Surinamese Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk abruptly abandoned parliament and flew to the southeastern interior district of Brokopondo late Monday after an open mining pit being worked by hundreds of wildcat small miners collapsed, killing at least 14 people amid fears that additional bodies would be found as the rescue system kicks into gear.
The mine collapsed had occurred in the wake of repeated warnings by authorities and from the Chinese gold company ZIJIN, which has a large scale operation in the area and which had been lobbying government to take action against the hordes of small miners who have been working in the area without any safety equipment or engineering expertise.
The mine collapse also came just a few weeks after the military and police had destroyed makeshift mining camps in the area and had driven out dozens of miners, commonly referred to as ‘Pork Knockers” but most returned as there was word that a large gold vein had been discovered, leading to hundreds of miners working in the open pit. Most of them returned to search for gold deposits.
Government said it had put together a multi-agency team to probe the deaths and to coordinate the rescue effort as fears that more bodies would be recovered mounted given the number of miners who had been working in the pit. The incident had occurred just before 4 p.m. Monday.
President Chan Santokhi who was also in parliament interrupted the sessions to announce the pit collapsed and the deaths. He said authorities might ask for foreign help including assistance from neighboring Brazil with its extensive experience in gold mining involving wildcat miners.
“My condolences to all the families and friends who have lost a loved one in this incident. We wish you much strength and strength in these difficult days,” the president said in a televised address. “As a society and as a country, let us continue to pray for the repose of the souls of those who died, but also for the relatives. And we hope that as a country we never experience such incidents again. We must show compassion for all those who died and for each other. The government will provide a team that will be responsible for aftercare.”
Ironically, Chinese company officials and Brunswijk had had a round of discussions earlier on Monday to discuss fears about the number of miners working in areas near its concession. “Unfortunately, shortly after this important meeting we received disturbing news of a tunnel collapse in the Matawai area. “We had repeatedly emphasized the dangers of illegal gold mining,” ZIJIN said, noting that it had been observing “the increasing trend in life-threatening practices by pork knockers, especially in the Matawai area, in recent months.”
Raids by large groups of small miners have also led to several deaths in recent years in neighboring Guyana as any “gold shout” results in hundreds of miners heading to the area, working in open pits without the necessary engineering expertise and designs to avoid pit collapses.