In many ways the outcry over BK International’s despoliation of the Barakara Falls parallels the furore generated over miners cutting down trees, now that Guyana has entered into a forestry protection deal with the Kingdom of Norway. Wherever there are competing interests which are incompatible there will be friction and the need for equanimity in how resources are divvied up and harnessed.
And this is the essential point in the proverbial David and Goliath contest where small tour operators like Wonderland have been ranged against the construction behemoth BK International. The subtext here is that BK International is one of the government’s favoured contracting firms having won billions of dollars in contracts since 1992 ranging from sea defences to a host of other areas. It can apparently do no wrong. One of its famous missteps was its allegedly poor work on the vital East Demerara Water Conservancy during the elevation of a portion of the dam. A serious breach in the dam occurred and after much public annoyance it was slapped with a lawsuit by the government. How that particular bit of litigation played out is unclear as the government has not been forthcoming. The lawsuit was quite clearly intended as damage control rather than a serious attempt to hold the company accountable. BK is now a big player in the quarrying business and is well positioned to play an even larger role in the government’s development drive. Under these circumstances, and given the manner in which this government operates, it is unlikely that Wonderland or any other interest will be able to have its voice properly heard as has been evident from recent events.
But it must be heard along with the voices of the increasing proportion of the meek in this country – those afraid to incur the wrath of the government for fear of retribution. The proprietor of Wonderland Tours, Ms Alisha Ousman, must therefore be commended for her willingness to speak out in a forthright manner about her livelihood being threatened.
Considering that the falls have been a tourist attraction for at least 13 years and a spot favoured by some for weddings, it is completely unjustified for BK International to simply move in and ruin the approach to it prior to the interests of the tour operators being considered. Wonderland Tours embodies the pioneering spirit that is a rarity in the business sector here. Unlike a host of the noveau riche who have traded on government favours and corruption for a leg up, Wonderland had a humble start under a staircase in the Tower Hotel, and its late founder Mr Richard Ousman did it the old fashioned way in a very hostile and unforgiving climate introducing such innovations as walking tours of Georgetown.
Surely the Ministry of Tourism will now acknowledge that an integral segment of stakeholders in the industry has been wronged by the damage caused by BK and will immediately intercede on their behalf. Surely the manner in which PM Hinds recently condemned the depredations of miners will have similar resonance in relation to the activities of BK.
It is yet unclear exactly what regulatory mechanisms preceded BK’s march on the falls. During a tour of the site hurriedly organised after this newspaper exposed the damage, the Head of BK, Mr Brian Tiwari, said it was now necessary to expand its quarrying in the national interest and that the relevant authorities, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were aware of its activities.
However, not surprisingly the authorities knew nothing of the damage to the falls when this newspaper broached it. The Region Seven Chairman, Mr Holbert Knights, the Lands and Surveys Department in Bartica and the GGMC all professed to know nothing about the damage. The EPA which has consistently failed to assert its considerable powers in areas like this is yet to be heard from.
While the GGMC said that BK has a quarry licence for operations in the Mazaruni River area it isn‘t clear as yet whether this encompassed sensitive sites such as the falls. It shouldn’t. Man-made or not, the falls is a tourist attraction and worth preserving. BK rubbed salt into the wound by suggesting during the tour that the company would re-create a similar site at another point which would be offered as an exclusive tourist getaway – most likely to the detriment of small companies like Wonderland.
What needs to be declared now by the regulatory bodies is:
– whether BK is entitled to be quarrying in this area and if so what thinking went into this decision;
– whether given this historic use of the site by tour operators they were considered and given an adequate opportunity to contest the decision;
-whether as required under the Act the EPA instituted the requirement for an environmental impact study and what weight was given to the likelihood that the Barakara Falls would be ruined;
-What remediation commitments were given by BK for the area.
This is supposed to be a rules-based society and the above-mentioned questions will help to reveal whether this is indeed the case.
President Jagdeo’s new-found sobriquet ‘Champion of the Environment’ will not be helped by the fact that this man-made fall that has enriched the surroundings is now being blown to smithereens in the name of the dollar. Neither will the incessant pontifications by the Minister of Tourism about the intent to promote tourism as a significant pillar of the economy. But then this is a government that is not known for its consistency or overarching vision.
Until more is known about the circumstances and conditions of BK’s presence in the area any work which could further damage the falls should cease immediately and the government must acquiesce to urgent discussions on the matter with the tourism stakeholders.