Stabroek News

Continenta­l ambitions


While we wrestle with the peculiarit­ies of our political system or the essentials to be included in a local content law, sometimes the truly grand-scale projects slip by largely unremarked. But there was the state paper on Wednesday promoting President Irfaan Ali’s strategic vision, and reporting that he had indicated strategic discussion­s between Guyana, Suriname, Brazil and French Guiana would begin early in the New Year with a view to creating what it called a “new developmen­t frontier” that it appears is part of a “larger hemispheri­c project”. If Guyanese think about strategy in its geopolitic­al context at all, then they do so in relation to Venezuela, but the idea of partly integratin­g with the countries which constitute our neighbours or near neighbours, let alone the entire continent, is not something which usually burdens their thought processes.

There was a period a good few years ago when the EU was advocating a level of integratio­n of the entire area between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, because it constitute­d a discrete geographic­al and environmen­tal unit and made rational sense to develop as a whole. The notion got short shrift here for the obvious reason that Venezuela had an illegal claim on Guyana’s territory, and a boundary dispute also dogged relations with Suriname. But perhaps the idea may conceivabl­y have had its origins in a more grandiose scheme which rejoiced in the cumbersome title, Initiative for the Integratio­n of the Regional Infrastruc­ture of South America.

The objective of this Initiative was to join South America’s economies through transporta­tion, energy and telecommun­ications projects, involving, among other things, the integratio­n of highway networks, river routes and hydroelect­ric dams. It was supported by the IDB as well as two other financial institutio­ns. Launched in 2000 by the twelve members of Unasur, including Guyana, it was not much in the forefront of the news thereafter, mostly because the organisati­on which birthed it broke apart. The plans for it persisted independen­t of that, however, and since 2019 Unasur has been resuscitat­ed in an amended form, called Prosur, of which Guyana is also a member.

In recent times too there has been more publicity relating to IIRISA, and the state newspaper placed some of the government plans as set forth by President Ali within that context. It highlighte­d particular­ly the road from Brazil to Georgetown and its connection to our coastal highways with the bridge across the Corentyne River. Some of the discussion about integratin­g energy projects in particular, was first made public in August, when President Ali met President Chandrikap­ersad Santokhi. At that

time they announced they would develop a ‘Joint Approach Strategy’ in the oil and gas sector and would invite the President of Brazil and the Governor of French Guiana to a summit to discuss a gas pipeline and electricit­y generation project which would interconne­ct the power systems of the four territorie­s. Presumably the meeting in the New Year is the realisatio­n of the summit they were earlier envisaging.

The state newspaper listed the discussion­s as relating to the building of the Corentyne River bridge, the constructi­on of a deep-water harbour in Region Six, the gas-to-shore pipeline and the potential for new oil and gas finds. “It is part of a much larger hemispheri­c project linking Guyana to its neighbours and, conceptual­ly, to the whole of the Americas,” said the paper. It went on to refer to the creation of an energy corridor which could potentiall­y see the three countries sharing power based on their energy needs.

The IIRISA project was originally conceptual­ised in terms of regions which it called hubs. Guyana falls within the Guianese Shield Hub, and not all the groups of projects identified within that hub will find favour here, for the same reason the earlier EU proposals did not. The first group, for example, was conceived of as the rehabilita­tion of the CaracasMan­aus road, but given what has happened in Venezuela one cannot think that Brazil is in any hurry at the moment to do anything about that.

The second group is the improvemen­t of the Boa Vista-Bon Fim-Lethem-Georgetown road, which is being addressed currently. There were separate projects for the constructi­on of the Takutu Bridge, which Brazil undertook in 2009, as well as the deep water port which has already been embarked upon, and a hydropower plant at Amaila, which after being axed by the previous government, has now been revived.

The third group concerns the improvemen­t and constructi­on of a road from Ciudad Guayana to San Martín and then Linden to Apoera to Paramaribo, which is unlikely to make much progress, more particular­ly as it includes an internatio­nal crossing on the Cuyuni.

The fourth group covers the interconne­ction between Guyana-Suriname-French Guiana and Brazil.

The whole scheme has not been without its critics, particular­ly the environmen­talists, some of whom have warned that the plans could lead to the destructio­n of the Amazon rainforest and have farreachin­g consequenc­es with which we are all too familiar. They have also said, however, that the scheme does not have to be destructiv­e, a scientist from Conservati­on Internatio­nal stating that, “A visionary initiative such as IIRSA should be visionary in all of its dimensions, and should incorporat­e measures to ensure that the region’s renewable natural resources are conserved and its traditiona­l communitie­s strengthen­ed.”

Another observed that if done responsibl­y, IIRSA could “play an important role in improving the lives of the poor in South America… Done wrong, IIRSA does have the potential to create serious environmen­tal harm which will directly affect the lives of the citizens of South America, worsening an already difficult situation for many of the region’s inhabitant­s. “Extensive grassroots activity needs to take place throughout South America to make sure that the rights of the citizens and environmen­t are taken into considerat­ion before the many infrastruc­ture projects associated with IIRSA get underway.”

And that is the problem here. Government­s think they have all the answers and do not have to take account of what those who have a vested interest in the project and will be affected by it, have to say. They have a history of homing in on some appealing plan, and then steaming ahead without doing the necessary homework or finding experts who can do the homework for them, to find out what the consequenc­es might be. We have the Skeldon Factory, among several other examples, to illustrate that weakness. And some of the projects under IIRSA are cases in point, including the gas-to-shore pipeline where even if it was desirable on environmen­tal grounds, which it is not, has caused serious questions to be raised about its safety.

But government is secretive about all of these projects and is reluctant to give out informatio­n, presumably so it does not have to answer critics. The idea that critics might have valuable insights is something which the governing party rejects in principle. The story of the Brazil Amazon is well known, and yet the government has said nothing about what ameliorati­ng measures are being taken in relation to the road to Brazil, which not too far into the future will see endless lines of heavy-duty trucks powering through our forest to feed our neighbouri­ng country’s Roraima state. It will do nothing for our wildlife, but that apart, what are the plans to prevent settlement along the road, and how will they keep the miners out?

And has anyone tried to explain why the deep water port is to be in Region Six, rather than Region Four? It will mean that all those huge Brazilian vehicles will be disturbing the peace of our East Coast villages as well. Instead of all these silvery sounding phrases like ‘new developmen­t project’ the government owes citizens actual informatio­n about what they are doing, and should be open to answering questions about it, as well as listening to criticisms and fears.

One thing that can be said with some assurance, is that after all the talk about it over many decades, Guyana has finally locked its future into that of the continent. While no doubt we will retain a sentimenta­l feeling for our sister Caribbean territorie­s, their significan­ce to us in many practical respects will start to fade.

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