Jul 12, 2016 News
The Board of Directors for the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) has launched a probe following a shocking report Sunday in Kaieteur News that the regulator may have had a hand in covering up a massive fire in the Berbice area.
That 2012 fire that destroyed an area of over 900 hectares of forest at Haimorakabra, is being described as one of the largest known one in logging areas.
However, both the company, Haimorakabra Logging Company Inc., owned by BaiShanLin International Forest Development Inc., and the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) appeared to have covered up the matter; the country only learning about it from a leaked report.
The report cites GFC investigators as finding no evidence that the Chinese company made any reports of the fire or that it was even in the records of the Commission.
Yesterday, Chairman of GFC’s Board, Jocelyn Dow, said that an immediate probe was launched following that story on Sunday.
“We have asked for the relevant minutes of the previous Board to see what was decided and what remedies, if any, were suggested. We will have to determine whether these remedies were carried out and whether these were in fact adequate.”
The Chairperson said that she has requested a copy of the report also.
“We will have to form an opinion and have the Board’s technical and other committees also examine the matter. The report was noted by us and we will, as we go along, keep you and the Guyana public updated,” Dow said.
The fire which was discovered by forestry inspectors during a routine inspection in May 2013, was from all indications never officially reported by BaiShanLin. From all indications it occurred at least six months before.
The fire investigation and the absence of evidence that the company was even penalized would continue to not only raise questions about the operations at the GFC as regulator, but also highlight the amount of influence this one investor has in the country.
BaiShanLin is under fire after widespread criticisms of its activities here, spanning logging, gold mining, housing, ship building and river transportation. It ran into financial problems after spreading itself thin, expanding in the different sectors. It owes the government and local businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.
It has been granted billions of dollars in tax breaks and duty free concessions.
The forest fire destroyed an area of around 906 hectares at the Haimorakabra Logging Company Inc., Upper Berbice River area, Region Ten. The fire burned an area equivalent to 10,000 large house lots.
According to the report leaked to Kaieteur News, in May 2013 GFC’s Forest Monitoring Division carried out a routine audit of the concession which had been approved for Timber Sales Agreement (TSA) and Wood Cutting Lease (WCL).
Whether the fire was deliberately set or accidental was not determined but GFC inspectors were convinced that a fire of that magnitude should “have been reported as soon as it had occurred or was noticed or at the earliest possible time with all the necessary actions taken to reduce damage.”
The report was sent to Keith Austin, an Assistant Commissioner of Forests of the Legality Monitoring and Extension Unit and copied to Commissioner James Singh. Copies were sent to other officials.
According to the report, the GFC team used Global Positioning System (GPS), interviews with staffers and others, maps, and the company’s and GFC’s records to aid in the investigations.
However, the investigations faced difficulties from language barriers as BaiShanLin’s officers had little understanding of English. The team also had limited time to conduct a proper assessment of the fire areas.
A major worry was the absence of reports on the fire. “No written report was made by the company to GFC or no records were available at GFC about the forest fire.”
As a matter of fact, it appeared there was reluctance by BaiShanLin’s officials to assist the GFC’s team to participate in the entire exercise all day.
From dated overhead shots taken of the area, investigators concluded that the fire would have occurred between September 8 and November 26, 2012, or at least six months before the visit by the GFC team.
Shockingly, there was little evidence of the fire being reported and nobody took blame, including GFC officials who are stationed onsite. “Questions were asked and internal records sought/checked for any report on the forest fire, but none was made available, maybe, because none was ever made in writing in the first place.
Forest Officer, Mr. Eron Bourne claimed he would have made a verbal report in late November or early December 2013 to Mr. Ganram Manoo – ACF Large Concession Management Unit then, about the forest fire after we had asked the question. Mr. G. Manoo – ACF informed us he never received any report verbal or otherwise from Forest Officer Mr. E. Bourne.”
According to the report, the team was particularly alarmed at the extent of the forest fire and whether it was accidental or deliberate.
“If it was deliberate, was it done to hide or conceal facts or incriminating evidence and other major breaches of the Forest Act Chapter 67:01…contractual/procedural breaches etc?”
The report, in its conclusions, made it clear that someone must be held accountable for the massive forest fire within Haimorakabra Logging Co. Inc. concession TSA # 01/11.
“A fire that extensive must have been reported in writing immediately to all relevant stakeholders.”
The investigators recommended that the company be made to pay compensation. The report highlighted procedural breaches and noted that there are penalties for deliberately causing forest fires and failure to assist in fighting them.
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