Complex language inhibits oversight in forest protection programme – GHRA

The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) yesterday expressed concern about the “opaque language and complex processes” that surround Guyana’s forest protection programmes such as REDD+ saying these weaken accountability and democratic oversight.

The human rights body called on government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on key environmental issues to make greater efforts to provide the vital information citizens need in a full, accessible and timely manner. Guyana’s rivers and forests hold the key to the survival of the society but Guyanese citizens know next to nothing about how wisely or efficiently these vital sectors are being managed, the GHRA said in a statement yesterday.

It pointed to an article published in Friday’s edition of Stabroek News which reported that Guyana’s deforestation rate has jumped to 0.079% and the country stood to lose up to 45% of funds that it would have earned for 2012 under the Guyana-Norway forest protection partnership.

The article illustrates how little is known, the GHRA said, emphasising that it is not challenging the accuracy of the reports, but is very concerned that “matters so vital to our future are ring-fenced against effective democratic oversight by opaque language and complex processes.

“The revelation that mining is responsible for 93% of de-forestation in Guyana in 2012 seems astounding. While virtually everything about mining generates unease, it still comes as a shock to learn the extent to which the sector is out of control,” the GHRA said. It noted that the draft REDD+ report containing this information also points out that between 2011 and 2012 there was a 25% increase in de-forestation rates, carrying Guyana into the zone where financial penalties begin to eat into the payments Guyana can expect from Norway. Most of the devastation, the report states, is to be found alongside rivers and roads, suggesting that forest degradation is the result of small-scale mining, the body noted.

“One has to make that assumption because of the unvarnished nature of the information made available. Are we to understand that the official forestry sector only accounts for 7% of de-forestation? Can we expect more detailed information, for example, on how much the Rusal operations in Kwakwani, or the revival of manganese mining in the North-West, or the Chinese forestry concessions contribute to this alarming rate of de-forestation? Who is building the roads to remote concessions and how much do they contribute to undermining – literally – the REDD+ programme? This information is not readily available. Too few people know and even fewer of those who provide official information are trusted enough to be believed,” the statement said.

The GHRA emphasised that it is not challenging the validity of the figures or defending the “free-for-all” in the mining sector. “We are concerned about the absence of democratic oversight of these sectors. Nothing about the REDD+ programme, for example, is straightforward. A torrent of acronyms and technical terms defend them from being understood or influenced by concerned citizens. Procedures for dispersing Norwegian funds are tortuous in their complexity, presumably to counter every imaginable scam that corrupt governments might be inclined to try,” the body declared.

The statement said that the criterion of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ is rightly prioritized in the context of Amerindian communities being able to understand the implications of the REDD+ programme but questioned what happens to “the informed and democratic consent” of the rest of the society.

“By retaining control of projects in the hands of a coterie of both official and NGO technicians, the illusion is encouraged that development can be delivered by technical solutions without reference to good governance. Moreover, the inability of their audience to understand the complex language weakens accountability to citizens generally and deepens the democratic deficit,” the GHRA said.

“Doing the nation’s business as if it were virtually a private transaction has led to a form of governance without politics. The extreme illustration of this is symbolized in NICIL, a privately-registered company, with the Cabinet as its Board of Directors, investing public funds in private ventures. This distortion of governance has contributed to the current Parliament devoting an unconscionable amount of time to extracting information that should be in the public domain from a government which appears mystified at having to explain itself,” it added.

The GHRA said that those ‘in the loop’ have also unconsciously absorbed the ‘technification’ of politics.

It stated that the need for alarm was graphically demonstrated in June 2012 when the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) attempted to suspend river mining permits while it assessed the complaints with which it was “overwhelmed”.  The GGMC statement referred to a number of factors including damage to the river banks which will takes years to mitigate; widening of the river channels; complaints from communities who undertake subsistence fishing and hunting, washing and bathing and to access potable water; increased turbidity of rivers and creeks, inhibition of respiration of some species of fish resulting in their death and a reduction of freshwater fish species, the GHRA recalled.

“Despite this catalogue of devastation, GGMC was forced to withdraw its suspension within weeks by powerful interests within the industry and, ‘alarmingly’, nothing has been heard of the matter since. Now, mining as the leading cause of de-forestation, can be added to this list,” it added.

The GHRA called on all government and NGO agencies working on key environmental issues to make greater efforts to provide the vital information citizens need in a full, accessible and timely manner. “Without significant improvement on this issue, any hope of citizens regaining effective control over their future is remote. NGO environmental agencies have a particular responsibility to help re-invigorate public life by providing more independent monitoring of the sector and being willing to court any ensuing unpopularity,” the statement said.

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