Bartica rebuffs govt team
– protest will go ahead
Bartica miners yesterday rebuffed government assurances that nothing would be done to impair the mining sector, declaring in a tumultuous meeting that the administration was not to be trusted. The miners rapped government officials over what they said was a failure to consult with them and vowed to continue protest action to ensure that their livelihoods are not imperilled. Government officials attempted to pacify the upset miners in a hastily-organised meeting at the John the Baptist Primary School in Bartica yesterday, giving assurances that government will do nothing to impair or destroy mining.
“We’re not excited about the assurances we got today because we’ve been getting these assurances from the inception. In spite of those assurances, we have documentary evidence as well as pronouncements by other officials that contradict the assurances that we get – like the ones… today,” Fred McWilfred, spokesman for the Committee of Concerned Barticians said after the meeting. “Frankly, we do not trust the government because there is great contradiction between their pronouncements and their promises,” he said.
Barticians plan to shut down the Region Seven mining town tomorrow in protest at a government proposal for six-months notice before mining can commence. Miners say that should the proposal go ahead, the small and medium-scale industry will be wiped out. The planned protest action prompted yesterday’s visit by a ministerial team led by acting Prime Minister Robert Persaud to discuss issues of concern.
Both he and Minister of Transport and Hydraulics Robeson Benn, assured the miners that government would do nothing to impair the industry, and they indicated that a notice period is already on the books. No mining will be stopped, Benn said; if someone is already mining, they will be allowed to continue. “What is required and what is already inherent in the laws is that you have to give notification. Notification so that… we’d be able to identify, evaluate and ensure that the things and the practices we do and they way we do it and the way we evolve it that it is sustainable,” he said. “There is no situation where persons will be prevented from continuing their mining once they’ve given the requisite notification which allows for the other stakeholder to interface with you or whoever else as to how the resources could be best exploited,” he told the skeptical miners. For certain levels of operations, there is a virtual exemption from the provisions; the person just has to give notice and continue, he stated.
In support: A gold-coloured cloth hangs outside a home in Bartica as residents show their support for a protest tomorrow. (Photo by Gaulbert Sutherland)
With several persons raising concerns about the future of the industry, Persaud drew attention to the Land Use Committee, set up by President Bharrat Jagdeo to look into these issues. The committee is chaired by Benn. “No decision has been taken. Ideas are being discussed and these ideas are being discussed with the aim of ensuring that they meet and address the concerns of all stakeholders,” he stressed. He alluded to a view that small miners will be prohibited from conducting their operations and said this is false. In noting the discussions about the six-month notice proposal, “the proposals are being so crafted that in fact for persons who operate within a certain area, given the size and for a certain defined period, they might be exempted if that is agreed upon… even in terms of following the six months notification,” he stated.
Making her point: Bartica resident, Judith David-Blair gestures as she relates her concerns at a meeting at Bartica yesterday to discuss mining issues with government officials. (Photo by Gaulbert Sutherland)
But the assurances were not enough for the miners. With gold-coloured flags on electricity poles, and hung from homes and businesses across the town in support of the planned protest, Barticians vowed to defend their interests. McWilfred told the government team that they have reached a point where they felt they had no choice but to resort to public action to bring attention to their concerns. He said that they have evidence that despite the assurances given at the meeting and those given by the President and other officials, miners have great concerns that the actions and enactments will, if not withdrawn, seriously restrict small and medium-scale mining in Guyana. He read a portion of the contents of a letter sent by the Prime Minister to Commissioner of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), William Woolford, about three initiatives, including one which states, “Every miner must give written notice of at least six months via the GGMC to the GFC (Guyana Forestry Commission) for any cutting or otherwise destroying, injuring or felling (killing of any tree)… [This] shall not be proceeded with until the GFC would have granted its no objection to the GGMC.” He declared that this indicates a cessation of mining for six months until this matter is resolved.
Benn interjected that the letter has no relevance and McWilfred’s “characterization” was unfortunate. Persaud declared that the letter was subsequently withdrawn and is no longer relevant. Following a brief exchange, McWilfred noted that it was when some Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) members met with Jagdeo at a private dinner and raised their concern, that the President withdrew the letter. He noted that before then there was no consultation with miners about the proposal. He also raised their concerns about the operations of the committee noting that letters were sent to Benn by GGDMA officials expressing grave concern at the procedures of the committee and serious reservations that the committee was not addressing the issues raised by the association in a serious manner.
McWilfed also noted the statements emanating from the highest level of government recalling Jagdeo’s statement that if the persons involved in the consultative process were not willing to go along, then government will go it alone. “There is a clear contradiction between the assurances given here today and the actions and utterings of those to whom these recommendations have to go,” he asserted. He said that he was not anti-government but, “I have come to this activism as an act of survival for myself as a miner and Bartica as a community.”
‘Lives at stake’
He said that they feel that the GGDMA’s proposal for a percentage of forest for mining is a reasonable one and the only workable one in the short term. He added that they want the committee to seriously consider the GGDMA proposal and also look seriously at their other concerns. “Our lives, our business and our communities are at stake,” he stated.
In response Persaud said that there is no contradiction between what the President has said and what the team said at yesterday’s meeting. He stressed that discussions are still evolving, questioning “what objectives will be served if activities are deemed to undermine or to distract the discussions taking place.” He reiterated that the letter read by McWilfred was null and void and warned that if the practices that miners engage in are not compatible with certain national and international guidelines, “we may find that we may have to keep all the gold and diamond right in Guyana.” He maintained that the Low Carbon Development Strategy allows Guyana to develop a relevant and modern mining sector.
Meantime, Carlos Prowell said that they fear that their livelihood is being shut down. He also said that there is a feeling of a lack of consultation, and noting that the policy is going to affect the community, declared that the team should have visited since last year. He said that there needs to be more consultation and the six-months notification period needs to be addressed. Joseph Daniels asked whether the six-months period is there to stay, while Wendell Dazzell said he believes that the government “is taking us for a ride.”
“We have recognized what had happened to Linden with the bauxite when they were told that the bauxite would not be closed,” said Judith David-Blair. She asked what is in the Low Carbon Development Strategy for the miners. She expressed the view that miners have been dealt with too severely. “We ain’t stopping till we get what we need,” she insisted.
Presidential Advisor Odinga Lumumba pleaded for the miners to give the government some time and then “all of us would be pleased.”
“We don’t trust you”, one participant responded. Lumumba asked that “[you] hold your hand on Monday.” A collective “no” was the response he got.
Following the meeting, McWilfred told reporters that they are going to keep the pressure on because if they let up now it can be to their detriment. He said that they want the President to take notice of them because in the final analysis, the decision will be made by him and his cabinet. He noted that the committee can only make recommendations. “We are cautious that in spite of the recommendations they make, President Jagdeo may not necessarily be guided by them and can do something that we feared all along,” he stated.
Further, he said that the withdrawal of the letter does not offer any comfort: “If there was no objection these measures would have been instituted unilaterally without no consultation and with no regard to the existence of communities like Bartica.”
He went on to say that they are in this for the long haul and the next step would be to take the protest to the capital city. He said that they intend to sensitize sister communities like Mahdia, Linden and Port Kaituma and intend to involve them.
A percentage of forest being set aside for mining is a recommendation for the short term and after this is addressed they can then sit down in a more consultative way to look at the long term implication, McWilfred said. He asserted that miners are not against diversity but “we are surprised that the government in trying to enact these measures [and] did not even have the courtesy of informing Bartica.” Bartica depends solely on gold the way Linden depended on bauxite, he said. “When gold goes, Bartica goes.”