Contamination by cyanide: A threat to environment and tribal livelihoods

While the cause remains unverified, illegal gold mining in the area is known to use cyanide extensively.

On May 22nd 2023, the first stories about water contamination due to cyanide appeared in the media and caused an uproar in Suriname. The cause of the reports  was a rumor that a boat containing a large amount of the highly toxic and deadly chemical substance had capsized in the Brokopondo reservoir, the largest water reservoir in Suriname. The rumor has not been verified, however, it is not a secret that cyanide is widely used in small-scale illegal gold mining near various villages in Brokopondo. What ensued after the numerous cyanide headlines was an entanglement of politics, self-interests, distraught villagers and conflicting information from government officials.

The Brokopondo reservoir was created by constructing the Afobaka Dam across the Suriname River between 1961 and 1964. It serves as a hydroelectric power source for Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo, and was initially built to support alumina and aluminium production. The reservoir flooded villages, forcing their abandonment, and impacted the livelihoods of approximately 5,000 people.

While the cause remains unverified, illegal gold mining in the area is known to use cyanide extensively.

At first glance, it seems the momentum in which the Cyanide matter came to light has died down. The subject is no longer as prevalent in media outlets nor the talk of the day locally. “However, appearances can be deceiving”, says a local woman who was born and raised in a village located in Brokopondo. Out of fear for rancour and her safety, she wishes to remain anonymous.

According to her, the contamination issue is incredibly severe.  

“Our basic human rights are being threatened,” she said in a distressed voice. 

She further explained that most villagers no longer use the water from the reservoir or rivers and streams near locations where illegal gold mining is explored. They do not trust that the water is safe and healthy. 

“As a tribal community, some of our peoples livelihoods also completely depend on fishing in the reservoir.” 

Since the water appears to be contaminated, we cannot ensure fishing is safe, she states. She further expresses her views on the flow of information from the government. “ There is so much conflicting information from the government, we do not know what is accurate and what isn’t.”

Ronny Asabina, representative of Brokopondo in the parliament, condemns the way the government has been dealing with the Cyanide matter to date. He emphasised that the district commissioner, Ludwig Mendelzoon and the minister of Spatial Planning and Environment, Marciano Dasaifirst confirmed that there was indeed a matter of Cyanide contamination in Brokopondo. 

“A little while later these government officials are stating that there is no contamination with the poisonous chemical,”he stated. What are the villagers supposed to believe then?”

According to Asabina, there is a huge imbalance in the flow of information between the government and the local community which has resulted in a significant lack of trust. 

Asabina as well as the local villager stated that most people do not use water from the reservoir nor tap-water anymore out of fear for their health. They completely depend on rainwater to sustain their daily lives. This is often not sufficient. 

“The government recently sent a large tank of drinking water to the community, what ensued were villagers struggling to get their hands on even the smallest amount”, Asabina shares.

In Suriname, there are only two companies which are the multinationals, Newmont Suriname and Zjin Mining Group Limited (Rosebel Gold Mines) that have the permission from the government to use cyanide under strict rules and precautions.  According to the Minister of Spatial Planning & Environment, these companies are subjected to strict policies set by the National Institute for Environment and Development in Suriname (NIMOS). This is done to ensure that Cyanide wastewater treatment is executed in the correct manner for minimal risk to the environment. The environment-minister confirmed that cyanide is also used in small-scale gold-mining which is an unregulated and illegal sector. The NIMOS has analysed samples from these mines which indicate values of approximately 1600 times the concentration of the drinking water standard for Cyanide set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Dasai goes on to state that the water in the Brokopondo reservoir does not contain traces of Cyanide. According to him, tap water in that area is safe for consumption. He also said that the ministry is currently monitoring water from rivers and streams located near the gold-mines. “We are continuously assessing the location near the mines and will disclose the data at a later time when the report is finalised.”

The use of cyanide in gold mining is primarily for extracting gold from ore. The production of cyanide involves the use of various chemicals and processes, which often have associated carbon footprints. The energy-intensive production of cyanide and its transportation contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to changing climate.Cyanide is a highly toxic substance used to separate gold from ore in a process called cyanide leaching. Improper handling or accidental spills can lead to the contamination of water bodies. 

Cyanide-contaminated water can have adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems and the environment, including the release of greenhouse gases. For example, cyanide can disrupt the natural balance of aquatic life, leading to the decomposition of organic matter and subsequent production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It’s important to note that while the use of cyanide in gold mining can indirectly contribute to climate change, there are also direct environmental and human health concerns associated with its use.

Erlan Sleur, chairman of the biodiversity protection organisation “Probios”, disagrees with the  minister’s  take on the safety of the water from the reservoir based on his own research. According to Sleur, every sample taken represents a momentary view. 

“The reservoir is also extremely large in surface area, approximately  1,560 km2, so it is entirely possible that one part is contaminated while the sample was taken in another location of the reservoir. Thus, it is irresponsible of the Environment- minister to state there is no Cyanide-contamination in the reservoir.”

Sleur goes on to say that the use of cyanide in the small-scale as well as by the large gold mining companies is extremely dangerous to the environment.

According to Sleur, the Cyanide is predominantly imported by Chinese companies as an Iron(II)cyanide compound. Sleur states that this is done to disguise the free cyanide molecules so that they will not be detected through testing. 

“Fake product descriptions also come into play, It’s an entire operation full of deceitfulness that is being undertaken,” he said. He further went on to detail the process in which the small-scale gold miners dispose of the Cyanide by indicating that the substance is only added to large amounts of water before it is released into the environment. “Large amounts of water is in no way a safety measure to neutralise the dangers of Cyanide”, Sleur concludes.

Professor Max Huisden, who is specialised in water management and bioactive molecules, fully agrees with Sleur on the dangers of Cyanide and goes a step further by detailing the effect of the poison in a living organism. 

“Cyanide is an acute poison, it works by attacking Mitochondria which provide energy to sustain life,” said Huisden.

Huisden went on to place the cyanide-contamination in a greater context. According to him, there is more than meets the eye when assessing the risks of this contamination. 

“Suriname has been blessed with large amounts of clean groundwater from aquifers. If even the smallest chemical contamination gets into this waterstock, this can cause a serious catastrophe which will severely affect the national health as well as our biodiversity,” says Huisden. 

According to him, this is all the reason we need to combat water contamination in a sustainable manner once and for all.


This story was published by Srherald.com with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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Stefanie Lauchman

Stefanie Lauchman

Stefanie Lauchman is a passionate women’s rights activist & journalist who was born and raised in Suriname. She is also the communications manager for the Mulokot Foundation which focuses on ensuring the rights of the Wayana Indigenous People. Furthermore, she is the brand ambassador and educator at the Practitioner for Communication, Counseling and Coaching (PCCC), an organization which focuses on growth and personal development of girls and young women. As a journalist, she is specialized in climate matters, Indigenous livelihoods and women’s rights.
With climate change being one of the greatest threats to the human rights of especially vulnerable and underprivileged communities, Stefanie developed a keen interest in climate stories. A bubbly ambivert, she enjoys cooking, reading, and spending quality time with loved ones and has a deep love for music.

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