August 21, 1995
The disaster in Guyana began in the early morning hours of Saturday August 19: at a Canadian-owned gold mine, a red, poisonous sludge erupted through a breach in an earthen dam which was holding back a waste pond.
Before the leaks could be plugged, 3.2 billion litres of cyanide and heavy metal-laced effluent would pour into the Omai river, a narrow tributary leading to Guyana’s main waterway — the Essequibo river. The cyanide plume wrecked havoc on the Omai, wiping out a spectrum of life from fish to microbes. Thankfully, no towns or villages are located along the tributary’s short stretch from the mine site to the Essequibo. The Essequibo, however, is home to communities with more than 20,000 people.
Within hours the Guyanese government, having been notified of the spill by the mine operator, Cambior Inc. of Montreal, had helicopters flying over the Essequibo, tracking the crimson plume and warning people via loudspeaker to stay out of the water. Danger signs were hastily posted warning people not to drink, swim, bathe, fish or wash in the river. Livestock had to be kept away from the river’s edge (in one case a chicken farmer’s stock died after being exposed to the water). No fish or shrimp caught in the river were to be eaten, and drinking water had to be rushed to communities throughout the region.
By Monday, the news of cyanide flowing down the river devastated the country’s fishing industry. In the markets of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, catches could not be sold, and some Caribbean countries banned all seafood products from Guyana — even those coming from areas not affected by the spill.
Other industries suffered in the wake of the spill. Farmers could not sell produce grown along the river, small mining and logging operations were put on hold, and local abattoirs, which wash their meats with river water, had to shut down. Guyana’s fledgling tourist industry, boasting river eco-tours on this northern tip of the Amazon rain forest, received cancellation after cancellation.
Cambior tried to downplay the spill, saying “What catastrophe? Only a few fish were killed.” But experts in mine operations and spill incidents were not so cavalier.
According to Roger Moody of the London-based group Mine Watch and one of the world’s foremost authorities on mining operations, “basically, the Omai River is dead. The real question is the Essequibo, and nobody can estimate what the final effects will be there.”
The crimson sludge which poured out of the waste pond killed the Omai. It flowed to the Essequibo carrying heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, zinc, iron and mercury, which in the long run can be even more damaging than cyanide to the river population.
By Wednesday it emerged that at least four other spills had occurred at the mine, including one earlier this year when the company waited several days before informing the authorities.
By Thursday, opposition parties in the Guyanese government were calling for criminal prosecutions of those responsible for the spill as well as for the seizure of the company’s files. Demonstrations erupted outside the Guyanese parliament. Angry protestors chanted “Seize the gold” (they were arrested) while others held signs that read “No More Cyanide- No More Lies!” and “Take Your Poison Back Home to Canada!”
The Omai gold mine has been temporarily shut down while the cause of the waste pond dam failure is under investigation, but one thing is perfectly clear: if not for Canada’s Export Development Corporation, supported by our tax dollars, and the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which is supported by taxpayers from Canada, as well as other industrialized countries, the Canadian corporate owners would never have opened the mine in the first place. The cyanide spill would never have happened. Once again, the EDC, and the World Bank, have placed a Third World community in jeopardy.
Questioned by Probe International, after this most recent cyanide spill, Cambior admitted that were it not for EDC’s foreign investment insurance — which protects Cambior from a host of risks — the company would not have invested in the Guyanese mine. No private insurer offers political risk insurance at EDC’s and MIGA’s giveaway rates.
EDC’s mission is to promote Canadian exports by providing tax supported loans, and insurance to banks, corporations and foreign governments — many of which have both abysmal human rights records, and non-existent environmental laws. Through this Crown corporation, Canadian taxpayers have unwittingly helped perpetuate some of the worst regimes in modern history, and promoted some of the most damaging projects, all in the name of promoting the export of Canadian goods and services.
The EDC does not have to consider the environmental consequences of the developments it subsidizes. This lack of oversight has led to scandalous export marketing: gargantuan hydroelectric projects, including China’s Three Gorges dam which threatens to be an environmental and human tragedy of unparalleled dimension, and open pit mining projects, which have threatened forests, rivers and native lands in Latin America.
The time has come for the Canadian government to stop using public funds to finance corporate involvement in projects which are environmentally devastating and economically and culturally destructive. The Export Development Corporation continues to operate in the name of Canadian taxpayers, without checks and balances or public accountability, in other countries where the people have little or no say over the actions of their own governments.
“Take Your Poison Back Home to Canada” the sign read. It might as well have been talking about the policies of the EDC, as the cyanide.