After several amendments made in a Special Select Committee, the National Assembly last week unanimously passed the Forests Bill 2007 which revamps decades-old legislation.
When the Bill had first been brought before the House in 2007, it had been heavily criticized and a petition calling for it to be withdrawn had been voted down by government Members of Parliament before it was sent to the Select Committee.
On Thursday, the three MPs who spoke, voiced their support for the legislation and Minister of Agriculture, Robert Persaud commended his colleagues on the committee for their work. Calling the existing legislation outdated, Persaud said the Bill sought to replace that legislation, noting that it had been in its current form for 54 years. He said that the Bill is a product of ten years of consultation with various stakeholders and on the select committee itself, for about one year. The agriculture minister said that apart from local stakeholders there were also interactions with international agencies.
He asserted that the bill also looks at, and takes into account the important contribution and the role that Guyana’s forest resources can play in climate change mitigation and the provision of environmental services. It also looks at updating legislation in the framework under which those forests are managed to take into account certain international developments and to ensure compliance and the country adapt to those international realities, he stated.
The minister, who was the chairman of the committee, said that it met on 15 occasions and received four written submissions. He stated that there were also discussions with the Forest Products Association (FPA) and declared that every recommendation was studied and analysed and following deliberations, 44 clauses were amended.
Among these were those that addressed a number of concerns raised by the FPA and other citizens regarding the powers vested in the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) and the need to have a consultative mechanism in terms of looking at making decisions.
Other amendments included that the minister should hold consultations before giving directions in the management of the forest and a few that covered traditional and customary rights of Amerindian protected areas. One the issue of financial evaluation, the FPA had made submissions that the consultation period on the original bill may not be sufficient for the GFC to carry out the necessary evaluation and as a result the amendments “were addressed in this regard”, Persaud said. “With the amendments to the Forest Bill 2007 when passed and assented to will certainly give impetus to Guyana’s initiative being led by the President in terms of seeking incentive for avoiding deforestation,” he added.
He stated that this type of legislation will see Guyana standing taller in the community of nations that practice sound forest management practices but also have the right policies that guide those practices.
Meantime, PNCR-1G MP Lance Carberry said that his party wanted the Bill to ensure that the work of the GFC was transparent and the amendments were intended to induce transparency. He said too that they wanted to make certain that as far as is applicable, the Forest Bill took on board the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity and that the GFC pursue policies which would lead to sustainable forest practices. “We are satisfied now, Mr Speaker that the bill as amended does in fact capture those issues”, he said stating that in the circumstances, his party would have no difficulty in supporting the bill as amended.
Alliance for Change MP, Khemraj Ramjattan, in supporting the Bill lauded the consultations involved. “In this case a good precedent was set as to what consultation should be when a prime policy in relation to a very prime industry of this land had to be set out,” he said.
The report of the committee was adopted and after being read for a third time, the Bill was passed. When it had been brought before the House previously, it had been heavily criticized and Ramjattan had sought to introduce a petition calling for the bill to be withdrawn on the grounds that it contained convoluted language and should have included wording which responds to forest provision in the United Nations Framework Convention for the Conservation of Biolo-gical Diversity and the Con-vention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, the government had used its majority to prevail against the petition.
The Bill sets out the permitting regime for state forests in order to provide for the sustainable management of state forests.
Under Part Two of the Bill, a state forest authorization from the GFC is needed in order to carry out activities such as entering state forests, or taking forest produce or occupying land in state forests, unless they are exercising a right, power, duty, or privilege under any written law, or under Amerindian custom.
Part Two of the Bill also provides for five types of state forest authorisations: concessions, exploratory permits, use permits, community forest management agreements, and afforestation agreements.
Regulations will prescribe matters such as the form and content of applications, qualifications, restrictions, criteria to be considered, and conditions for each type of authorisation.
The Bill states that the commission can require a security bond to be paid upon the grant or renewal of any state forest authorisation except a community forest management agreement. Other provisions of Part Two deal with features of state forest authorizations, joint holders of a state forest authorization, compliance with occupational safety and health requirements, amendment, suspension, revocation, surrender, and transfer of a state forest authorisation, and restrictions on changes in the effective control of a holder; and removal of property brought onto land under a state forest authorisation.
Part Three, sub-headed Forest Conservation, is aimed at protecting and conserving forests. It provides for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare specially protected areas within state forests.
It also prohibits acts that could cause fires in state forests, allows the commission to declare any area of state forest, and any area of land within 1.6 kilometres of that area a fire protection area and provides for controlled burning by forest officers.
Part Four, sub-headed Forest Operations and Activities Relating to Forest Produce, regulates forest operations, other activities relating to forest produce, and quality control of value-added forest produce. It also provides for the minister to adopt legally binding codes of practice that can be amended from time to time.
This part of the Bill bans the importation and conveyance of unlawfully obtain-ed or unlawfully exported forest produce, the under-pricing of forest produce for export, the selling of timber as seasoned or graded timber, except timber graded and marked in accordance with the commission’s guidelines, and certification of forest produce as complying with any international standard for export from Guyana, except by duly accredited persons.
Amendments made at the Select Committee stage include that the (Guyana Forestry) Commission may, on application, and after consultations with relevant stakeholders, grant any person a Use Permit to enter, occupy, and use a specified area of State Forest for one or more of the following purposes… The consultations with relevant stakeholders’ aspect had not been included previously. Consultation ‘with relevant stakeholders’ requirements have also been added before the Commission grants any person an afforestation agreement.
The bill provides that no holder of a State forest authorization, except with the prior written consent of the commission, shall engage or involve itself in an act or omission that results or is likely to result in a change in the effective control of that holder or transfer or purport to transfer to any person the State forest authorization held by the holder or any legal or equitable interest in that authorization. It also states that if the holder is a body corporate, the holder shall not, except with the prior written consent of the Commission, register the transfer of any equity share or shares in the body corporate to any person or enter into any agreement, arrangement or understanding (whether or not having legal or equitable force) with any person, if this results or is likely to result in a change in the effective control of the holder. A new paragraph has been added in that the holder shall not “enter into sub-contracting and or sub-letting arrangements”.
As regards offences and penalties, where proceedings are brought summarily, the complaint in respect of the offence may be laid at any time within six months after the time when the complaint arose. Previously, that clause had given the timeframe as within two years.