Gov’t has ‘substantially failed’ to implement forest saving agreement with Norway, say civil society members

-claim rejected by Office of Climate Change

As Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim heads to Guyana this week, several members of civil society have charged that the government here has “substantially failed” to implement the forest saving agreement with the Scandinavian state, an assertion rejected by the Office of Climate Change (OCC).

Solheim arrives here on Tuesday and new terms for the forest protection pact between the two countries are expected to be agreed. Clauses were included in the original Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the agreement to be reviewed in light of new knowledge about deforestation rates here. Guyana and Norway in November 2009 inked an MOU that saw Oslo paying US$30 million ($6.2 billion) last year and potentially up to US$250 million ($51.7 billion) by 2015 for Guyana to preserve its forests.

Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim

Under the partnership, Guyana will accelerate its efforts to limit forest-based greenhouse gas emissions and protect its rainforest as an asset for the world. Norway will provide financial support to Guyana at a level based on this country’s success in limiting emissions. This will enable Guyana to start implementing its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS).

Since the signing of the agreement, a report showed that in the first year of the pact, deforestation tripled but was still well under the 0.45% interim reference level.

In an open letter to Solheim last week, the group of civil society members and two parliamentarians, including AFC Presidential Candi-date, Khemraj Ramjattan, after outlining eight “key problems” with the operation of the MOU, said that they believe that there is “no present justification for the release of the Norwegian funds already in the GRIF, nor for transfer of a second tranche for 2010-11.” The GRIF (Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund) is a fund overseen by the World Bank through which Norway disburses the money under the agreement.

“The Government of Guyana has substantially failed to implement the MoU, either in spirit or in practice,” the letter said, adding however that it has not completely failed. “Norway needs to have a more realistic appreciation of the real progress which has been made, even though small, and build on that,” the letter said.

The signatories said that Norway should support civil society “to reduce the disabling secrecy and corruption which this relatively huge amount of money inevitably attracts, insist on and support a transparent and participative revision of the enablers, including independent advisers and civil society, in a process not dominated by the President or government agencies, insist that all material which is not commercially confidential but which is relevant to the operation of this MoU should be in the public domain with minimal redaction and no tampering and open the GRIF steering committee to representatives of the supposedly beneficiary populations.”

However, the OCC says that the letter offers nothing new and nothing constructive and does not deserve to be taken seriously. It described the signatories as “a group of persons well known for their anti-government and destructive politics.” According to the OCC, the letter is short on facts, long on political rhetoric and reveals a fundamental ignorance of the REDD+ model and its mechanisms.

“The letter is clearly written with the express intention of undermining the joint commitments of the governments of Guyana and Norway to an international effort to combat climate change through the funding of a low carbon development strategy for Guyana,” the statement said. According to the OCC, the letter attempts to question the qualifications of the “Inter-national Development Bank” and the United Nations Deve-lopment Programme (UNDP) to serve as partner entities for the supervision of the implementation of the projects already funded.

It added that the letter “sets out to denigrate even the credibility of the international consultants such as the Rainforest Alliance responsible for evaluating the progress of the REDD Governance Plan and LCDS  and the New Zealand based Poyry Forest Industry responsible for monitoring and verification of deforestation.”

In the letter dated March 24, eight points were raised relating to delays in the preparation of projects, the apparent increase in deforestation, the need for strong and consistent safeguards, weak participatory process, confusing announcement with regard to indigenous land demarcation, risks of the Amaila Falls Hydro Project, inadequate independent verification report and restricted access to information. The signatories noted that they include members of civil society with diverse backgrounds and two Members of Parliament “who have followed developments in Guyana closely since signature of the agreement, and who are particularly familiar with some of the detailed local issues which are raised.”

In relation to the delays in the preparation of projects, it was noted that Norway transferred US$30M to the GRIF before Guyana had developed any LCDS -related proposals and before any attempt at independent verification of the claims from Guyana about progress in reducing forest carbon emissions. They pointed out that months later, and in spite of criticism of donors by President Bharrat Jagdeo, there is still only a single (draft) proposal on the table for titling and demarcation of Amerindian lands forwarded by the UNDP “apparently without quality control and without significant participation by indigenous Amerin-dians themselves.”

“We believe that transferring the original US$30 million in advance of verified progress on the agreement with Norway sent quite the wrong signals to a country with daily allegations in the independent Press of corruption and malfeasance in government procurement and other expenditure,” the letter said.

Further, it said, deforestation appears to have increased, not decreased. It noted that Guyana has made no explicit commitment to reducing or even stabilizing its emissions of forest carbon but on the contrary, all construction schemes announced involve extra emissions. It pointed out that production and export of timber increased sharply in 2010 and the relative rate of deforestation in 2009-2010 appears to have increased three-fold, not decreased in comparison with the reference period.

The letter also stressed the need for strong and consistent safeguards. It noted Guyana’s preference for working with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) rather than the World Bank. “We suggest that Norway should be concerned by the switch to the IDB, which has provided much of the credit for a large recent increase in the country’s external debt, in spite of providing for a large HIPC-related cancellation of prior debt in 2007,” the letter said.

The signatories also cited the “weak participatory process” saying that the LCDS “has been an almost entirely in-house compilation.” According to the letter, the LCDS projects, apart from Amaila Falls, have no specific link to a low-carbon economy, nor have there been any conventional moves to reduce carbon emissions in the non-forested coastland where most of the economy is concentrated.

It was also pointed out that the MoU calls for the LCDS Multi-Stakeholder Steering Committee (MSSC) ‘to ensure systematic and transparent multi-stakeholder consultations… to enable the participation of all affected and interested stakeholders…’ However, the MSSC is dominated by the President, and is in no sense a forum for strategic debate about developmental options and determination of priorities, the letter said. It said that an example of the lack of effective consultation and coordination is the two LCDS projects to install solar panels for low-wattage household electricity and to distribute a netbook/laptop to each family (OLPF).

“The MSSC did not apparently consider that the IDB is already funding a solar panel project. And the Press is carrying many articles about the chaotic decision-making in the President’s Office about the OLPF. Although the Head of the Presidential Secretariat has claimed (11 March) that there is a proposal submitted to the GRIF for the solar panels, such a document has not been posted to the LCDS/GRIF website. Nor has the Amaila Falls proposal been posted,” the letter said.

In relation to indigenous land demarcation, the letter said that many confused and confusing announcements have been made by the government about land allocation to Amerindians. It noted that the titling of indigenous lands in Guyana is to be aided through the first draft project to be presented to GRIF by UNDP Guyana and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs but there are serious concerns about the proposal because it does not address the basic problems. It said that the proposal is based on the Amerindian Act 2006, which is incompatible with both the National Constitution and international standards, including instruments to which Norway is party. Absence of progress towards a national integrated land use planning policy and procedures, field tested in 1997 and then abandoned, also complicates a sustainable solution to Amerindian land claims, it said.

The letter also cited the “risks” of the Amaila Falls Hydro Project. It said that on Wednesday, Erik Helland-Hansen, head of the Advisory Expert Panel appointed by the IDB to assess the project’s environmental and social assessment, reportedly called into question the ‘whole strategic concept’ of the project. The letter said that the access road construction is less than 25% complete, whereas some 65% should have been completed, according to the original schedule.

It said that there is a large question mark over when, or indeed if, the dam will be fully funded and constructed, and if any Norway-provided equity in the dam would be effectively applied. According to the signatories, there appears to be no ‘Plan B’ for using Norwegian 2009-10 money already in the GRIF, but remaining unspent, let alone any plan for alternative use of any additional funds for 2010-11. “We therefore submit that the risk of misuse of these funds is unacceptably high. Under these circumstances, there appears to be little justification for transferring any funding for 2010-11, when the government’s primary intention for use of those funds (the purchase of government equity in the Amaila Falls dam) seems highly unlikely to become a reality in the near future,” it said.

The letter also cited the “inadequate Independent Verification Report” and said that the report by the Rainforest Alliance failed the key objective of the verification exercise.”We believe that the Rainforest Alliance report represents an inaccurate and overly optimistic reflection of the progress of the Government of Guyana in complying with the terms of the MoU,” it said.

Further, the letter also pointed to the restricted access to government information. “Although this secrecy is entirely in accordance with the Government of Guyana approach to information disclosure – it has stubbornly refused to pass Freedom of Information legislation – it is not compatible with the MoU. In a country with an Executive President, it is absolutely the responsibility of that President to give effect to the independent monitoring which is mentioned in the LCDS several times, and thus to allow independent access to all relevant information,” the letter said.

Among its signatories were Guyana Action Party MP, Everall Franklin, activists Janette Bulkan, Christopher Ram and other members of civil society including Diana Abraham, Malcolm Alli, Seelochan Beharry, Alissa Trotz and 14 others.

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