The recently aborted Muri Brasil Ventures New River Triangle surveying scheme points to a shift by the administration on the priority given to environmental protection under the low carbon development strategy, according to the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA).
The human rights body, which had questioned activity in the area before Muri pulled out in the face of a growing outcry over the venture, also yesterday issued a call for non-governmental sections of society to step up to protect the public interest, while saying the administration cannot be trusted to so.
Muri last week announced that it made a decision to no longer pursue its geographical and geophysical survey under the Permission for Geological and Geographical Surveys (PGGS) granted by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). The company claimed that while the process was legal and transparent, its decision was due to the “misinformation, prejudice and hostility” to the venture by persons and agencies fostering an adverse investment climate in Guyana.
In the wake of the company’s abandoning the venture, Natural Resources and the Environment Minister Robert Persaud on Monday warned of attempts to stymie potential investors in the mining sector and its contribution to the economy.
But the GHRA yesterday said that the first lesson to be drawn from the episode would be that the priority assigned to environmental protection under the low carbon strategy has been abandoned. “The intention to grant mining licenses in the New River Triangle without regard to long-term destructive impact on rivers and forests provides sufficient evidence of this,” it said in a statement issued yesterday. “The extent to which mining has displaced the environment as a priority is a sobering illustration of how unevenly the odds are matched in the battle for the environment,” it added, before noting that the Muri venture follows on the heels of the recent revelation of government willingness to sacrifice state revenue from the Norwegian low carbon agreement in order to protect the private gain by miners involved in excessive de-forestation. (It was found last year that Guyana’s deforestation rate has jumped to 0.079% in the Year 3 reporting period (2012) under the Norway deal, from 0.054% in the Year 2 reporting period (2011). As a result, Persaud had suggested that Guyana will lose out on around US$20M of the payment it would have received under its forest protection agreement with Norway for 2012, once increased deforestation was independently verified.)
It was less than three years ago when the Norwegian agreement, crafted by the same PPP/C administration, was hailed as a break-through of global significance, the GHRA noted. It added that the obsession with accumulation is disguised by over-stating the contribution of mining to the national economy, focusing solely on the foreign exchange value of gold production. “Nothing is reported of the social cost (disorder, crime and exploitation of women in indigenous communities and mining settlements), the environmental costs (pollution of fresh water resources, bio-diversity and ancient forests) and the real economic costs (disguised by duty-free concessions, tax concessions and subsidies),” it said. “The myth of mining as a driver of development relies on another myth, namely that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) controls mining in Guyana. The grim reality is that the GGMC exercises nominal control over the numbers involved in mining, the amount of gold produced, declared, smuggled out of the country or disposed of illegally,” it added.
‘Not to be trusted’
The GHRA observed that while Muri’s withdrawal is being characterised as a “disaster” by elements of the mining sectors, as evidence of “a conspiracy” by Persaud, and as a blow to “investor confidence” by the business sector, “these powerful sectors of society see no abuse of power, conflict of interest, deception, reason for regret, apology, explanation or shame in this saga.”
It added that given this powerful coalition of unrepentant interests in the continuation of the project, the decision to call a halt might more prudently be characterised as hitting the pause, rather than the stop button.
The GHRA also noted that the combination of mining and environment in the same Ministry ensures subordination of the latter to the former in the event of a conflict of priorities. The conflict is between private accumulation and the public interest, it argued, while saying that a situation in which cabinet members have personal interests in mining, renders cabinet vulnerable to becoming a vehicle for aggrandising private wealth rather than for protecting public interest. It further said that contamination of official decision-making processes by personal interests is reinforced by the revelations of the involvement of Muri’s directors with the ruling party’s election campaign in 2011. Other policy conflicts arise between the promotion of eco-tourism and uncontrolled mining, it added.
The group also pointed to the extent to which decisions with far-reaching consequences for the future of Guyana can be kept from the public, saying it is chilling. It charged that the lack of transparency over the Muri deal appears to be a matter of policy rather than an isolated example when viewed alongside the difficulty experienced by the parliamentary opposition in securing details of the Marriott venture, the extension of the international airport and the broadband cable from Brazil.
“The overall conclusion to be drawn is that government is not to be trusted to act in the public interest with respect to protecting the national patrimony,” it further said, saying that the administration can no longer be expected to place the national interest before private interests and other forms of protection must be sought.
It is against this background that the group argued that sectors of the society other than the government, such as the professional, trade union, religious, military, environmental and non-governmental agencies, together with enlightened business and mining interests—have to step up.
The GHRA acknowledged that this is not an easy matter and explained that a significant number of persons in the upper echelon of the professions, business and public service, while not directly involved in the decisions, derive sufficient benefits from this disordered situation to render them ambivalent about manifesting indignation. It also observed that inter-governmental and international agencies operating in Guyana are not immune from this tendency and need also to ensure their interactions with administration are principled rather than opportunistic.
According to the GHRA, the key question for concerned Guyanese to ponder at the start of this new year is where will the required dynamism come from to correct this state of affairs. Faced with an unaccountable government and gross conflicts of interests in the exercise of state power, it said, society has no other recourse than to fall back on its own resources. “The task of rehabilitating society does not lie primarily in new laws and new institutions, but in a population having the political will and determination to demand accountability, speak the truth freely and not be deterred by calculations about unpopularity,” it argued.
It said that the major challenge to civil society, therefore, is to demonstrate in its own spheres of influence adherence to principles of equality, fairness, accountability and integrity. On this basis, it added, fighting graft then becomes a matter of a society and social organisations demanding from the state standards it manifests in itself in its own behaviour.
The GHRA said revelation of information about how decisions had been taken with respect to rare earth exploration was itself sufficient to force the power-brokers to pause and the power of shame should not be under-estimated. It added that it is clear that such a posture is incompatible with simply co-existing alongside situations of abuse, criminality or exploitation. Nor is it acceptable to oppose the disordered features of society only to the point at which the opportunity for joining the band-wagon becomes too attractive to resist. “Rehabilitating the state must go hand-in-hand with rehabilitating civil society, which in turn, requires the energies of individuals of integrity,” it further said.