The community of Matthew’s Ridge has a long history with manganese mining and companies stemming back to the 1960s. In 2016 the Guyanese Manganese Inc. (GMI), a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned Bosai Minerals Group, obtained the rights to operate there and since then, issues between the company, their operations and the local community have been approaching boiling point.
Surrounded by dense rainforests in the northwest district of Guyana, the residents of Matthew's Ridge are adamant that they are “looking for development”, said Wilfred Campbell, a longstanding member of the community. However, Campbell also maintains that GMI’s aim should not be to “break the spirit of the community”, which he feels has been happening since operations began.
There are substantial deposits of manganese ore in Matthew’s Ridge. Estimates suggest deposits of 26 million metric tons, which by today’s market price of US$4.5 dollars per metric ton amounts to approximately US$117 million dollars, or in excess of $24 billion Guyanese dollars. However, without public disclosure of the contract between the government of Guyana and GMI, it is not possible to ascertain the true value of the resource based on whatever deal was struck between the parties.
The scale of the manganese mine is vast with different grades and colors of manganese currently being extracted and laid out in preparation for shipment. The contrast between the rich, dark ore and the red clay landscape surrounded by lush green forest is a striking sight.
But despite the mine’s obvious beauty and allure, there are many dangers that lurk beneath its surface. According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), there are already elevated levels of manganese in the domestic water supply owing to the geology of the region. However, mining operations substantially increase the likelihood of those levels elevating further.
The EIA warns that apart from the destruction of ecosystems and habitats, manganese contamination in the domestic water supply is likely and the health impacts for those affected are grave. Consuming contaminated water with elevated levels of manganese can cause impaired cognitive and developmental delays in young children, mental health conditions and a condition called manganism, which is a Parkinson’s-like disease.
But with the rapid development of the oil and gas sector over the last six years and the ongoing expansion of the other extractive sectors, Guyana’s environmental laws and policies have come under renewed scrutiny. Guyana is now grappling with the task of finding the right balance between the extraction of its valuable resources, the development of its people and the preservation of its invaluable environmental credentials.
In 2020 alone, the extractive sectors expanded by some 303.7% according to the 2021 National Budget.
With some 85% percent of the nation covered by rainforests and other protected areas, Guyana’s biological diversity and the role it plays in sustaining ecosystems, habitats and livelihoods should not be downplayed. There are success stories to be told about initiatives like the Iwokrama rainforest and Shell Beach protected areas and internationally, the nation has benefited from initiatives like REDD+ where it has received payments for the conservation of its forest carbon stocks. To date, Guyana has received some US$190 million dollars in payments from this initiative.
Guyana has always been a carbon sink, but with growing threats from the development of oil and gas, the expansion of gold and other mineral mining activities coupled with the chronic lack of proper monitoring and enforcement of local laws, Guyana’s biological diversity is under severe threat.
The Green State Development Strategy and Low Carbon Development Strategy may well become a thing of the past as the nation steadily moves from being a carbon sink to becoming a serious carbon emitter, especially with issues like flaring in the oil and gas sector. The Environmental Protection Agency has, this year, amended ExxonMobil’s permit to limit the amount of flaring and to impose a fine despite the company having already flared in excess of 14 billion cubic feet in natural gas since operations began in 2019.
In an attempt to develop a culture of preservation and conservation, Guyana has entered into numerous multilateral agreements such as the United Nations Conventions on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), The Nagoya and Cartagena Protocols, The Paris Agreement and recently the Escazú agreement, among many others.
So, on the one hand, and at the official level, Guyana has all the necessary protections and obligations to ensure that the environment, those who fight to preserve it and the agencies responsible for enforcing it, are all protected.
But, on the other hand, the bilateral agreements brokered between Guyana and its closest partners like the USA, the European Union and China which purportedly aim to support Guyana’s development, directly counteract the intended benefits of many of these multilateral agreements.
Furthermore, the execution of these bilateral agreements, the companies involved and the manner in which they conduct business in Guyana has led to many issues arising in relation to Guyanese developmental rights and resources. Debates surrounding extractivism, environmental degradation and pollution are common, notwithstanding the limited benefits which are gained by the local population at the expense of their resources and livelihoods.
Guyana’s growing geopolitical significance has elevated discussions on the role of its two competing and closest developmental partners, the USA and China, and increased scrutiny of their aims and intentions for Guyana and Guyanese.
In March 2021, Head of State, President Dr Irfaan Ali and Chinese President Xi Jinping held friendly discussions, reaffirming the long-standing friendship between the two nations. During those talks, President Ali noted that Guyana considers “China as the most important partner in its national development”. Indeed, Guyana and China’s friendship spans almost five decades and the two countries will celebrate the 50th anniversary of official diplomatic relations next year in 2022.
China’s role in Guyana’s national development is marked. Chinese companies have led numerous infrastructural development projects in Guyana which include the building of roads and bridges, among other initiatives. Chinese companies like Zijin Mining, BaiShanLin and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation which has a 25% stake in the ExxonMobil lead consortium are among those who lead many of Guyana’s extractive sectors.
But with China set to host the upcoming CBD summit, there is renewed focus on the role of Chinese extractive companies and the manner in which China influences and impacts local environmental policies, directly and indirectly.
Chinese-owned companies like BaiShanLin and Bosai have been accused in the past of exploitative practices impacting the environment and affecting local communities socio-economic and developmental rights.
Noeilene Bess, a Councillor on the Neighbourhood Democratic Council in Matthew’s Ridge, questions: “is it because we are Amerindians that we should be treated like this?”. Councillor Bess went on to say that when the community takes a stand against the wanton destruction of their roads, bridges, creeks and farms, no one listens and it is as though they “have no right to talk”.
There continues to be a disconnect between official rhetoric, policy and operations on the ground. According to Chen Xilai, Charge de Affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Guyana, the Chinese "are adopting the green mining concept since 2011”, which he stated has been accepted voluntarily by Chinese companies such as Zijin Mining Group which operates in Guyana and in other countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Green mining” refers to attempts to mitigate the destructive impacts of mining on the environment through initiatives like revegetation and habitat rebuilding.
Chen stated that overseas Chinese companies have left many green footprints and take their social responsibilities seriously as part of their culture. He also noted that the controversial Belt and Road Initiative is premised on the basis of green investment principles and that the “BRI cares much about green development”.
Chen concluded that Chinese companies abroad “would like to ensure that when man and nature is living together we have to take care of nature, we have to take care of the forest and we have to take care of the animals.”
But the complaints coming from Matthew’s Ridge prove that relations, even between men, let alone man and nature, are very much disharmonious and certainly not in alignment with his aspirations.
Community members have commented on the drastic changes to the environment, noting for example that one of the community recreational grounds and home to various species of birds has been turned into a watery swamp which now overruns, flooding the main access road.
The damage to the roads is exacerbated by poor drainage constructed by GMI which causes the roadways to flood and cuts off access to the neighboring village of Port Kaituma, where much of the villagers' business is conducted.
Councillor Bess, has noted, with distress, the damage that is being done to the environment and the local infrastructure. She has attended “countless meetings” with the company and notes that they had promised to address a number of issues relating to the state of the roads, bridges and drainage infrastructure which have all been affected because of the company’s operations.
Despite their promises to address the situation “nothing has been done”, she said. Councillor Bess went on to say that the company has blocked off the community’s gazetted roads and “made their own road for us to get to the airstrip”, which she contends is in a “deplorable state and needs urgent attention”.
According to Derek Barnes however, a longstanding member of the Matthew’s Ridge community who works with local youths, “the future of the community is on the move”. Mr Barnes stated that an economic development program is needed and that a “modernized approach to development” must occur for the community to benefit fully from the company’s operations.
Barnes believes that mining is crucial to the development of local infrastructure and for the future of the community’s young people. He stated that, “mining is responsible for the economic existence of this community and it is very difficult to harness the youths” without any avenue for their development, but ultimately, the company “should start giving to this community because they came here and they found a structure, an infrastructure already in shape, and they have saved millions of dollars” because of that. Therefore, he concluded that it is realistic to ask that the company “give a cash incentive to every household”, given the value of the resource, the length of operations and their impact on the community.
Members of Matthew’s Ridge are calling on the Guyanese government to engage with them and to closely monitor what is happening with GMI in their village. They note that government officials have not been engaging with the community to the extent that is needed in order to address their concerns, to properly monitor GMI’s activities and to enforce the law.
Unfortunately, attempts to solicit a response from GMI and the relevant government agencies were unsuccessful.
Guyana’s growing extractive sectors are key to the nation’s development and there is an understanding of that among local communities, however, the plight of residents at Matthew’s Ridge highlights the need for more robust engagement on the part of the government when monitoring the activities of companies like GMI and enforcing laws which are supposed to protect citizens, their livelihoods and environment.
This story was produced with the support of the Wilson Center and Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by Kaieteur News on 25 August 2021 and broadcast on Guyana's HGP TV on 9 September 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Manganese mining operations at Matthew's Ridge / Credit: Melina Harris.