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Border security concern raised over Muri Brasil deal in New River Triangle

The issue of border security with neighbouring Suriname appeared to be taking centre stage surrounding government’s decision to grant permission to allow a privately-owned company to survey the New River area for a variety of minerals.

But the Guyana government has ruled out the need to consult with the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) before carrying out mining related activity in the area long claimed by Suriname.

“Our civilian military engagement in which is couched the issue you are raising is that policy making in these areas isn’t dependent on objections and refusals by the military. That is alien to our understanding of civilian-military relationship,” said Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Roger Luncheon.

But retired Lieutenant Colonel, Joseph Harmon- now an opposition parliamentarian- has differed, saying that the area remained a sensitive one because of the border dispute over the area with neighbouring Suriname. “Granting licences and so on, on your borders are very serious matters because that is how your defence forces when they have to plan, if they have to plan anything against an incursion, if they have to deal with the territorial integrity of the country , they have to have unfettered access to all of these areas,” said the front-bencher for A Partnership for National Unity (APNU).

He said it was not strategic for the military to find itself seeking permission from private entities or persons to gain access during operations. Harmon suggested that there might be need for buffer zones near Guyana’s borders.

The issue has surfaced in the wake of government’s decision to grant Permission for Geographical and Geophysical Survey (PGGS) to a Guyanese-owned company, Muri Brasil, to be carried out with the expectation that it could eventually be given the green light to mine for rare earth minerals, bauxite and gold.

Retired Chief-of-Staff of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), Major General Joseph Singh was quoted by the privately-owned Kaieteur News newspaper as saying that local newspapers as saying that the GDF had objected to similar moves during the presidency of late Dr. Cheddi Jagan. Luncheon disputed that any of the Chiefs-of-Staff during the PPP administration had objected to work in the area. “I’m disputing that an objection ever took place,” he said.

Luncheon, however, said that then President Bharrat Jagdeo, during his 2006 to 2011 term, had overruled his Cabinet colleagues that there should be no mining related activity in that area. “At that time, the President had a strong position that was not consistent with others in the Cabinet but we are an advisory body, as you recall, and therefore the President’s view held sway,” he said.

Harmon flayed Persaud for signing the PGGS because that area is important to Guyana’s border and national security.

Alluding to Venezuela’s decades-old occupation of Ankoko in the Essequibo and more recently the arrest of a seismic survey ship offshore Essequibo, the APNU lawmaker cautioned government against creating conditions for “stirring up trouble on all of our borders.”

APNU is demanding that Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Robert Persaud resign for withholding vital information about the PGGS that has been granted to Muri Brasil. For his part, the minister said he had responded directly only to questions posed to him by Harmon at the parliamentary sectoral committee on Natural Resources. He has denied that the deal was secret because there had been advertisements and a notice in the Official Gazette.

Also at the core of the issue is an entrenched clause in the agreement that guarantees the company prospecting licences should the survey prove that the area likely contains commercially viable reserves that requires further work on the ground.

Muri Brasil explained that the guaranteeing prospecting licences helps to cushion the risk to be taken by foreign investors to develop a work programme and financial and technical capabilities.

“It is normal for a PGGS to contain a clause granting the permission to the holder the right to apply for a number of prospecting licences. This is not the only Permission which has been granted or which so provides. The reason is simple and not sinister. These kinds of exploration activities cost millions of US dollars which can only be sourced as exploration investments from outside of Guyana. No such investments would be available if the investor is given no assurance that he will be granted prospecting licences,” said Muri Brasil in a statement.

The company confirmed that the PGGS covers about 2 million acres but said that was for exploration rather than occupation or prospecting. Muri Brasil said the PGGS provides for the area to be 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. The company said 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.