Guyana on the Go

The Guyana economy is growing and the country is ready to move ahead. Mark Wilson looks at what Guyana has to offer.

A handful of gold. Photograph by Andras Mekdeci/ MMC GroupGeogetown. Photograph by FotonaturaGuyana is known for quality gold jewellery. Photograph courtesy Kings Jewellery WorldIndigenous craft. Photograph by FotonaturaKaieteur Falls. Photograph by FotonaturaOcelot; all eyes and stripes. Photograph by FotonaturaPhotograph by FotonaturaSavannah lands. Photograph by FotonaturaSt. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Georgetown, the tallest wooden building in the world. Photograph by Fotonatura.Townhall Georgetown. Photograph by Fotonatura

President Janet Jagan and Opposition leader Desmond Hoyte shook hands in St Lucia on July 1. The El Niño drought ended in April. Guyana is back on the path to growth.

For most of the decade, Guyana has been the fastest-growing economy in the region; and GDP expanded by 6.9% last year. Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo says that the proportion of government revenue used for external debt service is down from 80% in 1992 to 45% — still high, but at least leaving more than half the cash for current needs. Infrastructure is improving — though there’s plenty still to be done. Wages are still low — but they’re much higher than they were five or ten years ago, even allowing for inflation.

On the basis of its 10-year economic track record, Guyana was the first country worldwide to qualify on openness grounds for the IMF’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries programme. If all goes well, this will bring budget support grants with a net present value of US$253m over the next 20 years. And foreign investment partners are coming in. The UK-based Commonwealth Development Corporation, in collaboration with an Irish electricity company, is expected to take a 50% stake in the Guyana Electricity Corporation, with majority private ownership at a later stage when 20% of the company is sold through a public share offering.

But the country has had its troubles this year. The El Niño drought hurt the rice and sugar industries, fruit and vegetable growing, even fishing. In the interior, remote Amerindian villages lost their staple cassava crop as fire raged across the savanna — though an efficiently run relief programme has been organised. Gold prices are down. So too is the price of many tropical wood products. And with the aluminium market weak, bauxite is harder to sell internationally. But even when tension was high, most Guyanese were getting on with their lives, getting on with business.

Georgetown

Georgetown isn’t a tourist city, but it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. If you’re visiting Guyana on business, or going to the interior, plan for some time in town as well.

There’s a feeling of space. On Main Street and in High Street Kingston, running from the Central Bank to the Meridien Pegasus, it’s easy to see where the “Garden City” tag came from — white wooden buildings with louvred Demerara shutters, wide streets, flowering trees and a grass-fringed central walkway.

There’s a feeling of scale, too, in the city’s historic buildings. Stroll slowly down the Avenue of the Republic. St George’s Anglican Cathedral (1889) is the tallest wooden building in the world; the vaulted roof inside is impressive, and the chandelier was a gift from Queen Victoria. The Law Courts (1887) and City Hall (1889) are masterpieces of Victorian Gothic. The neo-classical National Assembly (1833) has a sense of scale and purpose. St Andrew’s Kirk, the Scots Presbyterian church opposite, is probably the oldest building in Georgetown (1829).

Round the corner is Stabroek Market (1880), another Victorian landmark. In the streets nearby and the square opposite, you can buy anything from live iguanas through Kentucky Fried Chicken to a losing hand at the three-card trick. Demico — owned by Banks, the beer people — is faceless downstairs. But upstairs, the roof garden is a pleasant place to eat and relax. There’s also a barn-like indoor drinking area up another set of stairs, with paintings on panels showing Guyanese scenes from a couple of generations ago.

At the Pegasus starts the sea wall — a pleasant place to stroll before sunset. Nearby is the Umana Yana, a conical structure built in 1972 using traditional Amerindian techniques. Nearby, there’s a complex of sports fields around the National Park. But the most striking open space contains the Botanical Gardens: 125 acres, with a fine collection of palms and other trees. There are lily ponds and Victorian pavilions. The nearby zoo has many of Guyana’s native wild animals including jaguar, monkeys, manatee, river otter, birds and reptiles. Also close by is Castellani House, which now houses the National Art Collection, a personal interest for President Janet Jagan. Near the Central Bank is the National Museum, with natural history exhibits and a model of Georgetown as it was before the 1945 fire; while on Main Street is the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.

Shopping

Jewellery

Guyana is a good place to buy jewellery. Gold, today, sells for the world market price. But low labour costs and low overheads give a cost advantage for locally made quality jewellery.

Two jewellers recognised by the local Bureau of Standards are: Looknauth Persaud’s outlet, King’s Jewellery World, which has branches in Georgetown and New Amsterdam; and Diyaljee’s in New Amsterdam. Others with a good reputation include Gaskin Jackson on King Street and Correia’s on Charlotte St.

At King’s, the upstairs showroom sparkles with jewellery, locally made to both traditional Indian and modern international designs. Gold, diamonds, rubies, opals, emeralds, peridot . . . prices start around US$50. A single six-carat diamond, almost half an inch across and mounted as a gold solitaire ring, is marked at US$50,000. Gold is local; the precious stones are mostly from Asia; but the design and craftwork are Guyanese.

Up more stairs, around 50 craftspeople are making items for sale. It’s unusual for a jewellery store to have an in-house workshop. But there are advantages. A ring or necklace can be custom-made within a week. An existing item can be copied in a few days, using the lost-wax process to make a mould. It’s faster, and more cost-effective, than sending work out.

Persaud’s first big break came with the West Indies cricket team. Persaud first sold to the team around 20 years ago. Now, he estimates, four-fifths of their purchases are from him. Selling was hedged around with regulations in the early days; operations are now straightforward.

Visitors — many of them overseas Guyanese — take more than half of total sales. Expansion means moving outside Guyana, reaching the tourist market in the wider Caribbean — an outlet is expected to open at the Pointe Seraphine cruise ship complex in St Lucia before the end of 1998, with others to follow. Some work will be done on the spot — but air courier service will allow visitors to have more complex craft manufacturing or repair work done in Georgetown, fast and at a competitive cost.

Crafts

Crafts can be found everywhere in Georgetown. Wooden carvings, basketry, hammocks, ceramics. On the pavements, in Stabroek market, in the Hibiscus Plaza behind the Post Office, in Guyana Stores, and in specialist craft shops.

Jocelyn Dow of Lacytown Interiors at 173 Charlotte Street is talking designer quality. Her manufacturing company, Liana Cane Interiors, employs around 60 people, in a sustainable business using local cane materials and hardwoods such as crabwood and locust wood. Upholstery is with Liberty or Robert Allen fabrics; inspiration is from European design trends as well as from local traditions. Furniture can be custom-built, either for individual customers or for restaurants and hotels — she has furnished Cara Lodge. There are also ceramics, hammocks, and some smaller craft items. As Liana International, Dow is planning to set up a showroom in Trinidad before the end of 1998.

Denise Dias of Houseproud on the Avenue of the Republic has a wide range: ceramics, wooden carvings, hammocks, basketry. Her furniture is woven from the Nibbi vine, with framework from a thicker vine, the Kufa, which can be bent into shape. Both can be harvested renewably without damaging the rain forest. Processing is labour intensive — both vines must be harvested, stripped of their skin, and then soaked.

The display pieces look rough, but Dias will arrange finishing and upholstery in Georgetown. Furniture can also be made to measure, to fit the customer’s living room.

Most visitors don’t even ask about buying furniture for it doesn’t look like check-in baggage. In fact, craft shops are quite used to selling overseas. And knocking off the 30% local consumption tax can in some cases pay for the extra transport costs within the Caribbean, where small ships take break-bulk cargo.

Hammocks are easy to carry. There’s a wide price and quality range. There are mass-produced striped cotton hammocks from Brazil. Arawaks from coastal districts of Guyana make hammocks from Tibisiri, a fibre made from the immature leaves of the ite palm. Local hand-made cotton hammocks are top of the line in style and quality. Some of the finest are made by the Wapishana Amerindians of the southern Rupununi. Local cotton is spun by hand — prices are high, but reflect the hours of work involved.

Baskets, mainly made from tall Mucru reeds, have traditional patterns, some with an allegorical meaning. Each shape has its intended use, often linked to cassava processing. Ceramics, too, use traditional designs.

Balata is distinctively Guyanese. It is a latex from the bulletwood tree — used until the 1950s as a high-strength industrial material, and collected then by full-time tappers in the interior. Tiny quantities are now extracted, and used to make figures. Again, there’s a huge range in quality. Tancredo, from the Rupununi, is the best-known traditional artist. There are other individual producers, some trained by him. And some work is mass-produced for the souvenir market.

Today, there’s a shortage of some craft materials. Soapstone for carving is no longer easy to find. Collecting plants can’t compete in earning power with work away from home — unfortunately, because migration can have a negative impact on the family unit.

Places to stay in Georgetown

• Le Meridien Pegasus is right where the Demerara river flows into the muddy Atlantic. The rooms and suites have been recently redesigned and upgraded. There are tennis courts, and a good pool, with poolside restaurant; also the El Dorado restaurant inside for more formal dining. The largest of the three meeting rooms can seat 400. Club President guests have use of a meeting room, and a lounge with computer and internet access.

• Cara Lodge is in one of Georgetown’s historic family houses, around 150 years old, and on Quamina Street, a short walk from the city centre. Rooms and suites are spacious and beautifully furnished; each one is different. The restaurant is excellent; for variety, there’s also a “dine and sign” scheme, which makes for trouble-free eating out in five Georgetown restaurants. The companion property, Cara Suites, is on Middle Street. Rooms have a fax and executive work station. Guests have computer and internet access, and there are in-house colour printing, typing, binding, photocopy and laminating services.

• The Park Hotel on Main Street is worth visiting, if only for a glance at the huge Victorian ballroom upstairs. Two of the three wings round the interior courtyard were being upgraded in mid-1998. The Tower Hotel is also on Main Street, but closer to the city centre. There’s a good pool, and the restaurant has an interesting menu.

• Of the smaller establishments, the Ariantze on Middle Street is well run, and has a lively restaurant downstairs, the Sidewalk Café and Jazz Club. There’s also a range of guest houses for the budget traveller. These vary in quality, but the Rima on Middle Street is clean, well run, and good value.

Eating out in Georgetown

• Besides the hotel restaurants, try Del Casa and Caribbean Rose on Middle Street, or the New Thriving Chinese Restaurant on Main Street. There’s plenty of night life. Palm Court on Middle Street is a lively café-restaurant. There’s the Sidewalk Cafe too. For the adventurous, take a taxi to Sheriff Street, which, like St James in Trinidad, never sleeps; or try the Library (no books) and the Blue Note nearer to town.

The coastlands

Outside Georgetown, most Guyanese live within a few miles of the Atlantic. It’s possible to do quite a lot of travelling through the coastlands by rented car or public transport — sometimes using a ferry. The small towns have basic-grade hotels, and reasonably priced places to eat.

Roads run east, to New Amsterdam and on to Springlands, where there’s a ferry crossing to Suriname; Cortour at Crabwood Creek (tel: (592) 2398 2430) can take you up the Corentyne river to Wanotobo Falls, where some accommodation is available.

Going west, it’s fairly easy to travel as far as Charity. You’ll see villages, lively small towns, farming country, rivers, wetlands, canals and sea defences.

To the south, there’s a road to Linden which continues with a gravel surface as far as Mabura Hill. This last stretch cuts right through the rain forest, though the view isn’t exciting unless you know what you’re looking for.

Up the rivers, there are speedboat services; they operate like minibuses or route taxis in other Caribbean countries. One easy trip is from Parika to Bartica, a jumping-off point for the interior, where the Essequibo meets the Mazaruni in a wide expanse of swirling, coloured water. There’s a sandy riverside beach for bathing.

Sugar

Like many other parts of the Caribbean, Guyana’s coastlands were developed for sugar production. Dutch settlers laid out a regular pattern of drainage and irrigation canals, fields and sluice gates, behind the sea defences.

Today, sugar is produced by a state-owned company, Guysuco, on eight large estates; the company also buys sugar from smaller, independent farmers.

Guysuco made a US$5m profit in 1997, with assets worth almost US$100m. Production was 276,000 tonnes — only 1.3% down on 1996, in spite of rainfall 30% below normal. Sugar contributes around 16% of GDP, 40% of agricultural production, and around a quarter of export earnings. The industry provides around 24,000 jobs, including small cane farmers, and another 8,000 work in businesses which supply Guysuco or depend on its products.

Rum

Guyana produces the world’s best rum. That’s official. Demerara Distillers Ltd.’s El Dorado 15 Year Old Superior Reserve won the Wray and Nephew “best rum in the world” cup in May 1998 at the UK Wine and Spirit contest. And it won the rum category at this year’s International Spirits Challenge, also in Britain. What do the judges look for? As usual, it’s hard to put into words — but aroma, flavour, taste and gentleness are some of the words to play with.

Part of the distinctiveness, perhaps, comes from DDL’s wooden still at Uitvlugt, the only one of its kind in the world — there’s a model in the foyer of the company’s Main Street headquarters. It produces a distinctive spirit, not quite like either light or heavy rum.

DDL is promoting its premium brands overseas. Exports of bottled rum increased by 45% in 1997, while bulk rum exports were flat. The company is now selling to the UK, Canada, France, Spain and Italy, with the USA as the next stop. The brand range includes the Guyanese El Dorado Five Year, Twelve Year and Special Reserve Fifteen Year rums, and also the majority-owned CSR premium white, produced in St Kitts. Overseas promotion means taking on the giants head-on. A brave strategy — but the only way ahead.

Caribbean rum producers have had to cope with a change in the European Lomé import regime. Until recently, they concentrated on exporting bulk rum for European companies to brand and bottle; quotas prevented Caribbean producers from expanding to achieve scale economies. In 1997, just after the quotas went, the United States and Europe gave each other duty-free access for most spirits.

Caribbean rum producers kept duty-free status, but it was much less of a privilege — especially with duties to be cut worldwide by 2003. Special status is retained only for the cheapest low-end bulk rum. What’s worse, say the rum producers, is that talks about a replacement for the current Lomé system won’t even start until 2000 and that makes forward planning a tough proposition. These are points which DDL’s Chairman, Yesu Persaud, has made forcefully in his role as Chairman of the Caribbean Council for Europe — but, so far, with little effect in Brussels.

Rice

Green spears of grass push through the fertile soil along Guyana’s coast. Rice. Perhaps 20,000 rice farmers grow two crops a year of good quality rice, with extra-long grain and a high sheen. Small growers have maybe as little as ten acres, growing vegetables and keeping chickens and cattle as well. The biggest have several square miles of rice land.

This year’s second crop — with an August to October harvest — looks good. And though the first — from March to May — was hit by the El Niño drought, those farmers who had rice did well, because the shortage brought higher prices.

Rice is a staple in the Guyanese kitchen. But most of the crop is exported; and exports have soared since 1990. Until 1996, 90% of Guyanese rice was exported to Europe. Like other members of the Lomé Convention, Guyana could send rice to Europe duty and quota-free as long as it was milled in a European overseas territory. Good business for Guyana, and also for rice mills in Bonaire, Curaçao and Montserrat, islands which don’t consume much rice, and grow none at all.

Rice was sold at around US$400 per tonne. The extra cost of milling in the Caribbean came to perhaps US$100; but the duty saved was 50%, or around US$200. That meant a cost advantage of US$100 or so for Lomé exports. Guyanese sales soared, from around 50,000 tonnes in 1990 to five times this amount in 1996. At this level, European rice growers began to see Guyana and other Lomé countries as a threat. That meant a new license system, tied to a specific time frame, with a non-refundable deposit of around US$50 per tonne, which acted as a deterrent to most exporters.

As a sweetener, Europe agreed at the start of 1996 to cut the 50% levy on Lomé rice to 35%. But in the world of Brussels, agreeing a cut and implementing it aren’t always the same thing. When the cut finally comes, it will be retroactive — a big windfall, but one which will go to the European importer, not the Guyanese grower. Meanwhile, Lomé producers pay less duty than some of their competitors; but more than some others. The USA, for example, has a quota which is totally duty-free.

So for Guyana, that means a search for new markets. And the distinctive quality of Guyanese rice gives an advantage here. There have been sales to the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica. And now to the big South American markets — without subsidies, without special trade privileges, winning share purely on quality and cost.

The interior

To visit the “real” interior, you will need to use a tour company. There are several. Shell Beach Adventures, run by Annette Arjoon, is run from the Meridien Pegasus. Wilderness Explorers is also well known, and covers a wide range of destinations. There are a whole range of others. Members of the Tourism Association of Guyana (tel: (592) 2 50807, fax (592) 2 50817) include:

• Cattleya Rainforest Tours: (592) 2 76590

• Cortours: (592) 39 2430

• Evergreen Adventures: (592) 2 60605

• Golden Executive Tours: (592) 2 78811

• Green Heart Tours: (592) 2 71399

• Guyana Ecotours: (592) 2 65000

• MMC Inc: (592) 20 5416

• Manny’s Travel: (592) 2 71464

• Parishi Tours: (592) 2 60448

• Rainforest Tours: (592) 275632

• Torong Guyana: (592) 2 50876

• White Water Adventure: (592) 2 52281

• Wonderland Tours: (592) 2 59795

The Kaieteur Falls on the Potaro river is the Big One: 741 feet high, five times Niagara, and 70 minutes by light aircraft from Georgetown. Alternatively, several tour companies offer a five-day overland trek, some of it by river boat up the gorge of the Potaro, with a final steep climb on foot to the top of Kaieteur.

Timberhead — with a Georgetown office by the Meridien Pegasus — is on the 69-square-mile Amerindian reservation of Santa Mission. Three comfortable wood and palm-thatch lodges were built by Amerindian craftsmen, on a sandy hill overlooking savannas and river. There’s bird-watching — Audubon Society visitors listed 150 species — and nature trails, swimming, canoeing or fishing. Water lilies open at night, which is also the best time for seeing the spectacled cayman, or most mammals — agouti, labba, deer, marmosets, and squirrel monkeys. It’s not far from Cheddi Jagan International Airport at Timehri, a plus for short-stay visitors.

Shanklands Rainforest Resort on the Essequibo river is a cluster of gingerbread-style cottages on the fringe of the rain forest, with river views. It’s ideal for a few days of quiet, and perhaps a wedding or honeymoon. There’s bird-watching and nature trails, relaxing hammocks and Berbice chairs, river bathing, and croquet, volleyball or badminton. On the river, there are sandy beaches with excellent swimming; sailing in a sailfish; and water-skiing, tubing or banana boating.

There’s a scatter of small nature lodges and resorts. Baganara Island in the Essequibo river has white sand beaches and freshwater swimming. Baracara Lodge, another resort with an island setting, is on the Mazaruni River. Yapanani Tree House, built using trees as supports, is remotely located on the Supenaam river, which flows into the Essequibo river from the west. Jacklow Lodge is further west, near Charity on the Pomeroon river. It is close to Kabakaburri, one of the oldest Amerindian sites in Guyana. Kwebana Riverside Lodge is further west again, on the Waini river. The guest house at Santa Rosa Mission is near Moruka, an Amerindian settlement, and is run by Jesuit priests. Don’t confuse it with Santa Mission, which is nearer Georgetown. The surrounding area has Guyana’s largest concentration of Amerindian settlements.

Shell Beach, in the remote north-west, is a working turtle conservation camp on a 90-mile stretch of coast where four of the world’s eight sea turtle species nest: Giant Leatherback, Olive Ridley, Green and Hawksbill. Nesting is at night, from mid-March to July. Depending on the species, there are from 85 to 125 eggs, which hatch 60 days later, from May to September, as tiny babies totter to the waves and start swimming.

Visitors stay on comfortable mattresses in mosquito proof tents under palm-thatched huts. Behind the camp is rain forest, with squirrel monkeys, anteaters, labba and other mammals. Birds include the lineated woodpecker, swallow-tailed kite, roseated spoonbill, parrots, and the spectacular scarlet ibis, which can be seen feeding by day or flying home by the thousand at sunset. Guests can catch crabs; and there is both sea and freshwater fishing.

Dr Peter Pritchard began visiting Shell Beach in the 1960s. Killing sea turtles and taking their eggs was part of the local Amerindian economy, with disastrous results for the animals. Numbers plunged. Hope for a solution came not with regulation and enforcement, but from the 1980s through persuasion and by “letting the fox guard the chickens.”

Local Arawak Amerindians who already understood the turtles’ habits were themselves concerned about falling numbers. Former hunters were paid to become game wardens; they now protect, weigh, tag and monitor the turtles. Romeo de Freitas in June received the Neotropical Conservation Award from Conservation International for his work on the project; his father, Audley James, has been involved from the beginning, as has his mother, Violet de Freitas.

To provide an alternative source of protein for the villagers, start-up funds were provided for pork and chicken farming. Today, few turtles are killed on the main nesting beach, though some are slaughtered at other sites. Unfortunately, nesting numbers are still falling. With the turtles’ long life cycle, it will take some time for numbers to fully recover.

The Rupununi

In the south-west of Guyana, the Rupununi savannas are wide grasslands, broken by wooded mountains and tree-lined rivers, in some of which swim Arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world, sometimes more than four metres long. There are also giant river turtles, up to 1.5 metres long. Most years, the weather is dry until Easter, then rainy until September.

Most visitors to the Rupununi go by air. But there’s an unsurfaced road link to Georgetown for four-wheel-drive vehicles. The drive is through the bauxite-mining town of Linden on the Demerara river, then through thick forest to the logging centre of Mabura Hill. From here, the going is more difficult: one stretch is through dry scrubland, with a road surface of soft white sand. But there’s wildlife on the way — spider monkeys, labba, manicou, perhaps an ocelot on the road. Then a ferry across the Essequibo river, another stretch of rain forest — and suddenly the view opens to savanna, with majestic views of the Iwokrama mountains.

In the Rupununi, there’s one small town at Lethem, with telephones, shops and an air service, but no bank. Going south, the road continues into Brazil, with the provincial capital of Boa Vista an easy drive from Lethem.

Most of those who live in the Rupununi are Amerindians, literate and self reliant, living in small villages. There’s varied wildlife: ibis, harpy eagles, anteaters, tapirs.

In the northern Rupununi, near the village of Annai, is another small resort, Rock View, run by Colin Edwards, an Englishman who has lived for some years in Guyana.

Further south, at Karanambo resort, guests stay in palm-thatched huts under the mango trees. Diane McTurk, whose part-Scots family has lived here for several generations, can show guests giant river otters, bird life and water lilies at Crane Pond, and fishing in the Rupununi river and Simoni pond.

Beyond Lethem is Dadanawa. At 2,000 square miles, it is Guyana’s largest working ranch. There are Amerindian petroglyphs nearby, and Shea Rock, which can be climbed on foot. The Kanuku mountains are nearby, home to eight types of primate and a total of around 150 mammal species, 80% those known in Guyana; and 350 bird species, 60% of the national total. The mountains are also one of the few remaining refuges of the world’s largest eagle, the Harpy, which can sometimes be seen at dawn or dusk.

Iwokrama

Just across the Essequibo on the road to the Rupununi is the entrance to Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development.

At the Commonwealth conference in 1989, Guyana dedicated 3,600 square kilometres for study and conservation. The mission statement now has legal backing, “to promote the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of tropical rain forests in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits to the people of Guyana and to the world in general, by undertaking research, training and the development and dissemination of technologies.” There’s research into natural ecosystems, and into sustainable use of forest resources, with an emphasis, too, on ways in which local people can benefit.

Iwokrama, in the local Makushi language, means “place of refuge”. And it is home to many large mammals which are close to extinction elsewhere. There are 450 bird species, 206 fish, 120 snakes, lizards and frogs; and 105 mammal species. There are also estimated to be 1,500-2,000 plant species.

Iwokrama is not primarily a tourist centre. But visitors are welcome, and can benefit from on-site scientific expertise. There is simple accommodation. The Georgetown office can be contacted by e-mail(iwokrama@guyana.net.gy), by telephone at (592) 2 51504, and by fax (592) 2 59199.

Gold

Most of Guyana’s gold production, around 350,000 ounces, comes from the Canadian-owned mine at Omai, close to the Essequibo river. But around 95% of the industry’s 15,000 jobs are in small and medium-scale locally-owned operations, which mine river deposits in the interior. Larger mining camps house a couple of hundred men — and many have to build their own long-distance access roads. Gold is a promising outlet for the young and energetic: conditions are tough, there’s a risk of malaria, but the money is good by local standards.

Gold-bearing rock is broken up naturally over thousands of years, as it is weathered and eroded. Rivers carry a load of rock fragments: gravel, sand and clay. In much of Guyana, this includes gold particles. These are heavier than the other material, with more than three times the weight for the same sized fragment. Over time, many tiny grains and a few larger nuggets have accumulated on the beds and banks of the rivers.

Gold dredges suck up river deposits with a gravel pump, and produce a concentrate of gold with grains of black sand. Essentially, it’s the same old gravity separation process used in the California gold rush — and for the gold in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

For the next stage, liquid mercury is used to gather the gold particles, producing a gold-mercury amalgam. This is then beaten to remove some of the mercury, and heated in a retort, which vaporises the mercury but prevents it from evaporating into the atmosphere. Today, miners are careful with mercury: it’s expensive stuff, and letting it escape would damage the bottom line as well as the environment.

Overall, there’s debate about the environmental impact of riverside gold mining. The industry argues that with only a short stretch of river mined at any one time, the effect is mainly cosmetic. Mazda — one of the larger companies — in 1994 commissioned a report from Canadian environmental consultants, who found the operation was meeting their own home-country environmental standards. Mud looks bad, but a few years on, it’s hard to tell where the dredge has been.

Back to the mercury. What’s left after it has evaporated is a misshapen lump, known as a raw gold patty, which is later smelted in a furnace at 2,800 °F (1550 °C) to produce gold bars. And for the jeweller, that’s just the start of the story.

Like so much else in Guyana, the gold industry was hit in 1998 by factors outside its control — in this case low world prices. Gold peaked at over US$500 an ounce in 1987. With costs creeping up, the price was below US$300 for most of the first half of this year. At this level, most mid-sized producers are barely meeting expenses. Most sell to the government’s Gold Board at the London spot price — though Omai did well by locking into the futures market when prices were up.