SEPTEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 9
R A I N F O R E S T S U N D E R S I E G E
By Marcus Colchester
Its economy witheringunder the pressure of foreign debt, Guyana is putting the natural resources of its interior up for sale. The little-known South American nation, which is gradually returning to the global economy after two decades of what was effectively "socialist" dictatorship, has opened the door to multinational corporations from around the world to come and exploit its hinterland resources.
Guyana is one of the world's most indebted nations. At the end of 1988, Guyana owed $1.7 billion, more than $2,000 for each of its under 750,000 people. This is an immense burden for a country with a per capita gross national product of only $350.
The country has been tightly squeezed by an International Monetary Fund/World Bank debt rescheduling program. In an attempt to check spiralling inflation rates, the multilateral lending institutions forced Guyana in March 1991 to devalue its currency by 56 percent. To boost foreign exchange revenue, the IMF and the World Bank are pushing the country to increase exports of its interior natural resources: timber, other forest products and minerals.
Forests for sale
Compared to global rates of forest loss, deforestation in the Guyanas has been relatively slow. Indeed, in late 1989, Norman Myers, one of the world's leading authorities on tropical forests, predicted that at current rates the Guyanas would be one of the only areas of the planet to retain substantial blocks of tropical moist forest after 2040. Today, even that dire prediction may have to be revised.
Until last year, Guyana was logging a tiny portion of its extensive forests. Total production reached only 94,000 cubic meters of timber per year in 1988, but even that limited production was too much for the country's virtually non-existent forestry service to properly regulate.
Yet foreign development agencies have been pushing the country to intensify logging. In 1984, the World Bank's soft loan facility, the International Development Agency, pumped $8.8 million into the industry in an attempt to boost production. In 1989, under the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization- administered "Tropical Forestry Action Plan," the Guyanese Government, with the help of foresters from Canada, developed a new plan to rapidly expand the areas to be logged.
Foreign companies have begun to move into the forests in increasing numbers. A Venezuelan company, Palmaven, has gained a concession to exploit 300,000 hectares on the Demerara River, south of Linden. Another 1.6 million-hectare concession was recently granted to a South Korean/Malaysian consortium, Sung Kyong, which plans to make a $63 million investment in logging and plywood production. A Brazilian company is also alleged to have gained logging rights in the North-West District.
Logging is rapidly moving south into the interior. The national logging company, Demerara Woods Limited, which accumulated approximately $100 million in debts in the 1980s after installing expensive and inappropriate milling and wood- gasification plants, has been extracting timber south of Mabura Hill. The company was recently sold to two British Trusts for $16.5 million and re-incorporated as Demerara Timbers Ltd. The enterprise has now been massively expanded to embrace approximately 420,000 hectares of forest, with an option for further expansion, and has been capitalized with an extra $40 million from the United Dutch Group. The enterprise looks set to secure a 10-year tax exemption, as well as other fiscal benefits. The deal with the Guyanese government includes maintaining roads north from the concession area to a new port to be built at Charters on the Demerara river. The timber will be transported overseas by United Dutch Shipping, another member of the United Dutch Group.
The United Dutch Group is hoping that the new port will be a big money earner, the long-term aim being to turn it into a major export point for the interior not just of Guyana but of Brazil as well. During 1987-1988, Demerara Woods was illegally pushing a road south of Mabura to the middle Essequibo to link with an old cattle trail that winds north from the Rupununi savannahs on the Brazilian border.
The road to destruction
In 1989, the Guyanese government accepted a concessional loan of $15 million from the Brazilian external funding agency, Cacex, to fund the construction of an all-weather road from the southern border up to the middle Essequibo at Kurupukari. It awarded the contract to the Brazilian mining multinational Paranapanema, which is notorious for damaging the environment and destroying indigenous societies. Within months, a fleet of earth-movers and trucks rolled across the border into the sparsely inhabited Rupununi savannahs, the traditional lands of the Makushi Indians.
Human rights organizations were quick to protest. In a letter to the World Bank in October 1989, Survival International pointed out that the consequences of this project were likely to be similar to those long-associated with road-building throughout the Amazon region. "The road link will penetrate right into the Central Guyanese forest Accelerated forest loss seems likely, as are illegal cross-border penetrations by colonists and miners such as have already occurred in Venezuela, Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia. These kinds of problems are likely to be severe and quite beyond the capacity of the Guyanese government institutions to control," stated the letter. "Commercialization of ranching [expected to rapidly develop once the road is completed] in the Rupununi savannahs is likely to have very negative effects on the Indians there: in terms of land invasion, the displacement of indigenous peoples' own herds and introduced diseases." Both Survival International and the Guyana Human Rights Association called on the government to carry out social and environmental impact assessments before continuing with the road building. The government did not comply with these requests, however.
The fears of the human rights groups have proved well founded. Independent reports from the region indicate widespread problems all along the course of the road, and the government has turned a blind eye to complaints. According to one study carried out by the University of Guyana, there is "total and unreserved support of Paranapanema at the highest levels of the Guyanese government, [so] it is not surprising that there is no monitoring of the company's workmen at the local level and no official notice to date of the violations of Guyanese laws that are taking place currently in the Rupununi."
As a result of the new road, Brazilians have been moving in and out of south Guyana without regulation, and their influx has caused predictable social frictions in this isolated frontier region. In some places, the road has crossed Indian lands, and even cultivated fields, but no compensation has been paid. Community leaders have expressed the fear that the road will lead to the eventual destruction of the Makushi as a people. The roadbuilding has not even provided much employment to the local people. Most of the jobs have gone to Brazilians and most of the supplies for the company are brought across the border.
The first stretch of the road to Kurupukari was completed at the beginning of the year and the second stretch north up the east bank of the Essequibo to Mabura is due to get underway soon, though a further $14 million will be needed.
It is likely that the road will turn the south of Guyana into an enclave for foreign business interests. The road, as planned, will increase areas accessible to logging fourfold, opening up some 140,000 square kilometers of forest to the timber merchants. Paranapanema, besides being paid for the construction work, also hopes that the project will open up new mining opportunities in Central Guyana, which gold mining enterprises increasingly see as a bonanza area.
In fact, mining has long been a mainstay of the Guyanese economy. As revenue from its traditional exports, bauxite, rice and sugar, has declined--the gross domestic product fell 4 percent last year--the government has increasingly turned to mining minerals other than bauxite, especially gold, to make up the loss. Trade liberalization policies, linked to the debt rescheduling package, now offer advantageous terms to foreign mining enterprises. Guyana hopes to boost its gold output from 39,000 ounces in 1990 to a target of 200,000 ounces.
The main area of exploitation has been the Northwest District, where multinational corporations based in Canada, Australia, France, Brazil, North Korea and Yugoslavia have been granted mining concessions.
A North Korean company has already commenced exploitation of the manganese deposits on the Matthews Ridge, while a Canadian Company, Golden Star Resources, has concessions to work for diamonds and gold in the Baramita area. Both these companies are also reported to be working the gold deposits at Arakaka on the Barima river. Similarly, Paranapanema has been granted mining concessions at Tassawini on the Upper Baramita. That mine was being developed at a cost of $30 million as a joint venture with the Guyanese government All these workings are in the traditional areas of the indigenous Karina people.
Golden Star is also operating a diamond prospect on the Mazaruni river, where it is also exploring for alluvial columbite- tantalite. Further south, at Omai, it is developing what it hopes will be the largest gold-producing prospect in Guyana. The mine, alleged to hold some 2.2 million ounces of gold, is to be developed as a joint venture, initially with Placer Dome and now with Fluor Daniel Wright and Cambior Inc. The Canadian venture capital company, Ivanhoe Capital Corp., has bought heavily into Golden Star and plans to transfer these assets to South American Goldfields.
Poisoning the rivers
Guyana's lack of administrative controls has made regulation of these mines almost impossible. The cyanide used by commercial mines to isolate gold from alluvia and the poisonous tailings generated from crushed rock are a serious threat to water quality and fish stocks.
Recently, a number of small-scale enterprises have begun working the river banks, especially on the lower Potaro and Mazaruni rivers, using new "missile dredges"--huge remote-controlled vacuum cleaners which pump water into the alluvial deposits and suck them up to process out the minerals. The dredges dig deep into the river banks, sometimes as far as 70 meters, and liquify the mud and gravel. Indigenous communities report that silting has polluted water supplies and reduced fishing returns as far as 60 kilometers downstream of mining areas. The silt has also blocked waterways, the main arteries for travel in the interior.
The Mazaruni Christian Council complains that the river "may soon be a mud-choked gutter almost cleared of fauna and flora and the rainforest at its most magnificent." A study done for the Commonwealth Secretariat last year concurs: "missile mining results in the destruction of the river banks, changes river morphology and hydrology, greatly increases sedimentation in rivers and has profound effects on fish habitats." Yet, since the study's findings were made public, missile dredging has increased. Today, according to the Akawaio Indians, there are approximately 20 such dredges operating in the Upper Mazaruni alone.
Pork-knockers and "garimpeiros"
The Akawaio of the Upper Mazaruni have a long and sorry experience with mining. Coastal placer miners, known locally as "pork-knockers," started moving into the middle Mazaruni in the 1940s. As the coastal economy went into decline, the pressure from this quarter intensified. Later, from 1973 to 1981, the inhabitants of the Upper Mazaruni river basin lived under threat of expulsion from their homeland due to a Guyanese government plan to construct a major hydroelectric dam across the river.
The dam was never constructed, but the Indians did not secure rights to their lands. The indigenous peoples' lack of official land title has left them unable to prevent the progressive invasion of their lands by miners from the coast. The invasion has brought acute and chronic medical problems, cultural decline, economic impoverishment and the development of severe social pathologies such as alcoholism, prostitution and the collapse of the Indians' traditional institutions.
Brazilian placer miners, there called "garimpeiros ," have also begun moving across the frontier. At first, the flow of these miners was a mere trickle, the prospectors trekking south into the Kanuku and Marudi Mountains. In early 1990, however, the flow accelerated dramatically, with 10,000 miners reportedly crossing into the land of the Patamona Indians at the headwaters of the Potaro river. More recently, "garimpeiros " have been pushing further north into the headwaters of the Mazaruni.
These headwater mining camps are almost completely beyond government control. According to the local Indians, mines officers have not even visited the Upper Mazaruni mining district for a very long time. As a result, regulations are not enforced, and it is left to the village captains to negotiate the best deal they can with the miners. Corruption of community leaders is undermining village politics and fragmenting villages. Traditions of cooperation and communal living are being replaced by self-interest and mistrust.
Many young Indians have found jobs in the mines, and they are often assigned to the dangerous task of diving to direct pumps and dredges along the river beds. These mine workers say that there have been numerous fatal accidents which have not been mentioned in the coastal press. They also complain that the companies do not pay compensation to injured workers or the families of workers killed in accidents.
In the mining camps in the Potaro headwaters, the "wild west" atmosphere common in parts of Brazil prevails. Drunkenness, prostitution and violence are the norm, and killings frequent. Visitors report that practically all the gold extracted leaves the country by way of Brazil, meaning that Guyana gets nothing in exchange for the plunder of its resources.
Meanwhile, as if to offset this wholesale pillage, the Guyanese government revealed in October 1989 that it was setting aside an area of 3,650 square kilometers as a biological reserve. The project was announced, amid much fanfare, at the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Malaysia and was followed by an international mission to the region, set up by the Commonwealth Secretariat, to examine and promote it.
Outside observers express skepticism about the project. Four hundred square kilometers of the area will be open for mining feldspar and diamonds. A further 1,600 square kilometers of forests will be opened to "sustainable" exploitation. According to a staffer from the Smithsonian Institution, logging concessions have been handed out to Brazilian companies all along the Lethem-Kurupukari road which slices the reserve in two.
Many believe that only foreigners will benefit from this scientific and commercial enclave. The final 1,600 square kilometers of the reserve, to be set aside for pure scientific research and eco-tourism, will be opened up to foreign academics and forest enthusiasts. Moreover, some members of the international mission which helped plan the project appear to be preparing to get a slice of the action. The British-based Biofactor is hoping to comb the reserve for new pharmaceuticals. Company researchers are planning to document and investigate the medicinal lore of the local Amerindians, but they have not yet taken any measures to ensure that the indigenous people who provide the information get a cut of the profits.
More ambitious still are the government's plans to turn the wilderness area into a "veritable mine of valuable genes that will help [the world] in adapting to new environmental and technological challenges." Gene-hunting bio-technology companies will be invited into the country, monitored by the project's proposed "biodiversity and biofutures program."
Bishop Randolph George of Guyana comments, "It is ironic that Guyana has set aside 900 square miles of forests for an ambitious conservation program to be run by outside experts, while ignoring those 'conservationists,' the Amerindians, who have lived for centuries on the same land and conserved it perfectly."
Initially, the government's ambitious program had a $65 million price tag on it, but donors have not been as generous as hoped. The "Program for Sustainable Tropical Forestry" has now been put forward to the World Bank to be funded for $3 million through the new Global Environment Facility, with an additional $500,000 from the UN Development Program. Perhaps in response to earlier expressions of concern, the project summary now announces that "special attention would be given to the local Amerindian groups to ensure the protection of their cultures and way of life."
Amerindian land claims: the conflict with mining
Guyana's 60,000 Amerindians form the main population in the interior of the country. Yet their rights to land have not been satisfactorily secured by the Guyanese Government. Despite the fact that title was promised to all the Indians of Guyana at the time of Guyanese independence, a large number of the Karina (Carib), Pemon (Arekuna), Kapon (Akawaio) and Wai Wai Indians remain without title to their lands.
By Ordinance No. 23, 1966, an Amerindian Lands Commission was established to survey Indian areas in preparation for independence. The Commission reported in September 1969, after carrying out an exhaustive study of the situation of Guyana's Amerindian population, and recommended that "Amerindians be given legal tenure for portions of land adequate for their immediate and future needs in areas in which they were resident." In addition to this general recommendation, the report contained detailed recommendations for the titling of Indian lands at community, household and individual levels.
Despite the clarity of the Commission's recommendations, the new government seemed reluctant to implement them. For seven years after the Commission reported, the Indians' status remained uncertain and it was not until the human rights group Survival International began protesting about the situation in the mid 1970s that the government finally moved to enact some of the proposed legislation.
The Amerindian (Amendment) Act, No. 6 of 1976 gave legal title to land to a number of Amerindian groups, following the recommendations of the Commission and in accordance with the Independence Agreement. However, a number of groups were excluded from this settlement, in particular the Akawaio of the Upper Mazaruni, the Wai Wai of the Upper Essequibo and the Karina of Matthews Ridge--just those areas where the government has subsequently promoted the most intensive extractive enterprises.
In the section of its report on the Upper Mazaruni communities, for example, the Commission recommended substantial areas of community land for entitlement and also included a copy of a memorandum in which the leaders of the Upper Mazaruni asked for exclusive use of the total river basin, including a sector which had been de-reserved in 1959 and had been taken over by miners of coastal origin. The Indians were not, however, granted title in the area, apparently because of government plans to develop the region for hydropower and mining. Recent promises to provide title to the Akawaio of the Upper Mazaruni, made by the President of Guyana directly to the Indians, have so far gone unfulfilled.
Back to the future
As Bishop George has noted, Guyana is now at a cross-roads. Under heavy economic pressure from its foreign debt and at the bidding of international development agencies, the country is hurriedly attempting to cash in its natural resources for quick profits and foreign exchange. The same model of development, based on mining and logging by foreign companies, has been tried and has failed in many other tropical countries. Too often the profits from these enterprises have vanished overseas, while the local populations--after enjoying an ephemeral surge of employment and boom-and-bust wealth--are left to pay the social and environmental costs that result from the absence of regulations of pollution and labor relations.
Guyana's sparsely inhabited interior is the traditional preserve of the Amerindians. Yet far from benefiting from the crash development program, they are suffering the take-over of their lands, a rising tide of malaria and other diseases brought in by the miners, the pollution of their rivers and the decimation of the fish and game upon which their livelihoods depend.
An alternative development process based on empowering local communities and on the resources and skills of the Guyanese themselves can only come about if the democratic space within the country can be widened. There are encouraging signs that this is beginning to occur. Non-governmental organizations, academics and church leaders are speaking out with increasing confidence. The Amerindians themselves are mobilizing their communities and linking up to forge a national association to promote their interests. Since they are the majority population in the interior, this may represent an important turning point in determining the country;s destiny. As Bishop George put it, "The crucial decisions Guyana has now to take are decisive for the land and for the people--either they both survive or they disappear together. The best defense against disappearance is a strong organization to defend the rights of Amerindian people and to conserve the resources on which they depend."
The future of Guyana must lie in the hands of the Guyanese people themselves, but if they are to have a chance of controlling this future the external pressure on Guyana must be lessened. The burden of debt must be removed and the development agencies must adopt a more far-sighted vision of the country's future based on a more prudent use of its natural resources under the control of the interior communities themselves.
Marcus Colchester is director of the Forest People's Program of the World Rainforest Movement, a global network of organizations campaigning to save the rainforests and secure the rights of forest peoples.