Hitting back at Barama’s announcement that workers would have to be laid off as a result of heavy fines by the forestry commission, the government yesterday said it would not be blackmailed and it added that interim arrangements can be made to ensure the company’s plywood factory is supplied with raw material.

In an increasingly acrimonious stand-off with the largest Asian logging company here, the government also accused Barama Company Limited (BCL) of underutilizing its concession while tapping logs in other concessions.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday in the wake of the contretemps over $96M in fines levied by the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) against Barama, Minister of Agriculture Robert Persaud said that any interim supply arrangements for the plywood factory would be predicated on the ending of sub-contractual arrangements for logs from other concessions.

“This must however, be done through a process that is based on constructive engagement rather than manipulation of issues and processes and the issuance of threats and reckless statements. This is to ensure that (Barama) is prepared to undertake sufficient extraction of Baromalli from its own concession or make other arrangements for sourcing raw materials,” the Minister said.

Persaud said too that he has communicated this position to Carvil Duncan, President of the Guyana Labour Union, which represents workers at Barama’s Land of Canaan plywood factory site. “We want to ensure that workers don’t suffer as a result of the breaches committed by the companies,” Persaud said.

Barama said in a statement on Wednesday that jobs would be threatened as a result of the fines imposed. The company also had some of its workers congregate at the Square of the Revolution yesterday morning in what was said to be a protest against the punitive actions of the GFC and the Ministry. At the gathering, Barama’s Chairman Girwar Lalaram changed his earlier position and said that the workers would not be sent home.

Extensive acreage

Persaud said that a total of 1,611,195 hectares (3,981,349 acres) had been issued to Barama and the level of utilisation of the acreage is about 20 per cent. “Based on the annual plan inventory data submitted to the GFC by BCL for 2007, I have been advised that BCL can harvest about 43,000 cubic metres of Baromalli logs that are 40 cm and above in diameter (used for plywood production) as opposed to their current extraction of only 14,585 cubic metres up to September 2007,” the Minister said.

He said that for 2006, Barama harvested a total of 12,319 cubic metres of Baromalli logs from its concession. “The above figures reflect that BCL is not making maximum use of its extensive acreage leased to it and this is an area of great concern to the GFC and my Ministry,” Persaud said.

Asked by Stabroek News whether in light of the underutilization of the concession it could be repossessed, the Minister said that the GFC has a number of options open to it.

“I have quoted these figures to emphasise the point that whilst BCL is claiming that the suspension of sub-contracts with neighbouring concessions would adversely affect raw material supply (to the mill), and lead to downsizing of its operation, yet it is under-harvesting significantly in the concession issued directly to BCL,” the Minister said.

Systematic

On Barama’s response to the issue published in yesterday’s edition, the Minister said that the investigation into the breach of procedures involving Barama and three other companies was done in a systematic, detailed and objective manner.

The Minister in his statement said that after the investigation was concluded, the GFC had discussions with the three of the companies to alert them of the findings relevant to their individual companies. “The GFC then wrote to three of the companies, clearly outlining the identified breaches, and requesting the companies to provide a response. The responses of the companies did not provide a satisfactory explanation for the breaches identified by the GFC,” Persaud said.

He said that contrary to the statement by Barama, the GFC maintains that the charges instituted were specific and based on concrete evidence “which is available for scrutiny by all stakeholders, including internationally recognised auditors, forestry consultants and other experts.” But he added that any such scrutiny must be at the financial cost of the requesting company and must include oversight by the GFC.

The Minister in his statement said that threats of protests or other unbecoming positions will not change the Government’s stance on the matter.

“Companies involved in these breaches can appeal the charges and sanctions imposed. This must however be done through a proper and acceptable process and not through the use of coercive tactics that seek to blackmail the GFC and Government to reverse its position, whilst downplaying serious breaches of the Government of Guyana guidelines for sustainable management”, Persaud added.

According to a GFC press release on Monday, investigations in September found that in July Barama transported a quantity of logs harvested from ESS 10/92, issued to Barakat Timbers Limited, to Buck Hall while the quantity of logs it declared to the GFC in July was below the harvested amount. Additionally, the findings show that Barama harvested and removed, without the GFC’s permission, a large quantity of logs from the concession 2/90 issued to Mazaharally. Also, the tags issued to Barama and Barakat were used on stumps located within the concession issued to Mazaharally.

GFC had said in its release that Barama was found to have removed a quantity of logs from WCL 05/93, issued to N. Sukul, without approval from the GFC. This, the GFC said, is evidence of unauthorized harvesting and extraction of forest produce. Plus, the GFC found that the “harvesting operations on the ground were not conducted in a manner that had serious negative environmental implications.” The GFC said these findings were made after “a detailed analysis of records was done, including a comparison of the documentation supplied to the GFC by the companies with the internal records of the companies.”

The GFC monitoring teams were also said to have been deployed to the concession areas to quantify the extent of the breaches, and to determine if there were additional breaches.

The results of the investigations, “confirmed the GFC’s initial findings that there was under declaration of forest produce harvested, as well as false declaration with respect to the origin of the logs harvested,” the GFC had stated in its release. “In addition, it was verified that Barama was harvesting in the concessions areas issued to A. Mazaharally and Sons Limited, and N. Sukul and Sons, even though the GFC has not approved any sub-contractual arrangements for these companies in 2007.”

In its response on Wednesday, Barama said that it was appealing for the GFC to allow for a fair process in determining the breaches, fines and suspension, where the company acted as contractor in third party concessions.

“Barama, in its request for a fair process, is prepared to engage internationally-recognized auditors, forestry consultants and other experts to investigate the issues, with the involvement and cooperation of GFC,” the Barama statement said.

“Furthermore, Barama is deeply concerned that the penalties will cost jobs and have a detrimental impact on Barama’s continued investment in the country” the statement said. “Such a sudden suspension means there will be workers without jobs immediately,” said Barama Chairman Lalaram. “Our preferred choice is to come to a swift resolution to save jobs as soon as possible.”

The statement said that Barama maintains that any anomalies discovered were unintentional and were the result of operational realities and practices and made the point that they were part and parcel of operating in any dynamic and geographically challenging industry.

“Over the past 15 years of operation in Guyana, Barama has used its best endeavour to operate strictly within the jurisdiction and confines of Guyanese laws and regulations. As Guyana’s largest foreign investor, it is in the company’s best interest to adhere to the GFC forestry practices to ensure the company’s long-term presence in Guyana,” the statement said.

Lalaram said that as an open and transparent company, any discrepancy discovered is easily highlighted and the proper checks and balances can rectify the situation.

The investigation and the fines come after a months-long campaign by civil society activists and members of the timber industry over various issues such as illegal subletting and the export of logs by Barama and other Asian-owned companies.

It also follows a recent announcement by President Bharrat Jagdeo to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting that Guyana has offered almost its entire rainforest in the battle against climate change.

Barama began operating here in the early 1990s co-owned by Sunkyong of South Korea and Samling of Malaysia. The Malaysian investor later bought out Sunkyong’s shares.