Muri deal showed gov’t can’t be trusted with public interest – GHRA

The human rights body, GHRA today said the survey deal with Muri Brasil Ventures Inc (MBVI) which subsequently collapsed, is evidence that the Government of Guyana cannot be trusted with the public interest.

In a statement today, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) said that given this situation, other sections of society have to step up to protect the public interest.

Noting that powerful sectors of society have since lamented the loss of the Muri investment without discerning abuse of power, deception and conflict of interest among other things in the deal, GHRA said the departure of MBVI may only be a pause rather than a halt of the investment.

GHRA also charged that Cabinet members have personal interests in mining and this renders Cabinet vulnerable to becoming a vehicle for accumulating private wealth rather than for protecting the public interest.

GHRA also railed at the growing ascendancy of the mining sector over environmental and social concerns despite the signing by government four years ago of what had been hailed as a landmark forest conservation deal with Norway.

Muri pulled out of the deal after weeks of reporting on how its survey for rare earth metals would likely lead to mining in the New River Triangle, an area that had previously not been open to commercial prospecting and mining. Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud also came under attack for misleading the GHRA and the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament on whether any prospecting for minerals or similar activity would be carried out in the New River Triangle.

The GHRA statement follows:

Government cannot be trusted with the public interest:

lessons from the Muri Brasil Ventures

The decision by Muri Brasil Ventures (MBV) to pull out of any further geological survey in the New River Triangle and Deep South of Guyana is being characterized as a ‘disaster’ by elements of the mining sectors, as evidence of ‘a conspiracy’ by the relevant Minister, Robert Persaud, as fuelled by “misinformation, prejudice and hostility’ according to MBV and as a blow to ‘investor confidence’ by the business sector. The bottom line is that these powerful sectors of society see no abuse of power, conflict of interest, deception, reason for regret, apology, explanation or shame in this saga.

Given this powerful coalition of unrepentant interests in the continuation of the project, the decision to call a halt might more prudently be characterized as hitting the ‘pause, rather than the ‘stop’ button.  The over-all conclusion to be drawn is that government is not to be trusted to act in the public interest with respect to protecting the national patrimony. Since the Government can no longer be expected to place the national interest before private interests other forms of protection must be sought. For that reason, sectors of the society other than the Government – the professional, trade union, religious, military, environmental and non-governmental agencies, together with enlightened business and mining interests- will have to step up.

This is not an easy matter. A significant number of persons in the upper echelon of the professions, business and public service, while  not directly involved in the decisions, derive sufficient benefits from this disordered situation to render them ambivalent about manifesting indignation. Moreover, inter-governmental and international agencies operating in Guyana are not immune from this tendency and need also to ensure their interactions with Government are principled rather than opportunistic.

A number of lessons need be drawn from the MBV incident as a guide to these sectors to intervene more effectively on issues of national interest. A first lesson from the MBV incident would be that the priority assigned to environmental protection under the low carbon strategy has been abandoned. The intention to grant mining licenses in the New River Triangle without regard to long-term destructive impact on rivers and forests provides sufficient evidence of this.

The extent to which mining has displaced the environment as a priority is a sobering illustration of how unevenly the odds are matched in the battle for the environment.  Moreover, the MBV incident follows hard on the heels of the recent revelation of Government willingness to sacrifice State revenue from the Norwegian low carbon agreement in order to protect the private gain by miners involved in  excessive de-forestation.  Less than three years ago, the Norwegian agreement, crafted by the same Government, was hailed as a break-through of global significance.

The combination of mining and environment in the same Ministry ensures subordination of the latter to the former in the event of a conflict of priorities. The conflict at bottom is between private accumulation and the public interest. A situation in  which cabinet members have personal interests in mining, renders cabinet vulnerable to becoming a vehicle for aggrandizing private wealth rather than for protecting public interest. Contamination of official decision-making processes by personal interests is reinforced by the revelations of the involvement of directors of BVM with the ruling party’s election campaign in 2011. Other policy conflicts arise between the promotion of eco-tourism and uncontrolled mining.

The obsession with accumulation is disguised by over-stating the contribution of mining to the national economy, focusing solely on the foreign exchange value of gold production. Nothing is reported of the social cost (disorder, crime and exploitation of women in indigenous communities and mining settlements), the environmental costs (pollution of fresh water resources, bio-diversity and ancient forests) and the real economic costs (disguised by duty-free concessions, tax concessions and subsidies).

The myth of mining as a driver of development relies on another myth, namely that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) controls mining in Guyana. The grim reality is that the GGMC exercises nominal control over the numbers involved in mining, the amount of gold produced, declared, smuggled out of the country or disposed of illegally.

The extent to which decisions with far-reaching consequences for the future of Guyana can be kept from the public is chilling. The lack of transparency over the MBV issue appears to be a matter of policy rather than an isolated example, when viewed alongside the difficulty experienced by the Parliamentary opposition in securing details of the Marriott venture, the extension of the international airport and the broadband cable from Brazil.

The key question for concerned Guyanese to ponder at the start of this new year is where will the required dynamism come from to correct this state of affairs.

Faced with an unaccountable government and gross conflicts of interests in the exercise of State power, society has no other recourse than to fall back on its own resources. The task of rehabilitating society does not lie primarily in new laws and new institutions, but in a population having the political will and determination to demand accountability, speak the truth freely and not be deterred by calculations about unpopularity.

The major challenge to civil society, therefore, is to demonstrate in its own spheres of influence adherence to principles of equality, fairness, accountability and integrity. On this basis, fighting graft then becomes a matter of a society and social organizations demanding from the State standards it manifests in itself in its own behaviour.

Revelation of information about how decisions had been taken with respect to ‘rare earth’ exploration was itself sufficient to force the power-brokers to ‘pause’. The power of shame should not be under-estimated.

It is clear that such a posture is incompatible with simply co-existing alongside situations of abuse, criminality or exploitation. Nor is it acceptable to oppose the disordered features of society only to the point at which the opportunity for joining the band-wagon becomes too attractive to resist.  Rehabilitating the State must go hand-in-hand with rehabilitating civil society, which in turn, requires the energies of individuals of integrity.



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