WWF to closely monitor outcomes of Guiana gold mining agreement

Posted on 30 January 2009
Gold miner handles mercury with bare hands, putting him in immediate danger of mercury poisoning.
© WWF Guianas
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - WWF, long a campaigner against gold mining impacts in the Amazon and Guiana shield, has committed itself to closely watching the outcome of a historic agreement on control of illegal gold miners.

The agreement, signed in Rio on 23 December last month by presidents Sarkozy of France and Lula of Brazil, promises French aid in efforts to prevent and repress rampant illegal gold mining which is devastating rivers and forests even deep inside protected areas.

The major problem is that the miners are frequently using and releasing mercury for the amalgamation of gold particles. To produce 1kg of gold the miners use at least 1kg of mercury, endangering their health and that of the local people living nearby.

Due to the naturally high content of mercury in the Amazonian soil, any additional mercury becomes an unbearable threat to human health as well as to the forest and water ecosystems. WWF estimates that each year 30 tons of mercury are discharged into the natural environment of the Guianas.

The agreement includes making criminal offences of activities such as illegal gold mining in protected zones, transport, possession, sale or disposal of mercury without authorization and trading of unprocessed gold without permission.

Illegal gold mining is one of the most serious socio-environmental problems affecting the region of the Guiana Shield, which includes northern Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana. WWF has been working over the past two years to draw attention to the issue

Rumours of miraculous gold veins are followed by rushes of gold seekers, or “garimpeiros”, between the Amazonian countries of the Guiana Shield, with rumours about causing the displacement of thousands of people from one country to another

Since the late 1990s, and with the rising price of gold, those migrations have become larger and larger. Most of the migrants are from Brazil, from where they have immigrated clandestinely.

In French Guyana more than 10,000 garimpeiros are working illegally. In Suriname and Guyana more than 30,000 garimpeiros are active in each country, most of them illegally.

Despite the recent actions to control the illegal mining launched by the French and Brazilian governments, the lack of effective trans-border cooperation failed to control these illegal operations.

“The agreement signed between France and Brazil is particularly important because it aims at reducing the heavy impact of illegal mining in protected areas located at the border of Brazil and French Guyana,” said Laurent Kelle, WWF Country Manager for French Guyana.

Brazil and France have chosen to protect large portions of their territories and its Amazonian biodiversity through the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park and the Amazonian National Park in French Guyana (together more than six million hectares of Protected Areas).

But until now those parks have mostly remained violated by illegal gold mining activities. The Tumucumaque Mountains National Park is frequently pointed out as the supply base in Brazil of the illegal goldminers in the French bordering park.

“We hope that, along with other actions, this agreement will help to put an end to the illegal mining that takes place in the north of Brazilian territory, including inside the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park,” said Cláudio Maretti, Conservation Director of WWF-Brazil. “This is an important measure to protect the Amazonian biodiversity and also the people living in the area.”

During its last aerial survey WWF discovered many illegal sites located in the heart of the French park. Residents of Camopi, an Amerindian village situated at the border on the French Guyana side, had asked to be integrated in the heart of a protected area in order to limit their exposure to illegal gold mining problems, but they are still surrounded by illegal mining camps.

“The agreement is a step in the right direction in order to put an end to a daily ecological and human drama that undermines the Guianas, which is one of the jewels of Amazonian biodiversity,” said Kelle.

WWF will follow the implementation of the agreement through aerial surveys, analysis of satellite data, work with local communities (collecting and broadcasting their evaluation and their vision of the situation), work with protected area managers (training course, exchange of experience), investigation of gold mining illegal practices and migrations and implementation of an Illegal Practices Observatory.
Gold miner handles mercury with bare hands, putting him in immediate danger of mercury poisoning.
© WWF Guianas Enlarge