Director-General of the Ministry of the Presidency Joseph Harmon says that the financial woes of the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) stem from the past administration’s $600M investment in a contentious High Street, Georgetown building.
The GFC is struggling to stay afloat, which has resulted in workers not being paid in a timely manner. This issue has garnered the attention of the labour union, the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU), and the government, who met earlier this week.
Harmon, at the post-cabinet media briefing on Wednesday, told media operatives that Cabinet was informed of the matter by the Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman – under whose purview the GFC falls – and has decided to urgently address the situation.
In relating what Cabinet was briefed on, Harmon outlined, “The minister said that there was an issue with respect to the availability of cash and that is what the union raised. The minister did, in fact, speak to some of the issues which affected the financial liquidity of the Forestry Commission and that. of course, had to do with a previous sum which was utilised by the previous administration to invest in a property at High Street, over $600M. So that amount has since then affected the ability of the commission to do certain things.”
The Director-General said also that one of the remedies explored in preventing the GFC from going belly-up is examining how it can be paid under the Norway agreement for its forest preservation services, now that the commission is involved in maintaining low deforestation levels.
“Some of the arrangements that government is looking at is to see whether in fact, under the agreement with the Kingdom of Norway, that the Forestry Commission can be paid for that service which they provide in ensuring that the forest coverage remains as it is and that deforestation levels remain at the levels at which they are at – which has actually made us one of the best countries in the world with respect to deforestation.”
The Guyana Standard was informed that government has agreed to have Trotman and the Minister of Finance Winston Jordan examine short and medium-term remedies for GFC, which will be compiled in a report and submitted to cabinet for further action.
The story of the High Street building has long been a controversial one. The property is located at 44 High Street and was constructed in 2007. It now stands where the former headquarters of the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) was once located.
Previous reports indicate that both the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) would have together put over $400M into the building’s construction.
According to the 2015 Forensic Audit Report of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), which was prepared by Chartered Accountant and Former Auditor General, Anand Goolsarran, the structure was expected to be torn down because the floors were not constructed to the required specifications.
As the “Project Executing Unit”, the NICIL’s role was to ensure that the works were executed according to the agreed specifications. However, it failed to discharge its responsibility for this project, resulting in some $350M of taxpayers’ funds being wasted, the report stated.
Aside from the monies tied up in the building, GAWU’s General Secretary, Seepaul Narine, told the Guyana Standard that there are other matters that are contributing to the state of affairs at GFC.
He said that GFC has expanded its mandate, which is also placing strain on the commission’s purse. This he said is affecting the timely payment of staff.
Narine said that GFC employs close to 400 persons and the government should do all in its power to ensure that payments are made on time, even if it means charging expenditure shortfall to the Consolidated Fund, which is provided for in the Forestry Act.