With high unemployment – particularly in the non-coastal areas of Guyana being one of the national challenges which we have been unable to sufficiently roll back, news of the planned commencement of operations of Guyana Manganese In. (GMI) at Matthews Ridge is particularly good news for the country. Guyana has a long history of manganese mining so that the US$100 million investment by the subsidiary of Bosai Minerals (Guyana) Inc. lends a measure of continuity to a long established mining tradition.
From a Guyana perspective what is most significant about the project is that it opens up the prospect of long-term employment for 500 people, which numbers, in the context of a modest-sized community are not insignificant. Employment apart, working in the manganese sector is bound to consolidate the skills base of the community in addition to which one hopes that our Chinese investors will apply a generous measure of corporate social responsibility to its overall operations so that Matthews Ridge, as a whole, will benefit from the presence of GMI way beyond the employment that it is providing and whatever other returns are accruing to Guyana.
As an aside and whilst one appreciates the keenness of the Government of Guyana to attract foreign investment, that ought not to deter us, at some stage in the negotiating process, to lay down some minimum level of expectation that speaks to the quality of the relationship between investor and host community that goes beyond the agreed business arrangement.
How to effectively link the exploitation of our minerals to the broader development of hinterland communities is not an issue on which, customarily, there is usually any intense public discussion. Here we are, it seems, inclined to overlook the fact that the wasting nature of our natural resources makes it imperative that we ensure that investment in manganese, gold or any other form of mining takes account of the need to leave a positive developmental footprint, whether it be in education, health services, employment, environmental conversation or any other sector which, in the final analysis leaves a permanent, positive mark on the affected communities. In this context it is apposite to note that while billions of dollars in gold and diamonds are removed from hinterland areas each year, there is little if any conversation about an arrangement that binds the investors to a payback in terms of some significant and game-changing developmental investment geared, for example, at providing employment for the affected communities that goes beyond the extractive industries themselves.
Conceivably, the payback could be extended in the realm of the environment, by far the greatest area of concern in the relationship between the mining sector – whether it be in gold, diamonds, bauxite, manganese or any other mineral – and the hinterland host communities. One might add, worryingly, that the available evidence does not suggest that the authorities are even close to being on top of the environmental issues in the mining sector.
It is of course for the Ministers of Natural Resources and Social Protection (Labour) to make public the expectations of government insofar as mindfulness of both environmental considerations and respect for workers’ rights are concerned. Contextually, it is apposite to note that Guyana’s current experience insofar as investor concern (particularly in the mining sector) with both the environment and workers’ rights, leaves a great deal to be desired. So that while one is not unmindful of the employment-related benefits of foreign investment, government has a duty to lay down the law in matters pertaining to the environment and workers’ rights. Here it has to be said that when account is taken of the entrenched excesses of the majority Russian-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) in the realms of both environmental considerations and workers’ rights, the Government of Guyana has a duty to ensure that history does not repeat itself in this instance.
If the recent reports in the media are anything to go by, the Chinese investors are providing undertakings that have to do with the environment including the creation of ten waste dumps, a tailings pond, and a processing water reservoir. Promises also include the planned creation of a workers’ camp.
Without wishing to appear to be not taking the Chinese company at its word we believe that it is desirable that a monitoring mechanism that includes verifiable time frames for the creation of these facilities be established. In the matter of the workers’ camp we believe that it is important that both the Ministry of Natural Resources as well as the Ministry of Social Protection play a hands-on role in ensuring that the investor is apprised of the minimum standards which Guyana expects of a facility of this kind. One might add that such understandings, insofar as environmental guarantees and workers’ rights and conditions of service are reached, must be placed in the public domain. They must, incidentally, and ought to be attended by clauses that speak to the right to verifiably monitor their effective implementation or otherwise at reasonable intervals.
All of this is not intended to afford the new investor anything less than a cordial welcome. As it happens, however, previous experiences ought surely to serve as sobering lessons particularly in circumstances where, we are told, whatever the ground rules laid down for the new investor’s operations here, Guyana and more particularly the community of Matthews Ridge will have to live with those for at least three decades.