It was Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon who last week brought former president, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo, into the frame in relation to the granting of a controversial permission for a minerals survey in the New River Triangle that would in due course lead to mining. In response to questions from the media following his post-cabinet press briefing about whether there had been a change in government policy, he said that he was uncertain whether there had ever been an explicit policy on mining or other activities in the area.
However, he subsequently went on to say: “I think it was the 2006 term… former President Jagdeo did indeed discuss the issue of mining and exploring in the New River Triangle… At that time the President had a strong position that was not consistent with others in the cabinet, but we are an advisory body… and therefore [it] was the President’s view which held sway. That was 2006 to 2011.”
The Cabinet Secretary declined to be drawn further on the subject, although it is interesting that he indicated that “others” in the cabinet were opposed to then President Jagdeo’s view ‒ the formulation of his words seeming to imply that they represented the majority, although this did not, it appears, prevent the head of state from overriding them.
Was the present President among those who were not in favour of mining in the Triangle, or did he support Mr Jagdeo? Given what has happened, and the fact that a Permission for Geological and Geographical Survey (PGGS) was not issued to Muri Brasil Ventures Inc until November 2012, one is tempted to the view that the current head of state has been operating in tandem with his predecessor.
However, one might have thought that considering the life of the last administration was extinguished by the 2011 election, and no permission had been granted to any company at that stage, and given that the composition of the present cabinet is not so very different from that of its precursor, the matter would have been raised again by President Ramotar to see if the positions of the ministers had changed, and whether the earlier decision should not be reviewed.
The area is highly sensitive one, ecologically speaking, and also carries security implications, so if the matter was not raised with the present cabinet, why not? Then there is Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Persaud who was a great deal less than candid with both the parliamentary Natural Resources Sectoral Committee and with the Guyana Human Rights Association, so did he give any reminder to President Ramotar and/or his colleagues about the decision in principle taken by the previous administration, or did he proceed without reference to them? If the President, at least, was not aware of the Muri Brasil permission, then he has serious problems within his government.
Now it is true that in a letter to this newspaper on Friday Major General (rtd) Joseph Singh wrote that “then President Jagdeo had vetoed any natural resources extractive activities in that area. His decision, I am informed, was based on the fact that given the exploitation of natural resources in the rest of Guyana, the New River Triangle is the only area where the integrity of ecosystems and biodiversity could be preserved and bequeathed to future generations.”
The Major General, of course, gives no indication of which presidential term of office he is referring to, but considering that he retired as Chief-of-Staff of the GDF in the year 2000, what he has said could conceivably apply to the earliest period of Mr Jagdeo’s presidency when he was active in the army and had direct knowledge of such matters, rather than the 2006-11 term which Dr Luncheon mentioned, when he did not. However, as things stand, it cannot be established whether what Dr Luncheon told reporters can be reconciled with what the Major General had to say; if the two statements are both true, but for different periods, then the conclusion would have to be that Mr Jagdeo changed his mind at some point, and he would need to give some explanation for why he did so. Otherwise, there is a contradiction which would need explication, and depending on what emerges, Minister Persaud and others might have even more questions to answer.
It might be added that the public has always believed that the New River Triangle is sacrosanct in the environmental sense, for the precise reasons which Major General (rtd) Singh outlined, and has always believed that this was official government policy, Dr Luncheon’s statement notwithstanding. So if indeed, former President Jagdeo decided to abandon that position then he had a duty to inform the citizenry of this and offer some kind of argument for so doing. In fact, given the importance of this portion of the nation’s patrimony, the issue should have been the subject of public debate. But both then (assuming Mr Jagdeo changed his mind) and now, the whole exercise has been conducted in the most opaque of ways.
The officials in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment have been at some pains to emphasise that Muri Brasil is in fact a Guyanese company. It is certainly registered in Guyana, but it does not carry a Guyanese name – which may or may not be of significance – and one of its two named owners is a Brazilian, Yucatan Reis. Which brings us to an interesting connection. Mr Reis, according to APNU’s Mr Joseph Harmon, stood on the PPP platform in Lethem alongside Governor of Brazil’s Roraima state, Mr José de Anchieta Júnior during the 2011 election campaign. According to a report he interpreted for the Governor.
Apart from the fact that Messrs de Anchieta and Reis had no business being on the platform in the first place for obvious reasons which hardly need elaboration, the first-mentioned was also very improper in his final remarks, and the whole episode naturally caused a furore in this country. The implication was that Roraima (or perhaps Brazil) would help the Rupununi if Region Nine voters put their ‘X’ next to the cup.
Standing on the platform with them on November 6, 2011, were Messrs Jagdeo, Ramotar and Robert Persaud. Coincidences of this kind inevitably give rise to suspicions, justified or otherwise, and people will want to know if Mr Jagdeo had a change of heart (if he did) before or after the 2011 campaign in the Rupununi. It might be noted en passant that according to Gina, in June of this year President Ramotar met Governor de Anchieta in the company of the Brazilian Ambassador on infrastructure projects, including the Georgetown-Lethem road, the deep-water harbour and hydroelectricity.
As it is, Governor de Anchieta does not have an unblemished record and according to the Brazilian media and the Associated Press, was stripped of office twice by the Regional Electoral Court of Roraima, decisions which appear later to have been overturned. The matter on the second occasion was reported to have involved the illegal distribution of 45,000 t-shirts to voters during his electoral campaign in October 2010; the payment of his campaign staff with cash, which is not permitted under Brazilian law; and financial transactions including money deposited in a private transport company.
In a letter to the Stabroek News which was published on Thursday, President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr Clinton Urling, naïvely assumed that where security issues and the New River Triangle are concerned we are talking only about Suriname; we are not. It was Mr Joseph Harmon who got it right when he spoke to this newspaper the week before last: “What you have done is extend the borders of Brazil,” he said.
No one knows – least of all the Ministry of Natural Resources – how many illegal Brazilians are working in our interior, or how many supposed Guyanese mining operations are cover for Brazilian ones, or how much of our gold ends up unrecorded in Brazil. In this case, however, the base of the New River Triangle forms part of our border with Brazil, and once the area is opened up at whatever level, there will be no control that this country can exercise over illegal Brazilian miners entering. It is worth recalling that some years ago (before the late Hugo Chávez acceded to office) a small army of Brazilian miners flooded Venezuelan Yamomami territory which is contiguous to Brazil, and which is protected.
Given the numbers, the Venezuelans could not dislodge them and requested Brazilian help, which was not forthcoming because Brasilia’s view was that it was Caracas’s problem not theirs. In the end, the Venezuelans had to send in the air force to bring the situation under control. What makes Minister Persaud think that we have the resources to protect our New River area in such circumstances – or indeed, by extension, southern Guyana as a whole which would become vulnerable once the Triangle was breached?
The Minister has had various individuals and bodies come forward to give him support, but with the exception of Mr Urling, they all have had some kind of mining interests. Muri Ventures, of course had its say, telling Guyanese that “unimaginable” benefits would accrue to this country from mining in the Triangle. What would flow from that would indeed be “unimaginable,” but it would not be benefits.