Guyana's gold rush turns dangerous

| Dec. 8, 2011 | Mahdia, Guyana

Published by GlobalPost

As traders push the price of gold ever higher, miners deep in the Amazon jungle have found gold’s new value to be a mixed blessing.

The men who extract the gold in the wilds of this tiny nation on South America’s northeastern coast have been confronted with a huge increase in violence as their product becomes ever more valuable.

"It could be dangerous to find a lot of gold," said Rovin Allen, a 26-year-old miner from the country's capital who was himself shot in the leg and robbed just months ago for around $1,800 worth of gold. He now keeps a 38-millimeter gun for protection. "It's kill or be killed," he said.

Mining makes up around 10 percent of the GDP of Guyana, a former British colony tucked between Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname. It is only in recent years, however, that gold mining has really taken off. With prices now hitting record highs, many people from its coastal towns as well as neighboring countries are heading into the country's interior to seek their fortune, either using artisanal methods or, if they can afford it, bringing in heavy dredging equipment.

In small jungle mining outposts like this one, violence and murder have risen sharply over the last year. Thieves are also attracted to the easy pickings of a lawless town deep in the jungle. There are no gangs as yet, just thieves with easy access to weapons and rich temptations to use them.

The violence has threatened to turn the jungles of this largely-peaceful nation into a “Wild West,” said Edward Shields, Executive Director of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners’ Association. "The people would rather be caught with [an illegal] gun than be dead,” he said. This is not something that the interior, with its vast and biologically diverse rainforest, is used to.

Gold currently sells for just over $1,700 an ounce, and some expect it to hit $2,000 before the end of the year. The average wage in Guyana is small; a policeman takes in around $250 a month. But a miner like Allen can usually earn the same amount in around four days, with 10 ounces of gold.

The man who robs him is guaranteed a windfall.

The new wealth has ushered in a flush period for the miners, who show off their gold jewelry and teeth in this small town whose prospects have ebbed and flowed with the precious metal. Violence is beginning to change things.

Allen works just outside the Guyanese town of Mahdia, six hours from the country's coastal capital, Georgetown, along dirt tracks meandering through savannah and jungle.

His family lives in Georgetown. His earnings — roughly $25 per ounce of gold he finds — help support a family of two brothers and five sisters. This is much more than he would make back in the capital, even in a professional job. Though grateful for the financial support, his family worries for his safety.

"Sometimes, my mum cries," Allen said. "She says, 'We don't want to see money. We want to see you.'"

Orlando Atkinson, 39, is slightly higher up the ladder as one of the men's managers, overseeing their work along with his brother. "They rob the gold miners all the time," he said. That's life in Guyana." Atkinson and his brother are keen to buy themselves a gun in order to protect their site.

"Everyone needs money right now, that's one of the main things," said Atkinson. This is especially true as Christmas approaches. The miners will head back home to families expecting lavish gifts.

Vivakeanand Bridgemohan, a doctor in Mahdia said that he had also seen an increase in violent attacks, having treated multiple victims of machete attacks to the face, head and neck in a single week.

Both the government and industry bodies are concerned about the violence.

Guyanese Prime Minister Samuel Hinds told GlobalPost that his government has taken the issue seriously. "We've been improving the police force, giving them more resources, more vehicles, arms, boats and so on. And we're giving more training."

With such a vast interior, 85 percent of which is covered by rainforest, it is incredibly difficult to patrol, or enforce laws. The scarce infrastructure in Guyana compounds the problem. Paved roads are a rarity.

As long as the toxic mix of poverty and gold remains, however, it will be difficult to curtail the crime. "Why do people rob banks?" said Hinds. "That's where the money is. The robbers are shifting to where the money is."