(Written by Calvin Bernard, Lecturer of the University of Guyana and a director of TIGI)
Transparency requires that relevant information be made easily accessible to stakeholders in a way that it is free from deceit, easily understood and time appropriate. It is a critical prerequisite for realising accountability and is indispensible where a decision-making process requires participation. The Amaila Hydropower Project (AHP) has enormous requirement for both accountability and public participation and therefore transparency.
Despite the National Assembly passing two critical pieces of legislation allowing the AHP to move forward, the project is said to be in jeopardy. Sithe Global (SG), the major private partner on the project, had forewarned that if all the parties in the National Assembly could not agree on the project it would pull out, and it has. SG’s position was a reasonable one. With an investment of that magnitude, any company would want to be sure that a change in government would not endanger the partnership.
There are some people asking why there is opposition to the project when it can bring such great benefits to Guyana. Then there are those asking why there is support for the project when there are so many issues with the way it is currently constructed.
A more important question is how did the project arrive at the point where after more than 11 years there is major disagreement at all levels? It is TIGI’s opinion that the answer to this question would be found in the origin of the project and the level of disclosure and public participation at the time of its formulation.
Only in recent times have there been some meaningful public disclosure, appeal and advocacy on the part of the proponents of the project. These seem to have been in response to powerful opposition to the project, through commentary and inquiry by various experts, including well-respected academics.
While it could have been coincidental, the change in Government approach to the project took place after the composition of the National Assembly changed following the 2011 general elections. It is logical to deduce that the move by the proponents of the project to win the parliamentary opposition’s support was only initiated because the opposition is the majority in the National Assembly and the project would require approval at that level.
His Excellency Donald Ramotar, in an address to the nation on Friday 9 August 2013, said that since he became President he has made information available on the project and addressed queries
However, the project has a history that far predates his presidency and it is only during his tenure that such action from the President was absolutely necessary for the project to move forward.
Most Guyanese are not aware of the full history of the AHP. Most are not aware of why, where, when, how and with whom the project was conceived. Most Guyanese were not engaged on the project at its commencement. Most Guyanese are not aware of the environmental cost of the project – what fauna and flora are to be affected, what ecosystems will be lost or modified.
Most Guyanese are not aware that while work is still being done to assess the full environmental impact of the project, the Environmental Assessment Board (EAB) in Guyana had approved an earlier version since 2002. Most people do not know that for a project like this, the local regulation mandates extensive public disclosure and debate before a decision is taken by the EAB.
We have not heard anyone articulate a position that was absolutely against hydropower. Guyanese agree on the need for environmentally clean, reliable, sustainable and low cost electricity supply.
It is clear that most Guyanese will likely settle for reliable and low cost energy. As much as we agree on the need, we own that need together. Likewise, we must be able to agree on the solution and own it. The latter is, however, not possible at the moment as far as the AHP is to be the solution.
Many of those opposing AHP as the solution may be doing so primarily because they do not own it.
They do not own it because they had no stake in its conception and, greater than that, may not trust those that were involved. Among these, are persons well qualified to examine and comment on the technical and financial aspects of such a project. They are performing their role in society by examining the project down to its smallest components to be sure it is put together correctly. Therein lies the greatest cause for conflict.
University students come to appreciate the value of having their work reviewed by intelligent and experienced persons so they can improve its quality. There is a sub-culture in Guyana which is against this, and people take it personally, assuming you are against them when you comment on their work.
This has been the attitude of the proponents of the AHP even as they try to win public support for the project. Though the project is really to be under the name of the people of Guyana, Guyanese are deemed anti-hydro, anti-progress and anti-development, even anti-Guyanese, when they make less than flattering remarks or raise questions about the project. To use a Guyanese expression, we are expected to ‘buy pig in bag’.
An ideal process would have started with an assessment of our energy situation in Guyana and a projection of future energy demands considering such things as the low carbon development pathway and target, population growth and distribution and industries.
An ‘open’ national dialogue on our options to meet current and future energy demands in a sustainable, cost effective and environmentally friendly manner would follow.
There are many options, other than hydropower, for electricity supply not based on imported fossil fuels. Chief among these are solar, wind, ethanol and other bio-fuels – all of which have some potential in Guyana. Even with hydropower, there is no absolute need for damming. Run-of-the-river hydropower options are quite suited for Guyana given the terrain.
We should have been able to discuss such options before deciding on an investment like the AHP.
Considering where we are at currently, it would at least be proper to step away from the current project design to allow Guyanese to deconstruct and reconstruct it in a way that all parties could take ownership of the solution to our energy need. This would be more effective than the current blackmail approach.