Keeping open the Citizens petition on the Natural Resource Fund Bill: A sign of things to come
On December 30, 2021, President Irfaan Ali assented to the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill which was controversially passed on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 in the National Assembly. Policy Forum Guyana issued a statement in which they described the consequence of the new Act as enabling the ruling party to become ‘the proprietors rather than trustees of the country’s natural resources,’ and emphasized that the parliamentary Opposition “might have been better served by utilizing its Parliamentary time to make this point, rather than engage entirely in raucous and disorderly behaviour,” that in this case included verbal abuse of the personal assistant to the Speaker and attempts to seize the mace. Disrupting parliament is neither new nor restricted to just one side of the political aisle, as several have noted – but in such a divided polity as Guyana, political memories are short and only one side is always absolutely right while the other side is utterly demonized. It is a sad and disgusting state of affairs. And this time, the Opposition’s behaviour offered the government a splendid opportunity to focus on the disruption – with one Minister going as far as to accuse APNU and AFC members of engaging in terrorist tactics – instead of what is at stake here. The Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Act disregards the majority of the Generally Accepted Principles and Practices (GAPP) of the International Working Group of Sovereign Wealth Funds, known as the Santiago Principles and which have been accepted as a best practices benchmark. Furthermore, the NRF Act designates the President and Minister as the entities which control directly the appointment of the committees which direct or oversee the operation of the Act which is absolutely contrary to international best practice and also contrary to the PPP’s 2020 election manifesto. Another major aspect is the extraordinary level of discretion allowed for access to the resources covered by this Act and the exclusion of Parliamentary and civil society involvement in the management of this Fund. In addition, the ability to empty the Fund immediately by reference to natural disasters in the last two years amounts to a licence to defraud the people of Guyana.
This unconsulted Act is now added to the previous government’s shockingly bad Production Sharing Agreement with Exxon and which the current administration has refused to renegotiate despite this being one of their campaign promises. And while the Natural Resource Fund Act does not undo that original crime against the Guyanese people to which both parties must be called to account, it [the predecessor Act] was tabled in Parliament in November 2018 after extensive nationwide consultation. This process remains an example of the execution of Article 13 of the Guyana Constitution that calls for the creation of opportunities for Guyanese citizens to participate in the management and decisionmaking processes of the State.
Its undoing by the arrogance of the current administration’s refusal to address calls for consultation on the Natural Resources Fund Act (Amendment Bill) is really what should outrage all Guyanese. In an excellent letter published in the January 1 edition of the Stabroek News, Dr. Jerry Jailall described the NRF Bill as “the “mother of all bills” as it provided the framework for accessing and spending the little money we would have going in to that fund from the pathetic 2% royalty and paltry oil profits.”
Asking us to focus on the disgraceful conduct of the opposition in Parliament distracts our attention from the disgraceful giveaways of both political parties that have allocated concessions to offshore petroleum tracts for a pittance. And crucially, it distracts our attention from the disgraceful conduct of the current government in imposing an NRF Act that gives whoever is in power the keys to the piggy bank with practically no independent oversight, and for pushing this through with unseeming haste on the people of Guyana with no debate or consultation.
This is what should concern us all. This is not about whether you are PPP or APNU + AFC. Indeed, all those who rightly fought for political democracy during the 2020 elections should be as vociferous about defending the Guyanese people’s right to have a say over their resources and not entrust it to a political elite, any political class in power. In fact the best test of political loyalty is to be able to speak out within your political party. But in Guyana, disagreement is always interpreted to mean that you are a traitor, or that you are involved in some plot to remove the government by unlawful means. So any critique becomes a test of your loyalty. There is no space for principled critique from within, and there is certainly no space for independent critique, from those who have never voted, or never voted for either of these two political behemoths. The argument that the government was fairly elected and should therefore be entrusted to make all decisions serves only those in power and ignores the government’s one seat majority in Parliament. Who will guard the guards themselves? Such an argument completely ignores the fact that close to half of the electorate is represented in parliament by the Opposition political parties – whether or not one agrees with them, should they not have a say? Furthermore, why does every single thing in Guyana boil down to political parties? Why are they allowed to monopolise all space in Guyana? The polarisation, and the divide and rule games that they enable by their very
(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)
existence, make it extraordinarily difficult for Guyanese to come together across political camps on anything – from the cost of living to labour rights to domestic abuse to alcohol consumption to suicide, almost everything is overshadowed by a political tinge. This time, however, the stakes are extraordinarily high in a way they have never been before. Forty per cent of Guyanese continue to live below the poverty line of US$5.50 a day, the fortunate ones depending on handouts this holiday season. And our government has just signed a Bill that gives them more or less complete control over how to spend the oil revenues. We can and must do better.
Policy Forum Guyana (PFG) is keeping open the petition that was originally signed by 64 Guyanese and submitted to parliament. Calls for more consultation were also made by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Guyana Bar Association, Trades Union Congress, the Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc, the Article 13 group, and others. According to their press release of December 30, 2021, PFG “is inviting those citizens who have not yet had the opportunity to sign the original Petition to continue to add their names to the Petition. Although it would not serve its original purpose, it would serve to maintain focus on the necessity of consultation on the Act. Persons wishing to do so may send their names, together with contact mobile/cell number or address to the PFG email address: email@example.com or WhatsApp+592-6545323.”
We reproduce the petition below and invite you to add your name. When history is written, how do you want your voice registered for generations who have to live with the financial and environmental consequences of the shallow, short-sighted and rapacious behaviour of our political class? To be remembered as one who remained silent? Or as standing up for all Guyanese, as the best example of political integrity and principle?
TO: The National Assembly of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana Public Buildings
TO PAUSE CONSIDERATION of The Natural Resources Fund Act (Amendment Bill)
THE HUMBLE PETITION of we the undersigned citizens of Guyana who respectfully request the Honourable Members of the National Assembly to pause any debate on the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRFA) until proposed amendments can be considered by non-parliamentary citizens.
The National Assembly should ensure that the key natural resources of our country, on which the future sustainable development of Guyana hinges, are managed as required by Article 36 in the National Constitution 1980 and so as to maximize the net social benefit.
The purpose of the Petition (Parliamentary Standing Order 15 (1)
This Petition calls for a pause on any debate on the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRFA) in order that:
The government must fully engage with both the opposition and civil society on amending the NRF Act, with the Natural Resources Sector Committee of Parliament available to facilitate such a process.
The Petitioners respectfully request the National Assembly to pause the motion to debate amendments to the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRFA) to provide an opportunity for the proposed amendments to be made available to citizens of Guyana. Although the intention of the current ruling Party to amend the NRFA has been in the public domain for the past three years, the substance of those amendments has not been made public.
The process of amending the Natural Resource Fund Act (NRFA) represents an opportunity to address the absence of a framework of principles to guide articulation of Guyana’s specific responsibilities required by the constitutional directive which states:
“The State shall protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislative and other measures (Clause 149J (2)”
The case for a pause on the Motion to amend is rooted in:
Article 13 of the Guyana Constitution which calls for increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decisionmaking processes of the State.
the national interest in securing as unified support as possible for this important piece of legislation.
References to the proposed amendments in the media suggest they are substantial.
the substantial national interest in this Act as demonstrated by the activities detailed below.
The three years of work by civil society, leading up to the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill No. 14 of 2018.
The commitments by the ruling Party “to strengthen freedom, establish a firm commitment to democratic traditions whilst framing our priorities to be more inclusive, transparent, accountable and more equitable. We will continue to promote good governance, respect for the Constitution and the human rights of all Guyanese, while fostering an economic environment where jobs flourish and there is guaranteed income for people” (PPP/C Manifesto, 2020-2025).
“To ensure that our oil resource is managed responsibly, the PPP/C will … Establish an arm’s length Sovereign Wealth Fund insulated from political interference … Establish a regulatory framework which is independent of politicians.” (PPP/C Manifesto, 2020-2025).
“To prevent oil money from being squandered, the PPP/C will among other things: Uphold the Santiago Principles of transparency and accountability and EITI … Civil society will be involved in a central role to monitor compliance and accountability.” (PPP/C Manifesto, 2020-2025).
The Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill No. 14 of 2018 was tabled in Parliament on November 15, 2018, passed on January 3rd, 2019 and assented to on January 23rd, 2019. Considering that this crucial Bill was debated after the APNU+AFC government had fallen in a motion of no confidence on December 21, 2018, the then opposition PPP/C understandably boycotted the second and third readings of the Bill and disavowed any participation in the enlivening of the Act.
The Natural Resources Fund Bill that passed into law on November 2018 had benefitted from the most exhaustive process of scrutiny, consultation and discussion in modern parliamentary history. International expertise was sought and provided from the IMF, the World Bank, Chatham House, the New Producers Group of oil producing countries, a delegation from Ghana, along with the expert opinion of distinguished international academics. All experts were made available for engagement with civil society.
Access to the expertise noted above was made available to civil society through facilitation by the University of Guyana, contracted for this purpose by the good offices of the Ministry of Finance. The results of these inter-actions have been made available by UG at the following Youtube link:
Thurst 1: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYIqkDr B6f__xRdsmAxBdPVPR-iHTRlWx
Brain Thurst 2: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYIqkDrB6f_8WdAw UGgENR2-HAhimbf26
Non-Governmental initiatives in relation to the NRF Bill included:
a series of round-table discussions led by Conservation International;
a series of open Space meetings by Policy Forum Guyana across the coastal area;
GMSA hosted a special consultation; workshops conducted by the University of Guyana; the visit of the Director of the Goa Foundation of India, internationally recognized for its work on the intergenerational justice dimensions of extractive industries.
Taken together these processes constituted the most complete example of the intent of Article 13 since its introduction in the Guyana Constitution in 2001. This process generated a level of legitimacy which cannot be readily set aside by amendments which have never been made available to citizens. The signatories of this Petition are conscious that despite these prolonged preparatory activities the resulting Natural Resource Fund Act did not meet expectations of either the current ruling party or a significant cross-section of citizens. Clarification is also required to ensure the NRF not being used to pay off the commercial debts incurred without prior Parliamentary oversight.
Guyana is coming under increasing pressure to justify its role as a major fossil fuel producer. Guyana’s relatively negligible carbon footprint is the result of favourable land/population ratios and natural causes, not of explicit policy. Progressive policies (REDD+) have been adopted when financially beneficial and abandoned when not. The current references to prosperity for all Guyanese will quickly require more substantial justification than made available to date.
The focus on ‘prosperity’ rather than equity in the Government’s current narrative on fossil fuels leaves intergenerational equity (fairness) to the workings of the free market rather than a matter of legal and political principle. Wealth creation is used to justify depletion and degradation of natural resources, commodifying environmental loss in a manner that undermines the Constitutional principle referred to above.
Wherefore your petitioners humbly appeal to the National Assembly to accept and adopt this petition to pause any debate on the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRFA) until proposed amendments can be considered by non-parliamentary citizens.