Environment vs economy

Balancing the imperative of economic development against the responsibilities of environmental mindfulness will, in the period ahead, be one of the biggest challenges that Guyana will have to confront. We are, as it happens, a natural resource-rich country and the economic gains to be had from the exploitation from gold, oil and other minerals will have to be balanced against the challenges associated with accessing those resources in an environmentally responsible manner.

In his public pronouncements on the environment up until now President Granger has been working behind the barrier of a “green economy,” resisting the temptation to unnecessarily ‘talk up’ our new-found oil deposits. This notwithstanding the fact that the President must surely be aware of the prospects that oil potentially holds for the future of the country and the challenges an oil economy can pose for a sustained commitment to environmentally responsible behaviour.

There is a sense in which the Message by Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman on the occasion of World Environment Day 2017 – June 5, 2017 under the theme ‘Connecting People to Nature,’ takes pretty much the same route, alluding to policies being crafted by the ministry “to further protect Guyana’s environment” and to decisions aimed at “mainstreaming biodiversity in the gold mining industry, reducing and eventually eliminating the use of mercury in gold mining, transitioning to better technologies to ensure greater gold recovery rates and supporting land reclamation initiatives in mined out areas in addition to studies in greener forest practices.”

Then there is the establishment of the Compliance Division within the ministry which the minister says will both “support the enforcement of the regulations and laws in the natural resources sectors in mining and forestry” and “address matters of the security nature, the country’s wildlife and tremendous biodiversity.”

Frankly, we share only in a limited way the assertion by the minister that there exists “among the ethos of the people of Guyana a great appreciation for our natural environment and an understanding of the need for its protection and conservation.” The truth is that whatever the minister and his government might hope, the relentless search for gold has wreaked havoc with the environment and the available evidence does not point to any sort of radical dispositional change. There are those amongst us who really don’t give a proverbial brass button about the environment.

It is not simply a matter of the government encouraging the Guyanese people “to have a renewed sense of appreciation for our country’s rich biodiversity.” Pleadings will have to be buttressed by enforceable policies that not only compel miners to adhere to environmental regulations but also remove such impediments as exist (including what are reportedly the stubborn persistence of considerable levels of corruption with the state mining sector bureaucracy) to effective monitoring and sanctions that deter transgressors. Both Minister Trotman and President Granger will know only too well that rhetoric without verifiable action will count for nothing.

Oil, welcome as it is, has brought its own challenges. What the resource surely does, is to create a paradigm shift in the national perspective insofar as the environment is concerned. The point to be made here, of course, is that rhetoric about environmentally responsible behaviour has to be balanced against the economic realities of Guyana that could well create pressures for a diminished focus on this, so that while there is no absence of empathy with the minister’s appeal that the country as a whole “undertake a greater share of the responsibility for taking care of the environment in the conduct of our daily affairs” we doubt that he need be reminded that the portents for collective responsibility in the matter of being mindful of the environment are, to say the least, not entirely reassuring.

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