Air, earth and water
Air, earth and water have been held to be some of the physical elements which sustain life from time immemorial. The protection of these elements is vital to ensuring human existence in a hygienic environment.
Everyone has a responsibility to protect planet earth and the people who inhabit it by safeguarding the sources which sustain life. Damage and degradation of any or all of these sources threaten human existence and the only place where man can live – on planet earth.
We all remember Ban Ki Moon’s aphorism – “...We have only one planet. There is no Plan B because there is no planet B” – this has become a common-place catch-phrase. The impact of climate change and its apocalyptic implications of environmental damage and degradation seem to have been ignored in many places as evident by persistent patterns of human behaviour or you may want to say misbehaviour.
Guyana faces environmental threats to fresh air, clean water and the bountiful earth. Our rivers are being polluted by reckless river-mining. The proliferation of plastic waste, especially single-use plastics, has compromised our drainage systems and precipitated floods. Careless solid waste management and irresponsible human habits have led to widespread littering and threats to public health.
I said, in my address at the Third United Nations Environment Assembly (High-Level Side Event V) in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2017 that “…Pollution in the extractive industries threatens environmental security. It increases human vulnerability to human-induced environmental degradation and, therefore, impacts on human security…The ‘green state’ will become a model of environmental stewardship. It will demonstrate the signal role which a small state like Guyana can play in protecting the world’s air, water and land from the threat of pollution.”
I said, further, at that time that “…Pollution of the air, water and land is approaching and, in some cases, has reached dangerous levels. Emissions from industries are polluting the air we breathe. Chemical-laced waste and effluent are poisoning the world’s waterways which are still used for bathing, drinking, fishing, swimming and washing in some remote communities here in Guyana.”
Ladies and gentlemen, students, the protection of the environment is an obligation not an option. The Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana [at Article 149 J (2)] provides that “…The State shall protect the environment, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures designed to prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure sustainable development and the use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development. The Constitution mandates, further, [at Article 149 J] that “…Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her well-being.”
The Government, in compliance with the Constitution, has taken steps to protect human life by safeguarding the environment. It is committed to preventing pollution and ecological degradation by preventing the contamination of our waterways, phasing-out the importation of single-use plastics and improving solid waste management.
We are Guyana. We are proud to be part of the ‘Guiana Shield’ – the ‘lungs of the earth’ – one of the world’s last remaining blocks of pristine rainforest covering an area larger than Greenland.
The Guiana Shield – the source of 15 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserves – is a global resource. It provides environmental services such as the regulation of the water cycle, water quality and pollination.
Its forests contribute to air quality by capturing and storing carbon, thereby mitigating the greenhouse effect. Its biodiversity provides ecosystem services such as food, freshwater and medicinal products.
The Shield is essential to life on planet earth. The environmental services provided by our forests, including the forests of the Guiana Shield, help to provide clean air for the citizens of the world. The protection of our forests and the Shield’s biodiversity help to protect planet earth. We are part of that global resource.
Ladies and gentlemen, students, water is life; rivers are indispensable to human well-being. It is a trite truism that Guyana is a ‘…land of waters…’ and that its rivers are its arteries.
The waters of hinterland rivers are used for cooking, drinking, fishing, playing, sporting and washing. Rivers provide water for irrigation, mining and other economic activities. They are one of the principal means of communication and transportation between communities in different parts of our country; particularly the hinterland.
River pollution – anywhere and at anytime – impacts adversely on water quality, health and the economic and social well-being of residents. Our rivers must be protected from pollution caused by environmental damage and degradation and the discharge of effluent from manufacturing, mining and farming.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said in my address to the World Water Forum held in Brasilia in March 2018 that: “Rivers are the arteries of the earth. The earth’s creeks, lakes, rivers and wetlands, seen from above, form natural networks which sustain life. Rivers and lakes account for 90 per cent of the world’s freshwater stocks.”
I said, also, that rivers are important freshwater sources. The protection of the world’s freshwater sources is essential to ensuring people’s right to water; community access to safe and sanitary water and water security.
Gold mining is impacting adversely on our rivers. The dreadful ‘draga’ dredges used in gold mining are degrading our river banks and increasing the turbidity of our rivers. Effluent from gold mining has been contaminating our rivers.
Mercury used in the amalgamation process in gold-mining has found its way into our waterways – rivers, rapids and creeks – and presents a threat to aquatic systems and our biodiversity. The amalgamation process in gold mining can cause mercury to leech into the soil and waterways, affecting both humans and the ecosystems.
It is true that mining remains a vital sector in our economy, nevertheless we have to be very careful. Support for safe and sustainable mining is a key element of our Green State Development Strategy – our road map towards the good life for everyone.
Guyana, your country, my country, our homeland, is in transition towards becoming a ‘green state’. The ‘green state’ will demonstrate how our extractive industries – bauxite, diamond and gold mining and logging – can be aligned to the protection of our environment, the preservation of our biodiversity and the promotion of energy generation from renewable sources. We intend to:
- enforce our existing mining and environmental laws more rigorously so as to ensure robust environmental monitoring and to eradicate river pollution;
- eliminate the use of mercury from the gold mining sector eventually while introducing economically feasible alternatives to mercury; and
- employ greener and safer mining practices which minimize waste and reduce negative environmental impacts.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said again, in my address to the 1st Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury in September 2017 in Geneva: “…Mercury is not a plaything. It is harmful to human health and to the physical environment whether in the air, on land or in water.
The use of mercury, in human products and processes, is a threat to human health and the environment…The prevention of mercury pollution is vital to [the] protection of people’s lives and livelihoods and the sustainability of the environment.”
Guyana is a signatory to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Convention’s objective is “…to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.” The phased reduction and eventual elimination of the use of mercury is part of our national mining policy and is consistent with our obligations under the Convention. If we could eliminate the use of tobacco, we could eliminate the use of mercury eventually.
Guyana’s commitment to the goal of reducing mercury emissions by 55 per cent within the next five years and to eliminate mercury use by 2027 is irrevocable.
Ladies and gentlemen, students, we live on land. Land degradation is a threat to Guyana’s natural capital. Rising sea levels, caused by global warming, have eroded our natural sea defence structures and, along with the porousness of some of our drainage systems, have allowed for intrusion of salt water into agricultural lands. The swelling of rivers occasioned by excessive rainfall threatens hinterland agriculture and communities.
Degradation of land has the potential to affect food security, sustainable livelihoods, resource availability and social stability. Mismanagement of land can impact on the environment and citizens’ quality of life adversely.
Forests help reduce land degradation. Trees, by binding soils, reduce the damage and destruction from run-off water. Mangrove forests help secure our river banks and shoreline from erosion.
Deforestation, similarly disastrous, will expose the soils to the risk of degradation. Mining and logging are two of the principal contributors to deforestation. Small-scale mining, alone, accounted for about 89 per cent of deforestation over the past three years. Small-scale mining has a large-scale impact on the environment.
Deforestation, by both mining and logging, has scarred our rainforests with craters. These wastelands result in further land degradation of the exposed land.
Guyana’s forestry and mining laws will be strengthened to make re-forestation and land reclamations conditional for the approval of mining and logging concessions.
Plastic pollution is dangerous. It represents a threat to our environmental security. It has contributed to congested drainage systems, flooding and squalour, depleted aquatic life and contaminated creeks, rivers, freshwater and marine waters. The indiscriminate and insanitary dumping of single-use plastics also threatens the health of citizens.
Restrictions on single-use plastics which still proliferate in our markets and commercial stores and not to mention places of entertainment, are one area in which action can be taken immediately. Single-use plastic bags are used, usually, for short periods of time only but the waste they generate lasts a lifetime within our landfills and dumpsites.
Plastic pollution can be prevented and eradicated completely. Government is developing policies aimed at reducing, and eventually eliminating, plastic pollution. Government ministries have already been instructed to begin to phase out the consumption of single-use plastics, including plastic bags, containers, cups, cutlery, straws and water bottles in the short-term.
I iterate the call, made last year, for Guyanese, everywhere, to help beat plastic pollution by curtailing their use of single-use plastics, disposing of plastics responsibly and switching to environmentally friendly alternatives.
The indiscriminate dumping of garbage and litter is unhealthy and unhygienic and has costly consequences for everyone; we all suffer. It poses a threat to human health and human well-being. The plague of litter is compounded by the inadequacy of litter receptacles at public events and in public places. Citizens, often, unfortunately are not provided with bins in which to dispose of their litter at public events and in public places.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Green State Development Strategy proposes policies to encourage the safe disposal of solid waste. It also promotes policies aimed at minimizing solid-waste generation, recycling waste and improving collection and disposal.
Government is resolved to boost the capability of our local and regional authorities to solve the problems associated with solid waste management. This will be supplemented by a vigorous public education campaign to promote responsible disposal of litter.
Government is resolved to accelerate our efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and hygienic environment for everyone by protecting the integrity of our rivers, proscribing single-use plastics and by strengthening the capacity of municipal, neighbourhood and regional administrations to improve their solid waste management.
Government’s efforts are part of its multi-faceted approach to environmental stewardship –education, enforcement of regulations, ecological consciousness by everyone, energy that is renewable and extractive industries that are sustainable and safe.
World Environment Day reminds us of our special duty, individually and collectively, to protect and preserve planet earth. This annual observance summons us to ensure that everyone is entitled to live in a healthy and hygienic environment. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment of 1972, four and half decades ago stated:
Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality, adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.
We have an obligation to protect the environment for you. The General Assembly of the United Nations, following that ‘Conference’, adopted on the 15th December 1972, Resolution 2994 (XXVII)) which designated the 5th June, each year, as World Environment Day. The ‘Assembly’ urged the Governments and organizations in the United Nations system to observe this day by undertaking activities reaffirming their concerns for the prevention and enhancement of the environment.
I emphasised, in my address to 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, the fact that the planet was humanity’s patrimony and its preservation from reckless damage to its biodiversity and ecology was this generation’s obligation.
I am confident that by protecting our environment we are safeguarding the sources which sustain human life and our planet. I iterate my caution to the 6th Assembly of the Global Environmental Facility, in June 2018, in Da Nang, Vietnam: “…Eternity is at stake.”
The Cooperative Republic of Guyana is pleased to host this activity to commemorate World Environment Day 2019. We reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe environment for our citizens through actions to safeguard the integrity of our rivers, to restrict the use of single-use plastics and to improve solid waste management in all communities.
I am pleased to join with all world leaders in celebrating World Environment Day 2019.