Business Page – July 9, 2000

Suriname’s Threat to Guyana’s (and its Own) Economy

Introduction

The media has responded in the most laudable manner to the threat posed by Suriname by its expulsion of the CGX oil rig from an area which Guyana, according to all international laws and norms, is part of its territory and over which it can therefore exercise jurisdiction including the awarding of exploration contracts. This response by our media appears to be a major shift in its hitherto Georgetown-focused approach to newsgathering and emphasis on what is news.

Admittedly Georgetown is the political and business capital of the country and what happens in Georgetown is therefore of national relevance if not always importance. But that is hardly a case for the lack of attention to what is happening to regions and communities outside of Georgetown. It would of course be unfair to Mr. C.N.Sharma and Kaiteur News if they were not identified as exceptions to this general rule.

Business Page is without any qualification guilty of this omission. Only one of the hundreds of articles published in this column over the past seven years addressed a topic that was exclusively non-Georgetown. That was on April 16 2000 in “Essequibo - Please Step Forward.”

Yet as the recent action by Suriname has shown, the threat to communities adjacent to or within any disputed territory has grave implications for the economies of those communities. On October 10 1999, the day prior to the Presidential Private Sector Retreat Business Page wrote:

“Last weekend marked the hundredth anniversary of the final settlement of the border issue with Venezuela. Always confident of both the legality and morality of our (Guyana’s) case we have become so complacent that the majority of our youths seem blissfully ignorant of the threat posed by our larger and much stronger neighbour which has offered not a shred of evidence to support its claim that the award was null and void. Prospective investment in the mineral rich region covering about two-thirds of our country will always be under threat and the Government must mobilize nationally and internationally to have Venezuela’s claim dismissed once and for all.”

Then on April 16 in the article on Essequibo referred to above we said “ No discussion on the development of Essequibo can exclude consideration of the dispute over the claim by Venezuela to a large chunk of Guyana…” 

Surprise

Any attention to our border problems seems to have concentrated on Venezuela relegating to a lowly secondary position the problem with Suriname. This is perhaps due to a tendency over the decades to respond to the neighbour demonstrating the higher level of belligerence. It must therefore come as a surprise to most Guyanese that Suriname has decided to up the ante in such a dramatic manner. Suriname is a neighbour with which Guyana and Guyanese have established strong economic and social ties. The government must have felt particularly comfortable about its relations with and its expectations of Suriname that it participated in the decision to admit it to Caricom, of which Guyana is a leading founder member and in which it plays such a critical role.

Inconsistency

Whatever Suriname thinks may be the merits of its case its conduct not only in relation to the rig but in its treatment of Guyanese operating in the Corentyne River even before the rig, its behavior is hardly consistent with its otherwise friendly and welcoming attitude to the tens of thousands of Guyanese who do business in or reside in Suriname. It is surely more than a matter of getting people with low expectations to work in their industries. There are few if any reports of ill treatment of Guyanese living in Suriname by the authorities there. The pictures on our local TV stations of Guyanese living in Suriname speak not of a people who consider themselves threatened by their hosts but who are anxious for an early and peaceful resolution of this increasingly critical situation.

As we move towards the realisation of the dream of a bridge over the Berbice River trade with Suriname will no doubt increase to the benefit of both countries. Indeed both the ferry service between Guyana and Suriname and the proposed bridge assume increased movement of goods and people for their economic justification. The case for a strengthening of economic ties between the two countries is a compelling one much stronger perhaps than is the case for Guyana and The Bahamas, to pick another Caricom example at random.

Statistics of remittances from Guyanese living in Suriname are of course extremely inadequate and the partly clandestine nature of the trade between the two countries prevents any meaningful attempt at assessing the economic contribution of the relationship. There is however no disputing the importance of the role which the contraband trade with Suriname played in carrying us through several difficult years and in the development of Corriverton as a thriving business centre in Guyana. There is arguably the greatest concentration of commercial banks in that area and the River plays an important role in trading and the forestry sector.

Human Threat

Any escalation of the dispute will put at risk not only this community and by extension the economy of the country but will also pose a serious threat to the tens of thousands of Guyanese living in Suriname on a scale hitherto unknown to us in Guyana.

President Jagdeo has demonstrated skill and courage in recruiting on the team some of the best talent in Guyana on international affairs. In his discussions with his Surinamese counterpart in Jamaica he will have to take on board the legal, moral and human considerations and it will not be easy. It is therefore extremely fortuitous that the experienced Prime Minister of Jamaica P.J. Patterson has agreed to act as Facilitator to these talks.

The prolongation of this dispute will harm both countries both of which have internal economic and political problems which require the full attention of their leaders and the most productive use of all their limited financial and other resources. Both countries will spend their limited resources on military activities at the expense of meeting the needs and expectations of their populace. Unless this dispute is settled no investment can take place in the disputed areas with serious consequences for both countries. Development does not wait and the leaders of both countries no doubt realize this.

Conclusion

President Jagdeo will find himself in a serious dilemma. No doubt he and Foreign Minister Clement Rohee want to protect and defend the territorial integrity of all Guyana regardless of the direction from which the threat comes. They must be assured and our ambitious neighbours must understand that while serious differences of opinions and values exist over deals with some investors including Beal, Guyanese do not for a moment wish to give up our territory to any bully, however big or small.

On the other hand, our leaders have to create at the formal, diplomatic level the relationship and co-operation which our peoples have established across borders, whether in the west and south by the Amerindians or in the east by the people of Corriverton.