Title page for ETD etd-08152003-162551

Type of Document Master's Thesis
Author Ramessar, Candice Rowena
Author's Email Address cramessa@vt.edu
URN etd-08152003-162551
Title Water is More Important than Gold: Local Impacts and Perceptions of the 1995 Omai Cyanide Spill, Essequibo River, Guyana.
Degree Master of Science
Department Geography
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Richardson, Bonham C. Committee Chair
Grossman, Lawrence S. Committee Member
Younos, Tamim Committee Member
  • Gold-Mining
  • Cyanide- Spill
  • Guyana
  • Technological Disaster
Date of Defense 2003-05-19
Availability unrestricted
Improved technologies, increases in global demand for metals, and lax environmental policies and regulations are causing a shift of large-scale mining activities to the tropics. This shift of mining to the tropics has the potential to modify natural ecosystems and disrupt the social structures of rural and indigenous peoples in some of the most remote areas of the planet. This thesis encompasses research done in two villages of Guyana's Essequibo River basin after the 1995 Omai cyanide spill, and illustrates the local social consequences of a large-scale gold mining operation in the tropics. It documents not only the degradation of the local river ecology, but also the changes in local people's perceptions of their environment. That environment, once viewed as pristine, is now viewed as unsafe, leading to disrupted livelihoods and lifestyles. The finding of this study points to a direct link between international economic liberalization policies (which emphasize privatization, foreign direct investment, and economic growth) and the creation of disaster circumstances in developing countries.

This thesis research is the result of a total of ten weeks of participant observer research in the area of the Essequibo River, Guyana. It utilizes the methodology of taped interviews of head-of-households. Interviews were conducted with approximately 85 percent of heads-of household of the villages of Rockstone and Riversview. Additionally, interviews were conducted with national and regional governmental officials, regional health officials, local and indigenous leaders, personnel of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency in Guyana. Interviews were supplemented with archival research.

The findings of this thesis research closely mirror those of other researchers who contend that the social impacts of technological disasters are long-term and more severe than those related to natural disasters. Seven years after the cyanide spill, disruptions in livelihood activities, diet, and household behaviors continued to be evident in the two villages. There is little indication that the high negative perceptions of the villagers as a result of the disaster will change in the near future. The research found that macroeconomic policies, crafted by national governments and overseen by international financial institutions without the involvement of local citizenry, disproportionately affected the poor and rural populations through the degradation of local ecosystems. The thesis also illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic research-in particular, interviews in disaster studies of developing countries.

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