Standing in Solidarity with the Wayana in the French Guyana

“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:10–11, NRSV) 

In July 2019, my friend Linia Sommer asked my husband Dan and me for help measuring her community’s exposure to mercury. Lina lives in French Guyana, in a remote, rainforest community called Taluene on the Upper Maroni river. The food in Lina’s community is contaminated by gold mining.

The Guyana shield is a region in South America that includes Suriname, French Guyana and Northern Brazil. Like Indigenous Peoples around the globe, Linia’s people do not have title to their traditional lands or control of what happens in their homelands.

When governments agree to mining concessions on or near Indigenous lands, the people who live there have little power against national and corporate interests.

Linia is Wayana, and the Wayana and the other peoples who live on the Upper Maroni river depend on fish as a primary source of food. Gold mining contaminates fish where heavy metals bioaccumulate in fish tissue. Exposure to heavy metals like mercury causes neurological disease, early death and community disruption and displacement.

Although the French government regularly tests Indigenous People in French Guyana for mercury toxicity, they do not share the results with community members.

As a mother, Linia feels she should be told about the threat gold mining poses to her children. She co-founded the organization Organization afin de promouvoir l’entraide et la solidarite entre les victimes du mercure (Organization to promote mutual aid and solidarity among victims of mercury) to try to address the problem.

I am a North American Indigenous Woman, a Tewa. I know what it’s like to feel helpless, a small person in a world where laws and policies do not always reflect the best interests of my family or my people.

When Linia asked us for help documenting the impact of mercury on her people, Dan and I agreed readily.

My husband and I began to work with Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in the Guyana Shield in 2004. We established the USA-based nonprofit Suriname Indigenous Health Fund dedicated to providing indigenous people in the Guyana region with the materials and technical support they need to find solutions of their own.

Although we have the necessary scientific equipment, it is challenging and expensive to launch a cross-national project that gets samples to us and results back to impacted community members.

When we returned to our home in Washington, I asked the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition for help. They reached out to their network across the United States, making our plea for mercury test kits their year-end campaign. In response, the youth group at Shalom Mennonite in San Francisco, California, USA, made funding test kits their own special Christmas fundraiser.

With the help of the Coalition, we are able to fund test kits and invest in infrastructure to help us better communicate with Linia and with other remote communities in the Guyana Shield.

While the financial system that trivializes the health of Linia and her community continues, we stand with her in seeking solutions for her people. While the health system trivializes the participation of Indigenous women, we provide test results to aid the self-determination of mothers who want to participate in the health of their children.

Linia hopes to identify and transport uncontaminated food to her community to reduce the exposure of her people to dangerous mercury levels causing death, disease and disability where no other alternatives for relief exist. We know this is an ambitious project, but it’s the next step in finding a culturally-appropriate and community-led solution to a public health crisis. We hope to join with her.

When Linia asked us for help, we were able to stand in solidarity with her immediately. When we asked the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition for help, they were able to respond by standing in solidarity with Linia and the Wayana people immediately as well. For us, this is an inspiring story of solidarity.

—Sarah Augustine is a descendant of the Tewa (Pueblo) people, and attends Seattle Mennonite Church, Washington, USA. She is the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties. She co-founded of Suriname Indigenous Health Funds and the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery National Coalition.


This story was published in the Peace Sunday 2020 Worship Resource package.


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