The MURI Deal and the national interest

The permission dated November 7, 2012 granted by Mr. Robert Persaud, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment to MURI Brazil Ventures Inc. (MURI) to undertake surveys over 2,200,000 acres of land on the Guyana/Brazil border has attracted some revealing responses. Among the contributors were current and former Army personnel; politicians Dr. Roger Luncheon and Mr. Joseph Harmon; private sector official Mr. Clinton Urling and columnist Ralph Ramkarran; and persons connected with the mining sector Mr. Anthony Shields and the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association. MURI, through its PR agency, itself issued a statement early in the week.

Many of the contributors, using information which seem to have their origin in official sources, went out of their way to defend the Minister, avoiding any reference to the Minister’s clearly misleading statement to a parliamentary select committee that the “position of the government at this point in time is not to permit mining in that specific area…” more than a year after he had guaranteed to MURI eighteen licences in the area. With such gratuitous support and defence of his exposed flank, the Minister followed the road of discretion and has so far said nothing further on the matter.

On the other side, the leader of the AFC Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan and the APNU shadow minister Joseph Harmon were adamant and categorical that the Permission was tainted and that the Minister had deceived the parliamentary Select Committee and ought to be rescinded.

This contribution will do a brief review of some of those contributions before going on to explain why I believe that the permission ought not to have been granted in the first place and make my own conclusions.

The company
In its statement the company said that “Much has been made of the fact that the area covered by the PGGS is some 2 million acres. This area is for exploration not occupation or prospecting. Also the PGGS provides that the area is reduced by one quarter at the end of every year for its life of three years so that at the end of the three years only 25 percent of the original area remains.”

That is incorrect. Here is what the Permission states under a clause Relinquishment: “On or before the first anniversary, the Permission-holder shall relinquish at least 25% of the said area after the first year.” There is no commitment for any other year and only that the permission is for a period of thirty-six months. Where then is the math that 25% will remain after three years? Unless the company has been given some private assurances by the Minister, after three years the concession goes under the Clause that states:

“There shall be no extension or renewal of the terms and conditions of this Permission.”

By now, the company should have indicated whether it has given up “at least twenty-five percent of the said area after the first year”. It is the duty of the Minister, as well as an obligation of the company to tell the country and the security forces the precise coordinates of the area which was given up on or before November 7, 2013.

The company states that the area for a prospecting licence is an average of 12,000 acres so that 18 prospecting licences will extend over about 216,000 acres. This is and was no doubt meant to mislead. Section 33 of the Mining Act clearly states that a prospecting licence may be issued over several parcels, which are themselves subject to two extensions. There is no limit on the number of parcels over which a licence can be issued.

MURI’s shareholders and directors are Guyanese citizens and have substantial experience in the mining industry. While Mr. Yucatan Reis may have been granted Guyanese citizenship he is Brazilian as much as I am Guyanese with a UK passport.

The company is apolitical. Surely, it is public knowledge that Mr. Reis worked closely with the same Minister during the 2011 elections campaign while his fellow director never misses an opportunity to boast of his connections and influence over the politicians including the Prime Minister and at least one security agency. Guyana is a strange country in which the word “corrupt” seems preferable to “political”!

Apart from its statement, we learn that the company is awaiting permission for the construction of an airstrip to facilitate its work. Perhaps the company would be good enough to state which clause in the Permission gives it a right to construct an airstrip. Meanwhile the Minister as a member of Cabinet must tell the nation how much it will cost the GRA, the Police Service and the GDF to effectively superintend the operation of an airstrip near the border with Brazil.

Mr. Urling
Interestingly Mr. Urling, President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, addressed a letter to the press under his name on the very day on which the Chamber met and discussed the Muri Permission. Prior to the meeting, and in his capacity as President of the Chamber, Mr. Urling had been cautioned in an email sent to him by a member drawing attention to some negative implications – particularly on the security issue – in the newspapers on the day of the meeting.
While public officials are entitled to their personal opinions, the timing of Mr. Urling’s letter seemed improper, conveying the impression that it was intended to forestall any wider discussion within the Chamber. Mr. Urling’s attention having been specifically drawn to the security implications of mining operations three hundred yards from the Guyana-Brazil border proceeded to dismiss this publicly as “a non-starter”.

Based on his superficial and subjective assessment Mr. Urling was convinced enough about the Minister’s intention to refute the allegations that the Minister had made misleading statements of omission and commission to the Natural Resource Committee of the National Assembly and the Guyana Human Rights Association.

Major-General Joe Singh
Mr. Singh tried his best to be careful, not to step on the government’s toe. He related from his days in the Army an episode in which mining activities were actually stopped following the intervention of the Army. Now serving the Government on the civilian side, Mr. Singh takes a different view, asserting that “in the final analysis, it is the government, not the GDF, that is the determinant as to whether or not extractive activities will or will not be permitted.”

The problem with this statement is that no one was challenging the right of the government to determine whether or not mining activities are permitted. That goes without saying. The concerns, other than the Minister’s deception, are about security and the environment, on both of which Mr. Singh is widely considered an expert.

Few people appreciate more than he does the scale of illegal activities carried out across our borders by Brazilians in mining and logging, and possibly some even more nefarious activities. Few people have as wide a working knowledge of the fragility of the eco-system and the dangers and destruction which mining and logging to the environment. On the environmental risks involved, Guyanese would have liked Mr. Singh to express his, rather than Jagdeo’s views.

Most importantly, Mr. Singh overlooked the constitutional amendments made in 2001 in relation to the role of the Security Forces under our reformed Constitution. Those amendments were highlighted in a letter to the editor appearing under my name on the same day as Mr. Singh’s letter clarifying press reports quoting him. They impose on the Security Forces much wider obligations than those identified by Mr. Singh.

Dr. Luncheon challenged the statement by the Major General but then discredited himself by disputing his own statement. He is clearly an unreliable witness and his statements should be used only to consider his fitness to remain Secretary of the Defence Board.

Mr. Ralph Ramkarran who disclosed in his column his professional relationship with Muri and its directors and that he was expressing personal views, was almost as casual as Urling about the security concern. He wrote: “But what exactly are these national security concerns? No one is willing to say.”

Well many persons had made a number of comments which were quoted extensively in the newspaper that carries Mr. Ramkarran’s column. It is about having a company with Brazilian connections operating within 300 yards of your country’s border with the same Brazil. That is a mere few blocks of Georgetown streets. What makes Mr. Ramkarran’s statement particularly surprising is that he has been involved in border issues as a member of the National Border Commission.

At times using similar language and sentiments as the company’s statement discussed above, Mr. Ramkarran engaged in undisguised but snide innuendo, accusing unnamed persons of “attacking” projects like the Marriott and the new airport, “killing” manufacturing with Amaila, and “savaging” every investment proposal like MURI.

If those accusations had been made by a lesser person or in another medium, they could be ignored or dismissed. I will address them, but not today.

None of the supporters has addressed the cost-benefit of the “project” to Guyana. It now seems that the PPP/C is ending its flirtation with the LCDS under which the country could have received US$250 million. In my blog on December 14, I pointed out that all MURI is required to pay over the three years for exclusive access to 2,200,000 acres is US$85,000. Has anyone done a projection of the actual and opportunity cost to the Government and do they know whether the Minister has provided Cabinet with such a report? In the interest of transparency, Mr. Robert Persaud has a duty to provide taxpayers with such information.

Muri represents a security threat, an erosion of our border and the possibility of substantial expenditure in return for US$85,000. What makes these risks more serious is the opacity of the deal entered into but scarcely acknowledged by the Minister, the silence of the Security Forces on their duties under Article 197 A of the constitution and the self-serving and orchestrated defence of the deal.

The only body with the authority to have a thorough examination of this deal is the National Assembly. It must have this done as a matter of urgent national interest.

My sincere Christmas wish is that we leave something of the national patrimony to those who come after us.

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