The nearly two dozen persons held for alleged illegal mining in the Kaieteur National Park (KNP) were yesterday afternoon released from custody and although they maintained their innocence, they were served with summons to attend court in July to answer charges that they acted in contravention of the Protected Areas Act.
Those detained were: Calixtus Francis, Kenvil Cyril, Donald Andrew, Aladin Sebastian, Garlon Andrew, Clifford Andrew, Leroy Fraser, Collin Francisco, Phillip Andrew, Rudolph Bobb-Semple, Franklin George, Carlton Lewis, Jason Baptiste, Cecil Baptiste, Bryan Mason, Tomson Edwards, Sabrina Dos Santos, Mark Andrew, Carrol Williams and Clive Edwards.
They were all served with summons by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) for court hearings on July 18, 2017 at the Mahdia Magistrate’s Court on the charge that they broke the law by mining in the KNP, which is a protected area.
Their arrests came after President David Granger gave the order for a raid of the KNP after reconnaissance by the Protected Areas Commission (PAC) and the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) uncovered over a dozen illegal mining camps. The Ministry of the Presidency later said in a statement that as a result of the discovery, members of the joint services as well as personnel from the GGMC launched the operation.
However, during a press briefing yesterday afternoon, the former detainees said they were wrongfully arrested and they argued that the issue stemmed from the absence of a clear cut boundary to show the separation of the KNP and other lands.
“The KNP is a vast area and there is no visible boundaries to say alright you are in Kaieteur National Park or out. We use the indigenous Peoples’ trail through the park if we want to go fishing or hunting grounds but on Saturday many of us from Chenapau were turned back. I am all the way back and they told me that they were given a presidential order to get everybody out of the park. We were not working, we were making our way to our location where I have my claims and my other camp ground,” said Cecil Baptiste.
Baptiste said he had in his company his son and three other men, who were all detained by members of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) and subsequently flown to the city.
“I have been mining around the area since 1978…I have my wife and my home in Chenapau to maintain but look, here I am in the city without a cent and I don’t even know how I am getting home back,” the man shared.
Francis estimated that he was at least one hour away from the sign board prospecting when he was approached and subsequently taken into custody by the officials. “I had not too long ago located the place and was awaiting the warden to verify the place; they were heading out of the area when they met the officials,” he said, before explaining that he had in his company two others, including his son, when they were arrested.
Though Francis said they were not harassed, he said that many were traumatised as a result of the presence of the heavily-armed soldiers, who kept guard over them through the operation on Saturday. “Any move yuh mek, there was a big gun following us,” he added.
Bobb-Semple, also a miner, said that he was apprehended while passing through the area on his way home. “I have been mining in the area since 1998 and when the soldiers caught us, we were 45 minutes away from Kaieteur Landing because he said that how they received orders from the government to round up everybody who working inside of the National Park. The morning they catch we and we spent the whole day there; they were still guarding us at night, next morning we went straight to Kaieteur and the arrival centre, where our particulars were taken before we were flown to the city and taken to the CID Head-quarters,” Bobb-Semple shared.
“The only thing they do was take down we name and suh and ask we if we know we working in the Kaieteur National Park. But you see if the KNP could put a clear cut line or something to show that this is KNP—because the persons wah really carry me in there to work has 13 claims wah they paying for from GGMC. But now if the claims aren’t valid, why GGMC collecting the money for the claim? That is not right. Now we got summons for working in KNP and I don’t think that’s right…They didn’t catch us in the backdam working or anything,” he added.
Similarly, Clifford Andrew said he was in the process of transporting food and fuel to his camp, which is located out of the KNP, when he was approached and told that he was going to be taken into custody on the premise of participating in mining activities within the KNP.
Asked about the provision of transportation for the return of the residents to their village, Amerindian People’s Association (APA) member Laura George said they have received information that the PAC has taken responsibility for that. However, up to press time last night, they had not received any word on when the residents will be able to return home.
As it relates to accommodation, most of them will be given boarding at the Amerindian Hostel on Princes Street, while others will be staying with relatives in the city.
Meanwhile, George called out the PAC on what she said was its failure to keep their promise of looking into the welfare of those detained. “I was quite surprised to see the Protected Areas Commission being quoted in sections of the media saying they are committed to making sure the detainees were comfortable where they are and all of that. These guys hadn’t had a bath since Saturday; the meals they were getting were give once a day and came from relatives and friends; we really tried to see how we could help them with a change of clothes and all of that,” she added.
George also called on the GGMC as well as the Ministry of Natural Resources to properly investigate the matter, since she found it strange that persons who were working on lands belonging to claim holders were arrested. “For the Ministry to come out and say very strongly that these men were working in the KNP, then something must be wrong at GGMC and GGMC has to get that right but don’t put our people to pay for their mistakes. They were out of the KNP on Claims that were issued to them by GGMC; somebody is not doing right at GGMC and they need to make right instead of making others pay for their inefficiencies or corrupted practices,” she added.
George also called in to question the ministry’s claims that excavators, dredges and water pumps were seized, since residents remain adamant that such equipment could not be transported to the area due to the terrain. “The question we are asking is where exactly were these confiscated from…? The people are saying that there were no excavators and there was no way for excavators to get down there because of the terrain,” she said.
Meanwhile, a delegation of residents, including the Toshao of Chenapau and several claim holders arrived in the city last evening with the hope of meeting Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman and President Granger to “straighten out the issue.”
Toshao Edward McGarrell, who spoke to Stabroek News from the APA’s residence, said that the residents were frustrated with the situation, especially since they were still recovering from the recent floods that devastated their communities.
“We just came out of a natural disaster, which was in this case the flooding and into a manmade disaster and that shook the entire community. Everybody in the community and even at Kaieteur know that we respect where the board is as the park boundary and we know we should not mine in the park but there are some people who are mining out like two to three hours away from the sign board and even people who were just passing through the park that were arrested… We condemn the operations and whatever it takes, we will clear our names,” he added.
Charles Layers, one of the claim holders, said he came prepared with his documents to show that he was not conducting any illegal mining operation. “I have documents from GGMC concerning my claims and I was not doing no illegal mining ’cause as you can see here, I was paying for my claims; I have 13 right now and have been mining in that area since last year but even with this, my two watchmen were detained,” he added.
Sylvester Joseph, former Toshao of Chenapau Village, said the detention of the residents was a clear violation of their rights.
“I would like the President to know that if he is being misled by his advisors, we are here to correct that. We are here to let him know that we know the area and we know where we are at the moment and we respect the park. But again, at the same time, we decide now that the extension of the park is what is causing the problem because it was done without our consultation and our consent,” the former Toshao related.
In addition, he reiterated the claim that there is no visible boundary to indicate where the park ends.
“On the other hand, GGMC say that they are going to verify the place but up to this day, no officer has gone into the area so how can they now penalise us? We want the promise he has given us—a good life or a better life for us all. If a good life means having our residents with guns to their heads, then that I think you are casting enemies for yourself,” he further noted.
“Our residents are hurt right now. Even now, the soldiers are operating and some of our residents are hiding in the bush because they are afraid and we do not know if they have food to eat or what and we are worried,” Nick Carter, another resident said.