Like every other serious investment venture in recent times, the PGGS (Permission for Geophysical and Geological Surveys) granted to Muri Brasil Ventures Inc. in November last year has come under serious questioning and has given rise to suspicion and innuendo.
Little public information has ever been given to the issue of a PGGS before. Even after the massive failure of public relations over the Amaila Hydropower Project, the Government’s continued to display reticence on investment matters. This continues to generate controversy and harm to its reputation and that of its Ministers. Normal clauses and concessions which are in every PGGS, occasioned in this case a wave of suspicion because they were brought to public attention in a negative light, in a politically charged manner.
Most of the questions have now been answered but three serious issues of national consequence remain. These are national security, the environment and exploration. Whatever happens to this particular venture – and the extensive hostility generated to it and unfairly to the Minister does not bode well for its future – these issues will remain.
It cannot be argued that stealth or secrecy prevailed in relation to the Government’s overall intention or to the PGGS. Expressions of interest in exploration in the area was publicly invited. The PGGS proposed to be granted to Muri was then advertised in the Official Gazette. If not the public then the mining community would have been aware of it. Stabroek News itself which took the lead in highlighting the story, published Dr. Ashni Singh’s remarks in his last Budget Speech in which he alerted the nation that the Government’s policy is to encourage mining in south east Guyana. It has to be assumed that if there were national security concerns, the Government would have addressed them before the Minister of Finance made such a policy declaration.
But what exactly are these national security concerns? No one is willing to say. There have been hints that during the 1970s after the Government expelled a contingent of Surinamese troops from the New River Triangle, the Guyana and Surinam Governments agreed that Guyana would not station troops in the area. No one has ever produced anything in writing to substantiate this. But even if there was such an unwritten understanding, an exploration permit does not violate it. Should Guyana abandon the riches of its territory because someone else claims it? In fact, is the claim not a reason to occupy it? Should Guyana allow the New River Triangle to go the way of the Essequibo in terms of investment up to a few years ago?
On the environment the Ministry subscribes to various regimes. There is a plan to phase out the use of mercury. Additional restrictions have been imposed as a result of the LCDS programme. There is an Environmental Act in place which requires an Environmental Impact Assessment Study to be done for every act that impacts on the environment. Miners are required to pay an environmental bond to the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) which is to be used to repair the environment in the event that they falter. Now despite all of this, no one can argue that everything is fine, that harm does not take place, such as in the waterways, that mistakes are not made or that improvements are not required.
The answer is to further strengthen the regime, not to stop mining. After decades of mining and forestry activity without any environmental laws or protection, Guyana still has over ninety percent of its forests intact. With the environmental protection regime now in place, albeit with a substantially higher degree of mining and forestry activity, there should be little concern that our forests are at risk, although continuing vigilance is necessary.
Having regard to the above, if mining is allowed, there is little doubt that “the integrity of ecosystems and biodiversity” which Major General (Ret’d) Joe Singh says that Dr. Jagdeo, Champion of the Earth, wished to preserve, would be affected. However Dr. Jagdeo may wish to clarify his position with Dr. Luncheon’s portrayal of him as anxious to allow the area to be exploited for minerals, even against the advice of his Cabinet, a picture that shatters his carefully cultivated image as a “Hero of the Environment.”
Capital for exploration is scarce. In most countries exploration is facilitated by private capital. It is a tough sell on the international market to raise such capital, especially for countries like Guyana with many risk factors. Petroleum exploration is at a standstill for this reason. Exploration capital is vital as new mineral deposits must be continually found to replace those being depleted. If this does not happen the mining industry will decline.
Guyana is in the unfortunate position of being largely a commodity producer, as in colonial times. There are potential areas of development such as tourism and aquaculture but once again, capital investment is hard to come by. The Marriot Hotel and the new airport which can substantially boost tourism are under attack. Manufacturing has been killed with Amaila. Every investment proposal, like Muri, is being savaged. If Guyana does not persist with mining, little is left.
(Muri Brasil Ventures Inc. as well as the GGMC are clients of Cameron & Shepherd of which I am a partner. The views expressed herein are my own).