Waini residents open to Beal deal but want much more information
Concerns raised over employment, relocation

By Andrew Richards
Stabroek News
June 10, 2000

The Beal spaceport deal is good for the development of the Waini area but the government needs to meet more regularly with the Amerindians in the region so that they could better understand the issues involved. This is the general consensus of the Amerindian people who live in this remote zone in the North West of Guyana where the Beal Space Launch Facility will be installed.

When Stabroek News met and spoke with some of them last weekend in the Waini, the residents expressed reservations about the relocation process and called for a guarantee from the government that their future welfare will be secure. A few captains of Amerindian villages surrounding the launch site are a bit sceptical about the benefits for the Amerindian people being advanced by the government.

Beal has agreed to set aside US$400,000 to cover the costs of relocating families in the area and this sum has been heavily criticised as inadequate. The government has since said it will top up this figure from its own resources if necessary. What "relocation costs" exactly will be covered under the deal is still to be explained in detail by the government.

"Most people here agree to the deal but are concerned about the relocation process," said 60-year-old Romeo Gonsalves, who has been farming in the Waini for some 20 years. "We are not mindful of moving to accommodate Beal but the relocation is too big an issue for us to deal with. We should get some form of legal representation during this process."

Gonsalves has sixty and one-half acres of land located at Hanawabemanau, an Amerindian word for "second lagoon". The farmer said he understood that according to the agreement, it was okay to farm in the buffer zone of the launch facility. He said, however, that this could not work because it was also stated that no permanent structure could be constructed in the zone.

Whenever work was being done in these areas the owner has to live on the land, Gonsalves stated, or else it would not be worth the while.

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds explained to the residents that Beal has not yet pinpointed a specific area for the launch pad and this needed to be done early, the farmer stated.

Despite the assurances from the government, some residents are also a little concerned about the effect of the emissions on the environment whenever there is a launch. Under the deal with Beal 25,010 acres at US$3 per acre will be sold to the American company for the primary site and the buffer zone will comprise around 76,000 acres for which Beal will pay easement fees of US$1 per acre per annum. The Texas-based company will not have exclusive control over the buffer zone.

Family unsure of future

An Amerindian family residing at the first lagoon in the Waini are unsure of what the future holds for them. Depending on how one looks at it, the first lagoon could be the first one that is met when travelling downriver from the source. It could also be the first one when travelling upriver from the Waini mouth. The residents use the first pattern as the basis of identifying the lagoons.

Leonard Charles and his family of eight have been living in the first lagoon for three years. They currently have two acres of land under cultivation. When Stabroek News visited the lagoon, the family were at work preparing the land. Charles said they have put in hard work to drain the land and have constructed dams to keep it from flooding.

He pointed out that he did not have legal documentation for ownership for the land but emphasised that it was Amerindian territory and his family had a right to reside there.

According to Charles, he was told that the government had a list of only 30-odd names of families who will be compensated for their removal from the area and theirs was not included. He is not against moving, but is afraid that he and others in a similar situation will have nowhere to go because they would not be officially recognised by the government.

His spouse, Rita Joseph, said they had left White Creek, Wauna, to take up residence at the first lagoon. "Where are we going to go now? The government is not explaining the issue properly to us. They are using a lot of big words like 'buffer zone' which we don't understand," she stated.

The people need to know more about the deal, she said. Most of the information they receive is from the Amerindian People's Association (APA) but the government needs to do more work in this area, the woman said. All the information is being peddled in the urban areas along the coast, especially Georgetown, but they need to speak to the people who will be directly affected, Joseph argued.

Region One Chairman Norman Whittaker in a public advertisement has said that under 200 persons from 37 families now inhabit the areas of the Lower Waini and the lagoons located around the propsed sites.

A dream come true for farmers

Terry Gonsalves, who owns a 74-acre farm with his wife, Maria, said that based on the information being given out by the government the Waini area stands to gain many advantages from the investment by the American company.

The economic spin-offs from the Beal project will do the area good, Gonsalves said, speaking to this newspaper at his Wakahena home. He stated that even though there was farm land in the area, the difficulty in tapping markets for the produce would sometimes make it infeasible to farm.

"With Beal coming in here it would be like a dream come true. Think about the economic benefits we would get: contracts to provide produce, fishes etc," he stated.

His wife observed that with the increased traffic in the area when the launch facility is built, it would be difficult for intruders to traverse the area. Persons are known to sneak into the Shell Beach area to slaughter turtles of which three species are endangered.

Gonsalves said his family had not previously thought about moving but now that they may have to, they are thinking about relocating to Morebo about 27 miles away from Wakahena and 70 miles from the Waini river mouth. Gonsalves said the residents have no idea about the satellite industry but are relying on the government to ensure all safeguards are taken.

The Environmental Impact Assessment is being keenly awaited by the Amerindians to see the outcome of the study, Gonsalves said. He is of the view that only certain residents are being given information and government needs to widen its scope so that everyone could be informed.

He noted that the last meeting hosted by the Prime Minister was held at a residence adjacent to his which, he stated, is not a central point. It would be difficult for the people living further downriver to paddle to that area to hear the Prime Minister, he said. There is a lot of information which the residents could divulge to help the cause, Gonsalves said, but the people are not getting a chance to meet the government teams.

The Prime Minister's weekend meeting was held last Saturday at Katchikamo where the D'Andrades have a farm they have been working for 21 years.

Maria D'Andrade said that at present everything is at a standstill economically in the area and the constant rain added to the woes of the farmers. Much damage is caused by the rainfall and the little profit gained by selling produce is plugged back to repair damaged dams to keep the water out.

She said the residents who have to move have been assured they will be compensated. The family is undecided if they will continue farming when they relocate, she stated. She felt sure that businesses will pick up when Beal establishes its launch facility in the Waini.

Captains decry lack of information

Joseph James, the captain of Assakata located 25 miles by river from Kumaka, Moruca, asserted that because of the uncertainty of exactly where the launch pad will be constructed, his people are unsure of their future. They are being told that the village may be included in the buffer zone, but this has not been denied nor confirmed by the government, he said. There needs to be clear definition of where the boundary will be, he said.

Andrew Courtman, the captain of Kwebanna, which is 22 miles from Kumaka by road, said no one from the administration has explained how Amerindians will benefit from the Beal project.

He said his community has heard, not from the government, that some 500 jobs will be created initially. He pointed out, though, that the few Amerindian people are known to be technically qualified to work on such a project. "We are not against the investment but the government is taking us for granted," Courtman stated.

John Atkinson, the Santa Rosa captain, said the Amerindians have learnt from the Barama Company Ltd experience where the Amerindian people were promised jobs and development in the North West area. This did not materialise then, he said, and there has been no improvement since.

Atkinson was seated on the platform on Saturday at Kumaka when the Prime Minister addressed the residents on the Beal issue. He said he requested that he be given chance to speak at the meeting but was denied. "This is ignorance. All I wanted to do was to give my views and the views of the villagers on the project and to give some recommendations," he stated.

At the Kumaka meeting, Hinds said there was a lot of misinformation circulating about the project. He pointed out that the government is still open to questions on the issue. He assured that what the government was doing was for the benefit of the people of Region One and Guyana as a whole.

Hinds said the Guyanese people have a history of being suspicious of foreign involvement in projects here. But Guyana needs partnership with the foreigners for the country to develop, he stated.

He noted there were concerns about the preservation of the Amerindian way of life but said the Beal investment will make a better living for the Amerindians in the region.

The Prime Minister took the opportunity at Kumaka to hand over copies of the Beal agreement to the Captain of Santa Rosa and to the APA which made its presence felt with loud heckling during Hinds's presentation.

The Prime Minister was accompanied by Amerindian Affairs Minister Vibert De Souza, Local Government Minister Harripersaud Nokta and Region One Chairman Norman Whittaker.

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