Baishanlin and Minister Trotman

News that Chinese logging company Baishanlin has requested two more years before fulfilling its mirage-like commitments to begin serious value-adding is not surprising. What is most alarming however is the apparent disposition of the APNU+AFC government to allow the company to “restructure” during this elephantine gestation while still being permitted to export logs. One hopes that Minister of Governance Trotman’s intimations to the media in this regard are his personal views and not those of the government otherwise APNU+AFC would have once again fundamentally breached its pre- and post-elections commitment to transparency and good governance.

Precisely because the Chinese Government is so heavily involved in promoting the prospects of Chinese companies here, it is imperative that the APNU+AFC administration draw as neat a dividing line as possible between its bilateral undertakings with Beijing and the contractual obligations that all investors in this country including Baishanlin must observe. Minister Trotman’s discourse with the media would suggest that in relation to Baishanlin, this government has already begun to affix a cloak of secrecy around its dealings and has digressed sharply from its commitments.

Given all of the serious reservations that senior APNU and AFC spokesmen had express-ed over a number of years while in opposition about Baishanlin’s operations, two steps should have been taken immediately when this government took office:

1) Insist on the immediate tabling in Parlia-ment of all contracts between Baishanlin and the government for urgent examination by the natural resources committee of Parliament;

2) Undertake an audit of all exports by Baishanlin and all categories of payments to the State by the company.

The call for the Baishanlin contract to be conveyed to Parliament was an eminently sensible one in light of the vocal concerns over its extraction and export of logs among other intended activities such as housing and gold mining. What does its contract permit and under what circumstances? Indeed, then APNU No.2 Dr Roopnaraine, now the Minister of Education had forthrightly said in an interview with Stabroek News in May, 2013 that all agreements between the government and Baishanlin should be made public and taken to Parliament for scrutiny. Speaking about the scale of the company’s operations, Dr Roopnaraine had said “I do not understand how you could embark on such an investment without the scrutiny of the National Assembly…It is a matter of grave concern and it must be subject to scrutiny, either in the National Assembly or in the sector committee”.

Dr Roopnaraine went on to assert that it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the Baishanlin project was just another case of Chinese money being dangled in the face of the PPP/C government.

Then APNU General Secretary and now Minister of State Joseph Harmon was even more blunt in an October, 2014 interview with Stabroek News on reports that Baishanlin was building an unauthorised interior road. He charged that Baishanlin had been given a free pass by the PPP/C government to do what it wanted.

“We cannot continue to behave in a docile manner when people feel they can do what they want because they have the backing of a corrupt government”, Mr Harmon said, adding that for every agency it dealt with, it did not seem as if Baishanlin had to go through the process like everyone else.

These statements by Messrs Roopnaraine and Harmon need urgent reconciling with the present government outlook on Baishanlin. There has been silence on the company’s contract being tabled in parliament.

In light of the numerous audits embarked upon by the new government of various agencies, one would have thought that an audit of the financial dealings between Baishanlin and the Guyana Forestry Commission, the Guyana Revenue Authority and other agencies would have been highly advisable. This would have enabled clearer information on how much logs the company had exported over the years; the price assigned here to exports for later investigation of what the landed value was in Asia; its remitting of taxes, PAYE and NIS, payments to local intermediaries, fiscal concessions granted and whether they were used in the appropriate manner, its ties and shareholding in other companies, and a better picture of the profitability or non-profitability of its operations here.

Nothing of the sort has occurred. Instead, Minis-ter Trotman has embarked on a path clearly meant to assuage this investor without apparently requiring it to be transparent in all respects and ensuring that there is evidence of this in the public domain and importantly, in Parliament. There will be some public understanding of the realpolitik of relations with China and the need to assure a friendly climate for large investors like Baishanlin but this should not be at the expense of the country’s larger interests. To avoid a serious undermining of confidence in it, the government must move to have all contracts and agreements with Baishanlin tabled in Parliament and the company should be summoned, interpreters and all, to an early hearing before the parliamentary committee on natural resources. Without intruding into the company’s privacy, there should also be an immediate audit of its financial dealings with the state so that decision-makers can be better informed. This should be the standard followed for all current and future investors in these sensitive sectors. If it is indeed to be given two years to restructure its operations, one presumes this is mostly abroad, then Baishanlin should not be permitted to export any logs at all from Guyana and its continuing operations here must be closely watched.

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