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Those Spinning Wheels and Deals in Guyana
When yo na gat Momma yo gat fo Suck Granny?

By Gary Girdhari & one other

Guyana Journal, January 2000

An article in the Stabroek News of Guyana indicated "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking submissions from the public before approving a multi million dollar complex for the Barama logging company at Buck Hall on the Essequibo River." Under ‘The Environmental Protection Act No. 11 of 1996’, an environmental impact assessment is required to ensure that any adverse effect to the ecosystem is eliminated before such projects are approved. This is the nation’s sole environmental security blanket!

In democratic societies, public oversight intuitions like the EPA are a necessity, and must function with a high degree of autonomy. They ought to establish their first principles along basic quality of life guidelines and with appropriate scientific objectivity, where relevant. As such, one expects the EPA, an agency of the government, to have readily available answers to all questions or indications wherein the solutions may lie. In instances such as with the Barama request, they would (or should) have had Baramas’s report card available. It is the reason for which they exist. Submissions from the public are an added precaution and a way of covering ground that could have been missed by EPA field workers. Additionally, it encourages citizens to have their say in the activities of their nation, a sort of built-in feedback look for the common good.

As with all things regarding government oversight, this Barama request seems to be a done deal, a fait accompli. The mandate of the EPA and similar agencies exude a distinct aroma of performing seals. There is an overwhelming sense that the Government presumes omniscience in this matter. Thus, agencies like the EPA, by their actions, behave as mere facilitators for government policies rather than as protectors of the public interest. They are co-opted to act as Public Relations spin machines with the sole purpose of lessening public scrutiny and save face for the government with presumable authoritative statements that "safeguards are in place". Because of this, Guyana has embarked on a path that will ultimately leave it in a similar state of environmental devastation as has been experienced in many nations the world over. Were agencies like the EPA autonomous bodies, and the government truly committed to sustainable development of its natural resources, experiences of this kind would have been a guide posts rather than hitching posts.

The "habit" of Deception on Environmental Questions

The pernicious quality of gross paternalism in government handling of these institutions was apparent at their founding. The EPA was formed concurrent with two other bodies with the noble purpose of oversight of Guyana’s natural bounties. This included the National Protected Area System (NPAS) and a committee to oversee the question of Indigenous land rights. During this period it was determined by donor nations that Guyana was ill-equipped to handle oversight of its natural resources. In 1995, Guyana was coerced into signing a moratorium suspending all logging for a period of three years. During this period, the EPA’s mandate was to establish guidelines, train forestry personnel in good husbandry, and be ready to guide the nation along the path to sustainability. The NPAS was to examine and report on the necessity of protecting State lands. The Amerindian Land Commission was to examine the Amerindian Act of 1976, and bring it in compliance with international standards on indigenous rights with particular attention to Amerindian land claims. With much public pronouncements Guyana appeared to have all systems in place to cover all issues relevant to the natural resources.

Guyana is pressed for hard cash and a means to generate employment for its citizens. Exploiting its natural resources is an easy way to facilitate this. However, the rush to consolidate these revenue sources seem to have replaced a commitment to the environment and Indigenous people’s rights. Immediately after signing the moratorium suspending logging, the Government began strategizing on means to get around it. To side step this moratorium, Navin Chandrapal et al engineered the concept of "exploratory leases". At that time, a concurrent campaign to inform the public about the benefits of "millions" being spent in the country was put in place. Despite the construction of permanent structures such as a "40 million dollar plywood factory", the nation was informed that these were not actual concessions, but that they were mere explorations into the forest potentials.

Additionally, the Government immediately passed legislation extending State lands above the 4th parallel by another 11.5 million acres. This opened up to logging and mining companies the pristine areas of the south along the Kanuku Mountains. Smithsonian scientists termed this area a virtual paradise of rare and exotic species with unique biodiversity.

The extents that the Guyana government goes to ensure that loggers get their way is seen in their handling of UNAMCO. This company was the holder of a 750,000 acres "exploratory lease". Despite the prohibition to active harvesting logs and the construction of access roads, this company proceeded to do just that. In November of 1997, a forest worker happened upon the infraction. UNAMCO had harvested some 15,000 logs, and had begun to construct roads despite their environmental impact statement being refused by the EPA as flawed. It was estimated that the logs felled amounted to some US6.1 million dollars. To avoid embarrassment, the government slapped them with a US$7,400 fine. Meanwhile, UNAMCO had not paid its dues for a whole year, and owed the Government some US$35,000 in fees for 1997! With much presidential pomp, the concession was opened for business in April 1998. This is a clear indication that these companies cannot be trusted, that the EPA is toothless, and that the government is willing to bend backwards to placate them.

Meanwhile NPAS, under-funded and marginalized, fell into obsolescence. The committee to look into the Amerindian Act never got off the ground. While Amerindians complained relentless to the government on the numerous infractions to their native claims, the government has turned a deaf ear. To add insult to injury the government claimed that there were never monies to adequately demarcate these lands. The guidelines for exploratory leases state explicitly that if Amerindian lands are encroached upon, corrective measures will be prompt, and the borders of the leases immediately redrawn to establish native legitimate rights. With little allocations of monies, legitimacy is not being established, and not one of these concessions has ever has been adjusted. An indication of this clear and deliberate neglect by the Government was seen in the way this was handled in 1998 in the budget which included a sum of US250, 000 dollars to demarcate Amerindian Lands. This was sufficient to demarcate only 2 or 3 of the numerous native titles pending. The World Bank offered to provide the Government with another US$200,000. However, the government chose not to accept it. It is obvious that they intended to drag the issue of Amerindian land claims out as long as they possibly could.

Putting this EPA Request in Context

Environmentalism is an on-going concern, and impact statements are not only proffered in instances where companies seek new concessions. This agency ought to have been apprised of concerns by international environmental groups in relation to Barama’s activities also. The historical behavior of the principals of this company in their business practice elsewhere are crucial pointers. This company well-documented legacy of environmental devastation in Sarawak and its adversarial role in the destruction of the culture of its indigenous Dyak peoples are on record for review if the EPA needs evidence. What assurances do we have that this company will comply with Guyanese guidelines, given its lax enforcement and understaffed Forestry Commission? The conclusion is obvious; they will do business as usual.

Another question for the EPA is: with whom are they dealing? Barama or Case Timbers or UNAMCO, etc are just public entities with people behind them. It would surprise Guyanese that the many companies they hear about in the press are actually conglomerates controlled by few individuals.

Wasted Resources

The floodgates were opened with the secretive deals during Mr. Desmond Hoyte’s regime. Since then under the PPP/Civic and under the auspices of the ERP, the dealings have reached critical mass. Mr. Hoyte, for example, leased away at bargain basement prices over 4 million acres to Barama. The deal, which was recently revealed, indicated the contempt for the public that secret deals such as these can have. Barama is permitted a 10-year tax holiday; it is to pay its dues in Guyana currency with no adjustments for inflation or devaluation for 20 years. They have the option of renewal for 99 years! Additionally, there is no limit to their use of the land. They can switch from lumber to mining, to agriculture. Actually, they have since cut deals with Gold Star and other mining companies that currently work their concessions.

The PPP/Civic has not done any better than Mr. Hoyte despite their claims to know a difference. Besides extending the State lands they have subsequently leased away more than two-thirds of the forested areas to these lumber companies. Vociferous protests from the indigenous population have been met with cold indifference. They appear to have no qualms about alienating the native peoples, being seduced by the lure of easy cash. The unfortunate repercussion is that they are turning the indigenous peoples away from us, and into radical anti governmental activists. These people, on realizing a policy of active marginalization and mired in deep poverty, may ultimately evolve into a militant activism for their homelands. This is not far-fetched because many of the neighboring states are plagued with militant struggles born of a similar policy of neglect. Strange business it is, that monies can be found to allocate properties to foreign multinationals, while Guyanese cannot be afforded the same.

Guyana does not benefit much from this form of exploitation and desecration of extensive forest flora and fauna. Carefully planned and detailed assessment would have made it clear that Guyana has one of the last reserves of hardwoods in the world. The fear that these companies would go elsewhere is ludicrous. They have no place to go; hardly any one wants them. Better deals for less acreage in more controlled forest management settings would have separated us from other nations, who in hindsight, realized the benefits of their rainforests. One should remember that in the equation of development, it is not the amount of dollars spent in the country, but the amount of real benefits accrued to the society.

It should be noted that large companies do not fuel the engine of growth, technological change, or ultimately development in developing countries. Multinationals do not come with a commitment to maximize the wealth of these nations. They come for the holy grail of profits. They will do everything to minimize capital expenditures, and opt for every creative accounting strategy to produce negative returns on paper so as not to pay their dues. Gains to developing countries (and developed countries) come from their small local companies that are innovative, and fill competitive niches. These companies are connected to the community; hence the owners are in sync with community needs, and do not act contrary to it. We should be circumspect of multinational companies, and focus more on developing our ability to grow small native companies serving niche community needs. For example, our fledgling fishing industry, producing no environmental damage, has out-performed these companies in terms of income to the country.

The Reckless Pursuit of Privatization

Privatization is the clarion, beckoning to all who are willing (with local complicity) to exploit the resources of Guyana. This is not limited to the timber industry, but also the selling of critical systems and infrastructure essential for development. The PPP/Civic was co-opted into the new terms of engagement shortly after assuming office. They quickly approved Case Timbers. They sold nearly 50% of the state-owned Guyana Electricity Corporation. They did the same to the only national airline and the Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation. They want to sell the entire bauxite industry. There are rumors that the Sugar Industry will soon be privatized. A Beal deal is now in the making. Except for Guyana Airways and Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation, all the other entities are foreign. We are selling out our major resources to foreigners! Is this an implicit admission of failure of Guyanese talent to manage this area with the expertise to sustain growth? Is there such a government anywhere in the world that stupid to sell to foreigners its resources and control of energy, communication and transportation? Only in Guyana! What are the benefits of such deals, and to whom? If there are any to the people of Guyana, they should be clear, transparent, and should be publicly available information.


GT&T, has monopoly in communications. The fact that they do is a boulder in the path of progress. They ought not to have it, and any government, that submits totally to an ill-conceived contract in an essential industry such as this, is negligent in its stewardship.

Communications is a critical cog in the wheel of economic and social development. Underdevelopment or impediments to progress in this area affects the entire country. GT&T came into existence with a clear understanding that they are to build up our communication infrastructure. They have been in place for almost a decade, yet much of Guyana remains "unwired". They have excuses, but that is beside the point; they have failed, and new players ought to be given the chance to compete and/or fill the gap where service is lacking. The window of opportunity to technological change is small. Missing any opportunity leaves the nation further behind.

When GT&T began operations in 1986, there was no beeper and cell phones, and the Internet was science fiction. Yet they are permitted to co-opt these services under their monopolistic contract, excluding all others. Are they to be permitted every new innovation in communication that comes down the pipeline? If this is so, they will soon control over a 100 new services ranging from digital TV, security services, hand-held communications, ticketing industry, etc, because there is a natural evolution that is integrating all of these services though digital advances in technology.

We must be reminded that to this day there has only been minimal infrastructure to enhance telecommunication in the country. An individual informed me that his sister, a re-migrant and a senior officer in the Georgetown court has not been able to procure a telephone, even after a wait of nearly two years. Very few households have telephones because of the company's inability to provide the service and/or the prohibitive cost to the customers. The Internet, a technology almost ubiquitous to the western world, is only available to the rich. At current prices it will never trickle down to the poor who needs it most of all. This monopoly, with its spreading tentacles, cannot continue to exist? There must be laws (similar to the FCC anti-trust laws in the U.S.) to ensure that telecommunications enterprises will be opened up to allow other competing companies to do business. By an Act of Parliament there can be fairness in the system.

The Beal Deal

Another rush-and-hush deal is currently under way with Beal Aerospace Technologies, a Texan company that wants to operate a launching site for spacecraft in the North West District. The Government in a high-handed manner, without discussion with the residents of the area and the people of Guyana, held negotiations with BEAL, and was on the verge of closing the deal when it was halted by protests from 'Guyana is First'. The government, through its competent Minister Sam Hinds, is still determined to "sell and not to lease 26,010 acres of land to Beal for its primary site". In addition, there will be a 99-year renewable lease for 76,000 acres of land as a buffer zone. The Amerindian Peoples Association sees problems of displacement, and protests the inevitable environmental consequences on rivers and lagoons from which they derive daily sustenance. As yet, preliminary environmental impact assessment for this project has not been tendered. The Guyanese people appear to be on their way to be duped once again. They are told to bow in compliance because, according to Prime Minister Hinds, "the sale agreement is being worded in such a way as to effectively reflect a lease arrangement". This is a contradiction in terms, and an obvious insult to the intelligence of the people. One is reminded of Navin Chandrapal’s "exploratory leases" not being "concessions". This form of paternalism in their entire "top down approach[es]" displays disrespect, and beguiles the people that all is well.

A newspaper contributor, Reggie Bhagwandin, felt that it was "a coup of the century", and could not understand why "protagonists of doom worship[ing] on the altar of sovereignty, environmental impact, 'compromization' of security, establishment of a state within a state. . . to stem the tide of progress". Mr. Bhagwandin should note that the altar of sovereignty is all Guyana has, and despite its poverty, it is the only "goddess" to be worshiped in political and economic expressions. The U.S. government demonstrates their adoration for this deity, "sovereignty", by demanding BEAL meets specific compliancy tests for technology transfer. The sanctification of BEAL on this altar of worship has been granted by the high priests in Washington, and thus U.S. sanctity is maintained. Far be it from us Guyanese to disavow this "goddess" in deference to the awe of her glory under another flag.

Another contributor, Alfred Bhulai of the University of Guyana supports the deal because he believes that education would be augmented. His naïveté is obvious. The U.S. is afraid of high technology transfers especially in regions of unstable governments. Guyana threatens to shred itself every election period along racial lines, and cannot be considered stable. Additionally, the expectation of trickle-down education is too simplistic to sanction this deal. Education benefits must be explicit. Will we, for example, get a branch of astronomy in our University, perchance an observatory to view the crystalline skies above Mt. Roraima? Are our scientists to be awarded grants to study our turtles on Shell Beach, or would BEAL establish a museum of science in one of our main cities. Furthermore, would Guyanese be allowed to play on the golf courses that will soon arise on these soil to entertain the forlorn U.S. space technicians between their scientific pursuits? The question may be asked also if Guyanese will ever be permitted on the new "sovereign" territories created another the hegemony of another flag, or will there will be a means test of Guyanese individual worth along an arbitrary defined concept of a "security risk"? One should be reminded there is already a request for a buffer zone and the refusal to accept Guyanese security personnel. Mr. Bhagwandin may not get to wonder at this awesome sight, as it may be only accessible to a select few. There is sufficient evidence in history where U.S. interests took drastic steps to preserve their "sovereign" rights on foreign territories, as in Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Mr. Rab Mukraj, another letter writer, simplistically concludes that Guyana should desperately grab the deal because Beal would go elsewhere, and thus Guyana would lose. That may very well be so; but no one has told the nation in explicit terms what Guyana will gain! Guyana has its lands and turtles, and those are prizes that would be lost with BEAL’s presence. Mr. Mukraj is awestruck at the mention of space-based technology as Mr. Bhagwandin is, but one cannot live on false pride alone. Guyana must be a partner to the benefits in this venture. The gains must be clearly defined and upfront. So far, the turtles and the pristine lagoons win out, because no advantages, except the revenues from the sale, are detailed. There is no price to be paid for the awesome wonder of nature. After all, the supreme designer designed it.

As in previous dealings some people appear to gloat and feel a sense of national ebullience when they speak of investments, especially foreign investments. Investments per se are not wrong or bad. Indeed, whether foreign or local, they are important, desirable and essential. But when investments take away your patrimony, it is the wrong type. When investments are unfriendly and unsustainable to your environment, it is the wrong type. When investments drain your natural and human resources like a blood-sucking predator without returning sustenance to the corpus of the nation, it is the wrong type. And when investments abuse the rights of people, it is the wrong type. GT&T, the logging companies and the Gold companies are doing just that. BEAL is yet to assure us of the benefits except the hallow phrase that "we will have a space pad in Guyana".

The PPP/Civic has the legal and moral obligation to lead Guyana to full democracy with meaningful development. But it has failed this mandate by carelessly foisting deals such as these for mere public relations benefits when real benefits are tangential, if any. No government owns the soil, and no government has the right to partake in secret deals to vend it to foreign powers. It is of the people, and they are to be sufficiently informed of real benefits with concrete plans on how much is to be gained, when and what are the potential contingencies. This is not personal property, and governments ought to act as the stewards they are, rather than oligarchs with plenipotentiary powers and omniscient vision. Let us walk away from the hard lessons of the logging companies like Barama, and improper gold companies, such as Omai.

In our view, development must always be democratic. Democracy goes beyond the mere intermittent offer of the plebiscite at election time. Those whose lives are affected must be involved in the processes of investments. Matters of this enormity must be scrutinized by government, NGOs and public hearings, because this is how democracy works. The public need to know and approve of these kinds of deals. Certainly, Guyana welcomes the benefits. But what are the benefits? We must know the fallouts, both positive and radioactive. We know that historically and currently, big business is only tangentially concerned with education and technology transfer. Bookers did not do it, nor did Demba. Barama is not, nor is Omai or GT&T. We must not be fooled, stupid and naïve. We must insist on certain minimal advantages and benefits to the Guyanese people. In addition, major catastrophic accidents, including oil spillage and nuclear explosions, are happening all the time, even in the most advanced countries with the most modern technologies. Are there adequate disaster preparedness mechanisms in place? What safeguards are there for prevention? And are there compensatory insurances? The people have a right to know from government because the government works for the people.

Concluding Remarks

Will Barama get its way? Will Beal get its deal? The EPA declares that it "is not inclined to reject any project development but tries to work with project developers". We urge that its responsibility must not be swayed by the employment of "between 700 to 800 people" alone; it must also look holistically and truthfully at the projects. These investment packages thus far do not seem to augur well for the people of Guyana – even the 'trickle down' is not reaching those most deprived.

Appropriately, the creolese saying comes to mind: when yo na gat momma yo gat fo suck granny. But perhaps we should heed the words of the late President Cheddi Jagan: "We must take account of the need to place people at the center of our actions, through education and training, through the provision of social safety-nets and by their empowerment and participation in the processes that affect their lives. It [development] must be linked to our efforts at preserving democracy, good governance and human rights, including civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural, and freedom from fear, and freedom from want, and at promoting development while ensuring the rational use of the environment." How hollow these words sound in relation to the plunder that is going on.

The eminent Harvard and Cambridge scholar and 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was quite clear about "freedom-centered understanding of economics and of the process of development". He presumably had countries like Guyana in mind when he said: "Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers – perhaps even the majority – of people." "The freedom to participate in economic interchange has a basic role in social living." [Despite the] "unprecedented opulence" "yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression. . . . Overcoming these problems is a central part of the exercise of development."

In Guyana, the people's "unfreedoms" in the deals, terms of agreement, and negotiations are depriving them of social opportunities that can shape their own destiny. Our deals must look at development as freedom. The sometimes antagonist bread-versus-freedom dichotomy must be guided by premising our actions on the thesis that the country does not belong to us, but that we belong to the country. If we belong, we would care. . .

Selected References

Amazonia: Guyana
Colchester, Marcus, Guyana: Fragile Frontier. Loggers, Miners and Forest Peoples. Ian Randle Pub. 1997.
Conservation International
Guyana locals say no
Watson, Fiona: International Monitor Rainforest Action Network
Rainforest Forest Biodiversity Conservation

Gary Girdhari co-authored this Paper with one other, January 2000.
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