Conservancy Controversy: UDP Points Finger Right Back At Unions
Since Wednesday's Senate Meeting, the global organization, known as The Nature Conservancy, has been making the local news. That's after Eamon Courtenay, the Leader of Government Business in the Senate, harshly criticized a decision from the former Barrow Government to give them a 50-year tax break.
As we've reported, In October of last year, a few weeks before the General Elections, former Natural Resources Minister Hugo Patt, signed a land agreement with The Nature Conservancy.
This land is supposed to become a protected area for the benefit of the government and the people of Belize, but the PUP's Eamon Courtenay thinks that this deal comes at too high a price to the country.
You'll remember how he described it as "nefarious", and the UDP took a few days to get all the facts together before making a major rebuttal. That came by way of a press conference hosted at the UDP Headquarters, and that's when they disclose the details of the arrangement. Here's what Senator Michael Peyrefitte had to say about the TNC land deal:
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - UDP Senator
"The Nature Conservancy approached the government of Belize, through the Ministry of the Environment, and the Hon. Omar Figueroa."
"And said, we have these individuals in Belize who own large tracts of land. We want to buy that land, for the benefit of the government and people, so that you can protect your flora, your fauna, your rivers, and all that. When we analyze this particular case, we notice that to run that conservation activity for that area would require almost a million US dollars a year, just a natural injection. And that jolt to the economy every year, to provide jobs, to provide activity, to preserve our river, our animals, our trees all of that, it's an excellent, excellent scheme that benefits the country."
"So, in this case, as in all cases, you analyze the cost to benefit. You analyze the stamp duty that is to be foregone by the government. You analyze the property taxes that you won't collect, because the operations on that land, in the future, would be for the benefit of the government and the people of Belize. So, why would you charge yourself property or speculation tax, as Courtenay spoke about in the Senate?"
"So the Nature Conservancy comes to us and says we have these people in the Yalbac area who, together, have 266 thousand acres that they're willing to sell us for 72 million dollars. We will raise that money to buy it from them, and they would form an NGO to run the conservation of it for the benefit of the Government and the People of Belize."
"A Cabinet paper was done, and when that Cabinet paper was done, Cabinet considered it and approved in principle, and indicated to the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Environment, and the Minister of Natural Resources that we should go ahead and procure the execution of this arrangement."
"This is no secret agreement, sir. This was an agreement. The proposal came to Cabinet. Cabinet approved it, and the government at the time was willing to go along with this proposal by the TNC because it benefits the country immensely."
"Senator Courtenay knows that the only time that you bring land matter, or the transfer of land matters to the National Assembly is when you're dealing with Government land. So, if you're transferring or giving to the public 500 acres of Government land, for example, you need National Assembly approval. But no National Assembly approval was needed for this transfer because this is private land."
"So, for him to indicate that somehow that was done in violation of the law by not taking to the National Assembly, that is disingenuous at the least."
"Senator Courtenay made strides to mention that the Nature Conservancy's attorneys were Barrow and Williams at the time. What he failed to mention, and which is true, is that his law firm, Courtney Coye and Company, is the law firm representing the major landowners in the Yalbac area who are selling the land to Nature Conservancy. So, he didn't reveal that, but the public should know that. So, when he calls this a 'nefarious deal', is he saying that he is part of this nefarious activity, supposedly? I mean, he is big in this."
"I think there is a reason, you know, [that] he chose to bring it up in the Senate. Because in the Senate, he's protected by parliamentary privilege, and so, he can't be sued for what he said in there."
You'll remember how Courtenay focused his comments during Wednesday's senate meeting against Hugo Patt, the man who signed the deal on behalf of the former government administration. Today, he stepped forward to explain the environmental reasons for agreeing with his party that it was the right decision. Here's what he had to say:
Hon. Hugo Patt - Former Minister of Natural Resources
"When you look at that particular section of land. It is adjacent to the Rio Bravo Management and conservation area. It's forms part of what we call - and I will get into the more environmental aspects of this - it forms part of the northern biological corridor. It forms an integral part of what we call the Selva Maya Initiative. The Selva Maya Initiative is basically some 38 million acres of land that is put into conservation, some form of conservation within the region of Central America."
"When you put a price for conservation, there, in my opinion, is no price. When you look at what the world is experiencing right now, and probably the greatest challenge in this century is climate change. Whenever you have countries putting aside large tracts of land for conservation, basically as what was mentioned, it is the lungs, that we're protecting our country. When you look at putting large tracts of land into conservation, you're looking at cleaner air. You're looking at having a secure water source."
"When you look at the benefits that 5 or 10 generations will reap as a consequence of the decisions that we take, it is something that we have to consider. Don't think, as we speak, for one's self. Think about our children. What will be the air quality that our children, the children of their children, or their great-grandchildren will have if we don't make the decisions today?"
"I will speak for the north. For the past 3 years, we have been experiencing a severe drought. Part of the problem is deforestation, and when you look at the conservation of large tracts of land, and that area alone, and the adjacent Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area comprises 9% of the landmass that we have in this country. When you put this together, the stability of rainfall in that area is a huge earning particularly for those in the agro productive sector."
"In the past, farmers were able to predict weather patterns. Farmers were able to predict rainfall. They knew when to prepare for planting. They knew when to prepare for all the husbandry practices. You ask farmers - and this is not only in Corozal, but this is also across the country and across the world - how their future looks in terms of them being able to predict rainfall. They're having difficulty. The traditional way of how farmers used to operate has changed. We see weather patterns change so drastically. We very heavy rainfall one day, and the following day, you have one of the hottest days of the year."
In the Senate Meeting, Courtenay said that Patt waived all those 10s of millions of dollars in taxes, which the country now desperately needs to recover from the current financial crisis. Today, his colleague, Michael Peyrefitte, said that he misspoke. Here's how he explained why:
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - UDP Senator
"Senator Courtenay knows that this is foolishness because, under the law, Minister Patt had no authority to wave stamp duty. When you're dealing with the transfer of land, only 1 person can waive stamp duty in the government, and that is the Minister of Finance. So, by saying that the Hon. Hugo Patt at the time waived stamp, is - Courtenay knows that this cannot be the case, but he said it in the parliament because he knows he is covered under parliamentary privilege. Let me tell you what happened. Cabinet approved this matter, the SI - and I'll ready the law for you. Section 76 of the Stamp Duties Act says this, the minister may, by order, published in the Gazette, waive the payment of stamp duties, chargeable under this act in any of the following cases. And then you have a, on a transfer of land to any trust or any organization which holds such land in trust for the people and government of Belize. It's a law, you know. It's not a policy of the UDP. The law allows the minister to waive stamp duties on the transfer of land to a trust, which holds the land in trust for the people and government of Belize."
"For that stamp duty to be waived, it has to be Gazetted, which means an SI has to be created, and then, that SI has to be signed by the Minister of Finance."
"What we are to tell the nation today, as I spoke to the former Minister of Finance and Prime Minister yesterday, by the time this SI was prepared to be signed by the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, and to be Gazetted, November 11th, had come and gone. So, the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow never got the chance to sign the SI to waive the stamp duties."
"Do you know where that SI is now to be signed to waive the stamp duty so that the transfer and the deal can happen? It's currently on the desk of the current Minister of Finance, the Honorable John Briceno."
"The question is why hasn't he signed it for such a great project. If he signs it, he will have to eat his vomit. He keeps criticizing the government for not collecting taxes. If he signs the SI, he will be waiving 7 million dollars+ in taxes, and then the unions will have him for lunch."
"If he signs it, then the unions will fry him in hog fat. If he doesn't sign it, he falls out of favor with those landowners who are expecting this sale to go through. He falls out of favor with the TNC, which wants to promote conservation in the country. And then, what Mister Courtenay has done, he has opened a huge can of worms."
This evening, we contacted Senator Eamon Courtenay for comment, and via WhatsApp, he told us, quote, "The decision by the disgraced UDP administration was made in secret. It was made after parliament was dissolved and they remained a caretaker government with no power to bind the country to a deal that results in hundreds of millions of dollars, also, the transfer of our carbon rights. If they believed this was so good for Belize, and if they were transparent, they would have made it public two weeks before the elections. The reason they didn't is obvious. The current government is now forced to deal with this transaction that was hidden from the public by the corrupt UDP administration. As Senator Peyrefitte said, Former Minister Patt had no authority to waive the taxes and duties. Why, then, did he sign the deal? Whilst the conservation aspect is laudable, that does not mean that it should be free of all duties and taxes, especially in the current financial crisis. There must be burden-sharing." End quote.
Courtenay stressed that his biggest complaint against the deal is "the giveaway", which he maintains was done in secret, and in a time when the country cannot afford it.
We asked about the assertion from Peyrefitte that Courtenay's law firm represented the private landowners who want to sell the 260 thousand acres of land to TNC, Courtenay told us that he would have to verify with his office if that was the case. He said that he was unaware if that was a fact. He later confirmed that his law firm was involved, but he says that they acted in a very limited way for this transaction, which he did not know about.