July 31, 2021

In Guyana, a gold mine project questions the future of our economy

Stormy exchanges, invective and intervention of the police. It is an understatement to say that the public debate around the Gold Mountain mining project in Guyana, which began on March 7 and is to continue until July 7, is passionate. On April 7, a debate in Cayenne even had to be closed prematurely in the face of the violence of the exchanges.

The conflict is open between the defenders of the project, for whom the exploitation of this mine is an opportunity for Guyana, which is sorely lacking in industrial activities and jobs, and its opponents, determined to prevent the extraction of this metal. precious, which is a particularly polluting activity, and whose economic benefits they doubt. At the highest level of the state, President Emmanuel Macron and the Minister for the Ecological Transition themselves have displayed their differences.

However, if this debate today concerns the local authority of Guyana, its scope is much wider. Because the equation that the public authorities will have to resolve in the coming months is not very far from that which arose in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, and can be found in a similar form in many other cases. . With, in Guyana, a situation exacerbated by the gravity of the economic situation, which makes particularly difficult the idea of ​​dismissing with a pencil stroke a project that could allow the creation of hundreds or even thousands of jobs.

Opponents of the project demonstrate in Cayenne, October 26, 2017, during a visit to Guyana by President Emmanuel Macron. | Jody Amiet / AFP

Guyana, economically stricken territory

As with any dramatic action, you have to set the scene first. Guyana is both a department, the largest in France, and a region, the second in terms of area, but one of the least populated: less than 260,000 inhabitants at the last census, i.e. a density of only 3.1 inhabitants. per km². The explanation is simple: the equatorial forest occupies 98% of the territory. But the apparent low number of inhabitants should not be misleading: demography is a problem here. In forty years, the population has multiplied by 4.7. And it is expected to double again by 2040. “Guyana is the French territory which has certainly experienced the most migratory waves. By offering access to education, health, social minima and political stability, Guyana is an attractive territory in its regional environment, in particular for nationals of Suriname, Brazil and Haiti ”, underline the experts of INSEE. However, employment does not follow. In 2017, the unemployment rate stood at 22% of the working population, at 44% for the 15-24 age group.

Where can you find work in Guyana? In logging, fishing, construction, public works, the Kourou space station … and of course gold. The country has many small farms, which legally produce around two tonnes per year. But according to the prefecture’s estimates, more than 6,500 gold miners illegally produce between five and ten tonnes per year.

A pharaonic project, supported by international companies

As early as 1976, the BRGM (Bureau of Geological and Mining Research) demonstrated the presence of the precious metal on the site known as the Montagne d’Or; the studies which followed showed that it could be envisaged to place an installation of industrial dimension there.

The project is led by the Compagnie minière Montagne d’Or, which succeeds a small local company, Sotrapmag; the new company registered in Guyana in 2016 is now 55.01% owned by Nordgold and 44.99% by Colombus Gold. Nordgold, which was listed in London for a few years and still has its head office there, is over 99% owned by Russian billionaire Alexey Mordashov, who has placed all of his precious metal mining activities in this structure. in Russia, Kazakhstan and Africa; Mordashov is also a 77% shareholder in the steel and mining group Severstal. As for Colombus Gold, it is a Canadian company whose main activity consists in exploring and developing the Montagne d’Or site.

The Mining Company intends to extract 85 tonnes of gold over a twelve-year period, or approximately seven tonnes per year. If the project is selected, the preparation of the site and the necessary infrastructure will take place between 2019 and 2021. During this period, more than 900 people would be employed. Then, during the operational phase, from 2022 to 2033, the site would employ 750 people, but the company estimates that the number of induced and indirect jobs could reach 3,000. Finally, for five years, the facilities would be dismantled, the site would be redeveloped, revegetated and it would be the subject of post-exploitation monitoring for thirty years, until 2069. In total, the company estimates that it will have to invest 782 million euros over this entire period.

Thus presented, the project is attractive: a legal activity supervised by professionals with international expertise, hiring, taxes paid to the local authority and the municipality of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, training actions that would improve the qualification of the local workforce. We understand that many elected officials, starting with the president of the local authority, are seduced. Also in metropolitan France, the project received a warm welcome. In August 2015, the Minister of the Economy visited Guyana, visited the site and provided strong support for the project, which would be an excellent example of “mining renewal in France ”. Small precision, which is important: this Minister of the Economy was a certain Emmanuel Macron.

This mining renewal would be both encouraged and framed by a new mining code, the reform of which has been under study since 2011. A text was adopted at first reading by the National Assembly in January 2017, but is still pending. examination in the Senate. The discussion will probably resume on other bases with the current Minister for the Ecological Transition, Nicolas Hulot.

The environment, a weak link

The debate surrounding this reform is complex: how to satisfy both those who want France to benefit from the exploitation of the resources of its subsoil and the defenders of the environment? The Montagne d’Or project provides a good illustration of this. For its opponents, there is only one satisfactory solution: to give it up altogether. These are numerous and active: they are the indigenous populations, who consider that it is an aggression against their territory, and the various environmental associations, purely local such as the Or de Question collective or national such as the Friends of la Terre, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation (which had adopted this position before Nicolas Hulot entered the government) or the WWF.

The arguments are numerous and the damage to the environment is obvious. Especially since at the Montagne d’Or, it is not a question of breaking through the soil of an arid and desert region, but on the contrary that of an area with exceptional biodiversity.

Some significant figures are worth mentioning. In a gold deposit, there is only one or two grams of precious metal per tonne of rock. In this specific case, the content is estimated at 1.6 grams. To reach the objective of an annual production close to seven tons of gold per year, it will be necessary to extract every day 12,500 tons of ore, plus 67,500 tons of so-called waste rock. To recover the gold, it will then be necessary to treat the ore with cyanide. The residues will be piled up in the form of tonnes of sludge retained by dams, which can yield; there is no shortage of examples of such catastrophes. Environmentalists are all the more worried that the mine site is located just between two integral biological reserves, where all logging is prohibited. And even assuming there are no accidents, mining will result in a trench 2.5 kilometers long by 400 meters wide, with a depth varying between 120 and 220 meters. The importance of this bleeding, expressed in football pitch equivalent, is the first argument used by WWF to launch a major campaign to reject the project with footballer Ibrahim Cissé.

It should be added that these installations would consume a lot of electricity. As was written in January 2016 in the multiannual energy programming project (PPE) of the local authority, the Montagne d’Or site alone would be worth “require between 20 and 40 MW of additional continuous electricity production (ie between 160 and 320 GWh), which would represent, in the latter case, nearly 36% of the current consumption of Guyana ”. How would this electricity be produced, what would be the impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? For now, the question remains unanswered.

A very political decision

Only one thing is clear. Contrary to what opponents of the project could still say at the beginning of 2017, it is no longer being prepared “discreetly”. All the elements of the file are public and the debate is engaged. Then there will be the examination of the authorization request files and the opening of a public inquiry before the Prefect makes his decision, a very political decision which will in fact be taken at the highest level of the French State. Technical considerations will not be the only cause: after the social crisis of spring 2017 in Guyana, the balance of power will be studied very closely.

Whatever the decision, it would be very reductive to judge it by the yardstick of a Macron-Hulot match, although the two men’s positions are notoriously antagonistic. The question is not who will win and who will have to swallow a snake. More fundamentally, it is whether we can continue to move forward on the path of growth simply by improving our techniques for exploiting natural resources, by paying more attention to the environment, by monitoring producers more or if the stated objectives in terms of limiting global warming and preserving biodiversity require, at certain times, to give up activities that create wealth. And, in the latter case, it would be a question of finding alternative solutions to improve the lot of the population.

Putting climate goals in the constitution might be a good idea, but the important thing is how concretely things might change on the ground. For now, Mr Macron appears to want to prioritize growth and trust technical progress to solve the problems. It is possible that entering a new world requires deeper questioning.