Essequibo - Please step forward

Business Page
Stabroek News
April 16, 2000

BUSINESS PAGE is dedicated to providing objective information an opinion on issued of interests to the business community and the public at large. The articles in Business page are prepared and contributed by CHRISTOPHER RAM. Christopher Ram is the Managing Partner of Ram & McRae, Chartered Accountants, Professional Services Firm.


Uncharitably referred to as the Cinderella County and known more recently for negatives such as the Wharf which collapsed into the river at Charity and the revolving door of contractors of the coast road, Essequibians appear finally to be taking action to develop their county. President Bharrat Jagdeo is reported to be giving serious consideration to a Draft Development Plan for the Essequibo Coast submitted by the Essequibo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This plan was a direct response to a challenge thrown out by the President to the community during a Cabinet visit to Essequibo.

The plan contains an analysis of the severe problems facing the community which have led to rapid migration from the county, and makes recommendations on a wide range of economic and social issues to raise the standard of living on the Coast. With contributions mainly from members of the Chamber and covering the period 2000 - 2005 the draft modestly admits that it is not the perfect solution but reflects "a clear vision of what we see are the needs for a better society."

Noting that ten years ago transportation to and from the Coast was "almost remote" the draft acknowledges that improvements since then have not kept pace with the rest of Guyana much less the rest of the world. It points to the huge gap between what has been achieved, what could have been achieved and perhaps much more importantly what still needs to be achieved. The challenge is indeed formidable and perhaps the greatest hope lies in the resilience of the people but any optimism has to be very guarded. Declining educational performance, deteriorated infrastructure, massive unemployment, continuing migration and a culture where the social way of life and doing business has not changed over the past twenty years are not the stuff that development is made of. Among many Essequibians development is synonymous with migration as is attested to by some of the more prominent names coming out of the region.

There is no evidence that Essequibo is as close to the political heart of our decision makers as Berbice, and the governance of the area puts into sharp relief the deficiencies of the country's electoral system. A lot will depend on the emphasis, time and energies placed on the region by President Jagdeo since all the reports indicate that the Regional Authority has at best been ineffective and unresponsive to the needs of the Region.

The draft covers the Coast only, which stretches from Supenaam to Charity and includes the Pomeroon River and Supenaam Creek. It is estimated to have a population of 62,000 of which 42,000 are over the age of 18, and 42,000 households. The area is predominantly agricultural with rice being the major industry followed by coconut and other crops. Livestock, logging and agro-industry play a part but despite the labour-intensiveness of all these activities the Chamber estimates that unemployment is "no less than 40% in absolute terms" .

The draft addresses a large number of issues ranging from education to mining. Business Page is pleased to highlight some of the issues raised in an effort to place them on the national agenda. One immediate complication which comes to mind is the potential conflict between its content and that of the National Development Strategy which is due out shortly. Will there be a consultation process which would allow the Essequibo Chamber to influence the final recommendations of the NDS?

The border issue
No discussion on the development of Essequibo can exclude consideration of the controversy over the claim by Venezuela to a large chunk of Guyana which encompasses Essequibo. Whilst the plan refers to the issue as one of the threats to the region it neither discusses it nor makes any recommendations. Ironically and very worryingly, however, Venezuela is one of the countries of choice for the large number of people who leave the region annually in search of a better living.

This is not a matter which we can ignore as it can have implications for the resolution of the issue. The Government may consider it useful therefore not only to consider this phenomenon but to involve Essequibians in the process.

This section of the plan which was compiled by former banker turned consultant Mr Conrad Plummer posits that as a first step in developing the region the skills and knowledge of the people must be addressed. The region has been falling behind the rest of the country in academic achievement whist "over 60% of the teachers at the nursery and primary levels are in the untrained and unqualified category."

Among the recommendations are the upgrading of the Community High Schools in the region, creating at least one sixth-form school, establishment of a Technical and Vocational Institute, the establishment of a campus/department of the University of Guyana on the Coast and the introduction of computer technology from the primary levels in schools.

The plan also calls on the business community to train staff and to create opportunities to retain workers in their employment and therefore the region.

Mirroring the national situation the plan gives an example whereby expensive equipment is purchased but cannot be used because no one is trained to operate it. The plan refers to the many unlicensed premises that are engaged in the dispensing of drugs and the "Wild West" culture about which it accuses the Regional authorities of inaction despite their knowledge of the problems.

It calls for the setting up of a regional medical board comprising medical doctors, the private sector and social partners.

Youth and women
The plan describes the Essequibo Coast as a "man's world" noting that that society still considers the home the rightful place for the woman and that even in their workplaces where they play active roles in bookkeeping and financial accountability they are often sidelined and not acknowledged. The plan calls for more women to become entrepreneurs and a new approach by lenders including IPED.

Among the youths, suicide is prevalent and there is an absence of social, recreational and sporting facilities. As a consequence substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism and crime are common. To combat these threats, the plan calls for the setting up of a Regional Sports Council, more relevant education and training opportunities and the establishment or rehabilitation of sporting facilities.

The national situation is reflected in this area as well. Whilst acknowledging that the Government has been attempting to achieve its goals regarding the distribution of house lots, the plan identifies the usual problems of the absence of basic infrastructure including roads, water, electricity and drainage and irrigation. The plan considers the situation in several areas deplorable and calls for immediate action to deal with them.

Several recommendations have been made in relation to transportation and crime, areas that have been a drag on the economy not only in Essequibo but across the country.

Economic issues
As expected, the plan devotes much space, time and thought to economic issues and specifically with regard to agriculture it calls for a reduced dependence on rice through diversification, the promotion of backward, forward and lateral linkages to maximise added value, a more favourable incentive regime and easier financing.

The plan considers that the Coast has the potential to be self-sufficient in pigs, sheep, goats, livestock and poultry production as well as egg production, sausages and meat for immediate consumption.

The plan considers the cattle industry and coconuts the sleeping giants which with the appropriate arrangements and incentives in place could be the catalyst for change and development of the area.

The plan calls for some restriction on the export of copra to Trinidad which is starving the recently opened Oil Mill of critical raw material and the region of precious value-added and employment.

Forestry and forest products
Noting that there is a place for forestry and forest products the plan describes in some detail a proposal submitted to the Government of Guyana since 1991 for a concession which forms part of an initiative to set up a US$3M state of the art plywood plant.

The Coast has a number of small and medium scale furniture manufacturers whose range, standards and quality can improve with the appropriate level of training and incentives.

Mining and tourism
The plan calls for effective monitoring of the declarations and environment impact but welcomes the recent relief announced by the Government on royalties payable by small operators.

Promoting the Mainstay Resort which is one of the largest investments in the region recently, the plan calls for the area to be designated a duty-free zone.

Manufacturing and commerce
The plan is sharply critical of the importation of the lawless pavement vending culture from Georgetown. The situation on market days at all the principal locations on the Coast is "chaotic" and there is a call for the construction of proper markets and the enforcement of the rule of law. The plan calls for:

* Reduction in tax rates and a widening of the tax net
* The establishment on the Coast of an office of Internal Revenue Department of the Revenue Authority
* Establishment of Customs at Charity and Supenaam
* Establishment of an army base to boost confidence and increase security
* Greater support from the Ministry of Trade in promoting the region
* Rehabilitation of the Charity Wharf
* Bridging of the islands up to Leguan and shuttle ferry between Leguan and Parika
* Dredging of the river to allow direct shipping from ports in Essequibo

The Essequibo Chamber and its President Mr Steve Hemraj deserve praise for the initiative. Clearly some further work is necessary and there should be wide consultations to obtain broad support for the plan which was submitted to the Government during the Budget consultations. It did not, however, get a mention in the Budget speech. The Chamber should persist in selling its recommendations to the politicians and the public not only in Essequibo but also across Guyana. The support of the Private Sector Commission and the Trade Union movement would be extremely helpful.

As a development initiative the plan can count on the support of Business Page. We believe that the entire county should be designated a Special Development Area with appropriate incentives and attention from the Government. Essequibo must not only not allow itself to be treated like Cinderella but in fact should take its place as an equal part of this still wonderful country.