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“Wealth untold!” Big decisions and referendums

Editorial“Wealth untold!” Big decisions and referendums

Monday, November 28, 2022

Governments are elected to govern, and we often boast of our functioning “parliamentary democracy,” where free and open elections are held regularly, and all our changes of government following elections have been peaceful. And when a government is in power, it is expected to make decisions and create policies that see to the achievement of “our just objectives” through the implementation of those policies by the executive arm of government, whose hands at the “plough” are the various government departments, ministries and statutory boards. But there are certain decisions that are so big, the implications for the future well-being of the nation so huge, and the likely difficulty in reversing the effect of such a decision if it was found to be in error so enormous, that a referendum is worthwhile to get the people’s direct opinion on the issue. The matter of the Guatemalan claim has been one such issue; and even before our “Independence”, it was agreed by the former colonial power that any proposed settlement agreement to end the “Anglo-Guatemalan dispute” would first be put to the Belizean people in a referendum for their approval or disapproval. So, in a well-orchestrated exercise, Belizeans were invited to vote in a referendum to take the matter to the ICJ, and let the ICJ decide on our fate.

There have been other issues that have come up, with agitation from various groups, but achieving an official national referendum is not an easy task. Besides, our referendum law is curiously and craftily worded, allowing for a National Assembly “resolution” that “a certain issue or matter is of sufficient national importance that it should be submitted to the electors for their view through a referendum;” but it does not compel the government to act as directed by the will of the people in such a referendum. So, it is left to the political expediency of the government in power, whether it will risk the wrath of the people at a subsequent election, or choose to dutifully abide by their will as expressed in the results of the referendum.

The global environmental movement, further energized by the current international effort to limit the rate of global warming and its attendant catastrophic implications for climate-induced impacts everywhere, but especially on low-lying and coastal states such as Belize, has found much support and appreciation from the Belizean population. Over the past few years, there have been private referendum initiatives launched by Oceana to protect our fishery resources from rapacious fishing gear and techniques like shrimp trawling and gill nets, and to safeguard our barrier reef and tourist beach sites by calling for a moratorium on oil exploration in our sea bed; and they have proven successful in getting government to act in these areas, thus the banning of shrimp trawling (in December, 2010), the introduction of “Offshore Oil Moratorium Legislation” (in October, 2017), and the outlawing of the use of gill nets by fisherfolk (in November, 2020).

But there are other big issues that have been decided by government without a referendum, despite a strong undercurrent of concern and skepticism by individuals with scientific knowledge and background, whose viewpoints were casually brushed aside, while the political bosses pushed ahead with their grandiose plans. Two such very big issues involve two of our national treasures which constitute part of our fabled “wealth untold”: our freshwater resources and the precious metal called gold.

Powerful politicians were hell-bent on the building of dams to utilize our rivers to generate cheaper electricity. All well and good. But damming a natural, pristine freshwater source, that thousands of residents have relied on for bathing and drinking and food/fishing for generations, is not something that a few politicians should decide without a full and healthy discussion and engagement with the people. There are many factors that give a plus and a minus to the decision, but the people were never given a chance to say “yea” or “nay.” It was just a powerful minister of government signing the deals with big multi-national companies, at what advantage to himself nobody knows; but now the residents along the length of those rivers will for the rest of their lives have to deal with compromised water quality, often making it unsafe to drink because of elevated mercury levels, and likewise the fish may be unhealthy for consumption because of said mercury levels due to stagnation of the water in the dam. Top-gallon floods were always a problem before the dam was constructed; and even with the dam, there have been major floods. Electricity rates would be much higher without the dam, according to experts, and floods more frequent. But the point here is, for better or for worse, the people should have been consulted for their approval in a referendum before such a colossal undertaking. What if one day the dam breaks? Perhaps one spinoff from a referendum exercise, given the public’s approval, would have been more constraints on the all-powerful minister in negotiating contract agreements with foreign construction companies.

Recently, there was the news of a prominent Belizean, Francis Gegg, getting in some trouble with illegal substances in a foreign country. Some years ago, his name was mentioned in a local news story about his involvement with a gold mining operation in the Ceibo Chico area for which he reportedly had a government permit. And then Amandala columnist Adele Ramos, in a May 2010 news story titled “Belize Has Unexploited Gold Areas?”, gleaned from a report by “geologist Jean H. Cornec, a founding director of Belize Natural Energy, which struck commercial oil in Belize in 2005,” that “a number of drainages in Belize have been reported to have alluvial gold,” and that “Three regions merit special consideration…: the Sittee-Raspaculo area, the Mountain Pine Ridge area, and Ceibo Chico.”

Lately, there have been efforts by a large foreign corporation to get mining permits to do massive limestone exploitation in the Manatee area.

Mining in all its forms is to be approached with caution in a small developing country like Belize, where our best long-term hope for survival and prosperity lies in the preservation of our healthy natural habitats on land and sea. As precious as quality freshwater resources are becoming in this new modern age, where some countries have to be importing fresh water, all forms of mining should be regarded with caution, because of the potential for contaminating of our streams, rivers and water table through the extraction process used in mining. And gold mining is one of the worst offenders in this area. Apparently, a number of permits have been given in the past, but this matter of gold mining should be thoroughly discussed with the Belizean people, and their approval sought before any such permit is even considered. As a matter of national policy, “we the people” should decide if we want anyone to try and remove that gold.

This is no joke, Belizeans. Our Jewel could forever lose its appeal if we allow our waters to be poisoned. They may say we are primitive. Let them be. Pristine is what we prefer to call it, and we’re holding on to what we have left. Everything labelled “foreign direct investment” seems to put a glitter in the eye of some politicians, but where this gold business is concerned, Belizeans need to be aware of what we are messing with. It’s bad enough already with the dams. If we go for gold, it could be “over”. It’s all there on the internet; just Google “environmental impact of gold mining”, and find out more on how gold mining “… is one of the most destructive industries in the world” and how it “… pollutes water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems.”

This is the new age of technology, where some folks even work from home, and if a matter is important enough to seek a consensus from the people, and if the people demand it, then it should not pose a great challenge for those in authority to start the process of education and consultation, culminating in the holding of a referendum. That is, if they consider the will of the people to be important.

P.S. It is left to be seen whether the question of massive seafloor dredging in connection with the Waterloo proposed cruise port development will need to reach the referendum stage. It has been reported that the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) has once again rejected that company’s proposal.

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