How Guyana gold mining threatens its green future

Dock workers unloading goods at Port Kaituma People are coming to Port Kaituma in the hoping of striking it rich

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Almost everyone in Port Kaituma is making money from gold. From the miners who head out to the camps in the surrounding jungle to the owners of the bars and stores where the miners spend their money.

It is clear that the economy of this small town in northwest Guyana is entirely reliant on the precious mineral.

"I moved here for the work," says Wayne Wright Doris, a docker unloading food, fuel and timber at the river port. "I'm very comfortable here", he says.

The goods Mr Wright Doris is handling are destined for the mining camps, known as back dams.

Port Kaituma's reliance on mining is replicated across Guyana - gold accounts for nearly half of the country's total exports, which were some $218m in the first quarter of 2011.

But mining threatens what could be a greater asset for Guyana - its pristine rainforests.

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Around 80% of the country is covered by Amazon jungle which is home to a myriad of species, including the rare golden tree frog, jaguar and harpy eagle.

It is a dilemma many developing countries face - how do you balance the desire for economic growth and preserve the world's forests?

As a new round of UN climate talks gets under way in Durban, South Africa, from 28 November until 9 December, Guyana's outgoing president Bharrat Jagdeo believes he has the answer to this particular dilemma.

He came up a scheme in 2006 to "sell" stewardship of his country's rainforests to investors who would pay to preserve them.

The Norwegian government liked the idea and in 2009 pledged $250m to Guyana in return for protection of the forest.

But so far, Guyana has not received any of the $70m deposited to date with the World Bank.

Increasing threat

President Jagdeo says the World Bank has never administered funds for a scheme like this before and puts the delay in disbursing the money down to teething problems.

Mr Jagdeo, who cannot stand for office again, has indicated that he expects the funds to be released once Guyana's general election on 28 November is over.

But amid the delay, gold is continuing to fetch high prices on international markets, so increasing the threat to Guyana's rainforests.

Flying over the country, the back dams stand out as ugly yellow scars on an otherwise deep green surface.

"Two years ago on trips to Kaieteur Falls I wouldn't see any evidence of mining," says local tour operator Alisha Ousman.

"Now there are patches everywhere, there's no control of logging and mining."

These concerns are echoed in Norway, where critics of the scheme say the government cannot properly monitor what is happening on the ground in Guyana

A miner panning for gold in Mahdia, central Guyana Gold accounts for almost half of Guyana's total exports

"I am yet to see any concrete action by the Guyanese government to make sure more mining does not lead to increased deforestation in the long term," says Vemund Olson from the Rainforest Foundation in Norway.

President Jagdeo insists that his government has the situation under control.

He says the government is monitoring key road and river routes to check for any illegal logging.

Mr Jagdeo has also pledged to replant the areas cleared by small-scale miners for the back dams and help medium-sized companies to do the same.

"There's a difficulty in being the first," said Mr Jagdeo. "We want to create a model that can be easily replicated by other countries, so we can't cut corners."

As other nations show an interest in implementing similar schemes - including the Republic of Congo, Belize and Suriname - Guyana's success or failure in resolving the dilemma of economic growth versus environmental protection will be closely watched.

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