. For years, the destruction that mining causes to Wapichan territory has been dismissed by miners and government authorities. This has to stop and I will use what I have learned to support the SRDC protect and defend our lands and waters from mining and other destructive activities.
Applying the knowledge that I deepened during the water monitoring workshop, I have been reflecting upon why my fore-parents may have defined Marudi, Mazao and the entire Karawaimintau mountain range as sacred sites. I find myself wondering whether their cultural significance is centred around their importance as watersheds, because this is what allows the mountains to sustain life in the broadest sense - not only the life of our peoples, but also the life of plants, trees, wildlife and the spiritual beings”.
A key takeaway from the water monitoring workshop was a lesson imparted by the Wapichan, Kapong (Akawaio) and Pemon (Arecuna) peoples: that each of us are only one small part of an entire ecosystem, and all our actions have consequences that will impact future generations.
Please permit us to respond to a Letter to the Editor dated 9 Februrary 2019 by Mr. Marlon Johnson, the President of the Rupununi Miner’s Association, in which he claims “There is no mercury pollution of the Rupununi creeks”. It is of grave concern to hear miners denying the pollution of the Rupununi rivers, especially those tributaries that run out of the Marudi area.
It is false and misleading for Mr. Johnson to claim that there is no mercury pollution of the creeks in the Rupununi. The destruction is evident as there are several small creeks, like those in other parts of the country, where there is no physical evidence of a water pathway but ONLY large holes and degradation of forest, land, and water.
Small-scale mining the world over is closely associated with the destruction of large masses of land and pollution of creeks and rivers. In the South Rupununi, this is no exception. While it is dry season at this time of year now, mining, including the use of mercury, takes place throughout the year, and we challenge Mr Johnson to explain how the Rupununi Miners Association contains mercury-laden craters (ponds) from flowing into the creeks during the rainy season. Maybe Mr. Johnson can also explain what happens to the residue of the mercury-laden so-called ‘Magic Mats’ being used on the crushers. Let’s ask the Rupununi Miners Association to show records of the amount of mercury that is being used in crushers. How are gold extraction methods at Marudi different from those used in other parts of Guyana? We see the same excavators, crushers, and mercury being used. These elements are common across Guyana’s small-scale mining industry. And it is no secret that these have led to the destruction and pollution of our lands, waterways and resources.
The SRDC in collaboration with WWF carried out a study in 2017, where hair samples of members of communities surrounding the Marudi mining area were collected and tested for mercury. Parabara community members had the highest levels of mercury in their system, at above the World Health Organization recommended safe level. The Marudi Creek, which flows into the Kuyuwini, has been destroyed to the point where there is no defined flow of the creek. The tailings from the mining activity in this area are dumped into the very creeks that then flow in to larger rivers like the Kuyuwini, Kwitaro, and Rewa. These rivers are the fishing grounds for several communities of the South Rupununi. Parabara community members depend on the Kuyuwini River for fish, drinking water and transport to their farms. If the mercury found in our communities is not coming from the pollution coming out of the Marudi mining activities, then where is it coming from?
The situation at Marudi is not just of concern to the Wapichan in the South Rupununi, but also to other villages that depend upon the rivers flowing out of the Marudi watershed. Rewa Village, for example, with their thriving tourism business along the Rewa River, is very concerned about the negative impact on tourism should the situation at Marudi continue to be left unregulated.
The Rupununi River also provides fish to the Wapichan communities of Karuadarnawa, Aishalton, Awarewanawa, Maruranawa, Katoonarib, Sawariwao, Shulinab, Rupunau and Sand Creek. It also is the bread basket for many Macushi communities in the lower parts of the river. The endangered arapaima is also being managed in the lower part of the river. When one takes a look at the head waters of the Rupununi it is covered with mining claims. Should mining become active in these headwaters, we are looking at the destruction and decimation of fresh, clean and healthy water upon which all the above mentioned communities depend for fish and other means of survival.
Although Mr. Johnson claims that there is “almost zero crime rate”, just as in other mining areas, illegal prostitution and drug activity is common at Marudi. Moreover, in just the past month, there have been several alarming incidents. In one case, a miner was set ablaze by another. Another injured miner was air-dashed out of the area after a crusher malfunctioned. Visits by the police into the area looking for criminal elements is a strong indication that such elements seek refuge in places like Marudi.
The fact that a few of our community residents sell their produce to miners or work as bag men does not negate the fact that the mining is causing harmful, destructive impacts on this spiritually important mountain and on our environment and lands. It is also false for Mr. Johnson to claim that the majority of those in the mines are Indigenous. All of the operations at Marudi are owned by non-indigenous individuals in Lethem and elsewhere.
We welcome steps Mr. Johnson commits the Rupununi Miners Association to take in regards to training its members to ensure compliance with proper mining practices as well as relevant laws. We remain concerned, however, about the lack of effective enforcement and the irregular presence of mines officials at Marudi. We remain adamant that there must be a more comprehensive and holistic way to address the issues at Marudi.
We have observed that before mines officers visits, there is a widespread broadcast of such visits, sometime well in advance of the visit, giving miners ample time to get their act together for a few days to present a false impression of their operations when officials visit. In a recent visit, the EPA and GGMC warned the miners that they had no right to mine on Mazoa Mountain in Marudi, but the miners claim that Minister Trotman gave them permission to mine.
We also observe that Mr. Johnson discusses meetings that the Rupununi Miners Association has held with the relevant authorities – we have been excluded from most of these meetings. As the primary affected population, the SRDC, representing the Wapichan people of the South Rupununi, objects to the bilateral meetings between the mining interests and the authorities. We demand to be included in such discussions so that we are effectively participating in the decision-making affecting us.
There continues to be confusion and contention over an agreement among the small scale miners, Romanex and the communities. The agreement has absolutely nothing for the communities and have relegated them to the roles of bystanders. While Romanex has claimed that the agreement is dead, the Ministry of Natural Resources claim that it is valid. The small scale miners have even approached the Minister and stated in a press release that the Minister gave them permission to access the Mazoa Mountain (within the Romanex concession at Marudi). Both the miners and Romanex company have failed to honour their part of the agreement. In a recent Ministerial outreach, Minister Trotman promised within 2 weeks to bring the miners, Romanex and the communities together to discuss their issues. Those two weeks have long passed by. In the meantime, more excavators have been transported to the Mazoa mountain. Without taking concrete steps to address issues surrounding the Marudi area, the situation will continue escalating and become increasingly complicated and confusing, all the while continuing to cause destruction and damage to our cultural site, our environment, and our traditional livelihoods .
It is imperative that the Ministry of Natural Resources, GGMC, and EPA are all on the same page with us with regards to the allowed activities at Marudi and the obligations of miners to protect our environment and our way of life. We call on Minister Trotmon to honour his commitment to deal with these issues and that the Ministry of Natural Resources take a structured, comprehensive and holistic approach to mining issues in the South Rupununi.
The South Rupununi is home to some of the last areas in Guyana that can boast healthy, pollution-free creeks and rivers that harbour clean, fresh water supporting Wapichan and Macushi communities and fragile eco-systems. With Guyana promoting a green economy, the Government cannot afford to allow this situation to continue violating our rights to our lands, our way of life, and our environment.
SRDC Toshaos, Senior Councillors and participants of the SRDC meeting held in Sand Creek Village
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The Wapichan People of the South Rupununi welcome the recent Communication sent to the Government of Guyana by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerning the mining on Marutu Taawa (Marudi Mountain). The UN Committee’s Communication is timely and crucial, as we continue to fight the contamination, pollution, and destruction of our sacred mountain, which is also an important watershed at the source of Guyana’s main waterways. The issue of mining at Marutu Taawa is a matter of grave concern, as it affects our Constitutional rights to health and a healthy environment, as well as to the protection, preservation, and promulgation of our cultural heritage and way of life.
The Communication stresses that the UN Committee is concerned that we, the affected people, have not been involved in an effective and meaningful manner in the decision-making surrounding mining at Marutu Taawa. The latest example of our marginalization has been the failure to include our participation and to address our concerns in the draft Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the Romanex mining project.
This is the second time in 2018 that the UN Committee has written to the Government of Guyana, urging it to protect and respect our rights under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In the first Communication, the UN Committee had recommended the Government ensure that environmental and social impact assessments of the proposed mining project on Marutu Taawa were conducted with our participation. This did not happen, and we welcome the Committee’s follow-up on this matter.
We urge the Government to respect its treaty obligations and to follow the recommendations of the UN Committee and to:
1. Revoke the flawed draft Environmental and Social Impact Assessment;
2. Conduct an environmental and social impact assessment with our full participation, as the indigenous peoples affected by the mining project on Marutu Taawa; and
3. Suspend the mining project on Marutu Taawa until we have given our free, prior, and informed consent to the project following full and adequate consultation.
One of the rivers polluted by mining in Wapichan Wiizi