The Chenapau arrests

The arrests of 20 persons two weekends ago in the Region Eight village of  Chenapau and the subsequent decision not to have charges pursued against them exposes the clumsiness and disorder in the government, not dissimilar to what preceded it.

It must be understood clearly by all concerned that illegal mining in protected and environmentally sensitive areas cannot be tolerated and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Miners in this country: micro, small, medium and large-scale have gotten away with the most egregious sins against the environment highlighted by the ongoing despoliation of rivers and the 1995 collapse of the Omai Gold Mines Limited tailings dam and the leakage of its toxic effluent into the Omai River and then into the Essequibo River.

The arrests occurred while Chenapau and its neighbours were grappling with flooding from rain-swollen rivers and therefore lacked sensitivity, a situation which was not improved by the detention of a mother and her baby. After their arrests, the Chenapau residents had to be transported hundreds of miles by air to Georgetown to be interviewed and notified of charges.

Fifty-one years after independence and the constant history lessons by President Granger to citizens apparently has not moved this government to ensure that the capital isn’t seen as the arbiter for all that is good and bad. With all the talk of “capital towns”, whatever those will be, and putting the regions in charge of their business, why weren’t these residents questioned in their locale? Is there no police station closer to Chenapau than Eve Leary, Kingston? Will the police continue to punish citizens of the interior even when they may never be convicted by forcing them into Georgetown at great inconvenience? Better can surely be done. It will also undoubtedly save the cost of chartering transport to and from the interior to ferry suspects.

While the operation that led to the arrests has been described as “covert” it appeared to be more a game of hide-and-seek.  An operation some months back led to the tragic drowning of a policeman, raising the question of whether the police are properly equipped and trained for these tasks. What is just as troubling is the longstanding failure of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the law enforcement authorities to get a grip on illegal mining in this area and others.

Reports of illicit mining in the Kaieteur National Park (KNP) have been numerous over the years. It means that even with technological advances and high quality satellite imagery that the GGMC and the Protected Areas Commission (PAC) have been signally unable to establish control over this very important national park. If they can’t establish effective control over this key park one shudders to think about what is happening in other areas of the gold mining belt. The government must take comprehensive steps to ensure that full control of the KNP and other sensitive areas is established and that the GGMC is effectively discharging its duties.

As it relates to the dropping of charges, the government only succeeded in making itself appear uncertain, and in the process, it undermined the authority of the GGMC. After going to great lengths to bring the accused illegal miners to the city, interrogate them and then issue them with summons to appear in at the Mahdia Magistrate’s court, the government then turned around and said that as an act of goodwill it was no longer proceeding with the charges. It should have handled this situation more deftly. Not proceeding with the charges sets an unfortunate precedent and leaves unknown the question of the ownership of the alleged illegal dredges and the miners who are really behind the operations. Although the charges have been dropped, it behoves the GGMC to examine the co-ordinates where the alleged illegal mining operations were found and to declare whether or not they were in the KNP.

In the aftermath of the arrests, the National Toshaos Council (NTC) has raised a serious question about the Patamona not being consulted about the zone that now constitutes the KNP. It is unclear how this matter is only now being raised. There can be no gainsaying that areas such as the KNP, encompassing a national treasure like Kaieteur Falls, must be amply buffered and this is presumably what had informed the delineation of the protected area. The government should seek to clarify this matter with the NTC and there should be clear demarcation of the entire area and a boosting of enforcement  capacity.

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