Community leaders trying to soothe east coast tensions
'Marginalisation' seen as key issue

By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
April 30, 2001

In the aftermath of the unrest that gripped the East Coast earlier this month, community leaders are calling for peace and trying to heal frayed ties while also urging that cases of marginalisation and discrimination be addressed.

Speaking to Stabroek News recently, Region Four (Demerara/Mahaica) Chairman Allan Munroe feels that government, which he said has favoured some communities over others, is to be blamed for the protests which began over a month ago and which led to disturbances in communities on the East Coast following the March 19 general elections.

The spark for the unrest was a confrontation between the police and Buxton villagers after some Buxtonians had attacked and beaten two elections workers. In the days that followed fires were set to block roads and many villagers along the east coast were robbed and prevented from travelling freely on the public road. Many people stayed in their homes afraid to venture out of their villages.

Two communities which have experienced strained ties as a result of the recent upheavals are Bachelor's Adventure and Enterprise.

Many people, who were part of the protest were adamant that they were not inciting a racial conflict but were fighting a system that discriminated against them because of who they were and who they voted for. These same people claimed disenfranchisement as the source of the problems.

How are the communities trying to deal with the problems? Young people from Enmore have been known to put up posters along the sides of the main thoroughfare calling for peace, dialogue and good sense to prevail as some residents in their community have been victims of abuse because of what they perceive was because of their ethnicity.

Leaders of the Bachelor's Adventure and Enterprise Local Authorities have set the pace to ease the tension among the two communities by holding talks over the past two weeks to ensure security for residents in their homes and moving from one community to the next.

To get an idea as to the situation on the East Coast, Stabroek News last week met with Munroe, the political head of the PNC-controlled Region Four and leaders and residents of Enterprise, Bachelor's Adventure, Enmore and Golden Grove to get an insight into the differences which have unsettled communities.

Munroe did not see the protest as originating from ethnicity. People, he said, were unhappy with disenfranchisement because they were concerned that their votes could have made a difference to the state of affairs they perceived as marginalisation and discrimination "the effects of which they have been experiencing. Many (of them) are bitter because they are not seeing chances for employment which is a big issue".

Giving examples, Munroe said that there are some villages where infrastructural works need to be done. However, the Regional Democratic Council's (RDC) programme is generally retarded by the national budgetary allocation which is generally below that which is requested. This he said puts the RDC in a very difficult position to execute projects it deems necessary.

He said that the drainage and irrigation (D&I) system in the agricultural lands aback of Victoria, Belfield, Nabaclis and Golden Grove need rehabilitation. Because of a poor D&I system no one is encouraged to farm or to occupy those lands as there is heavy flooding when the rain falls. When flooding occurs "compensation means a cutlass, a file and perhaps some seeds".

Since 1991, Munroe said, a programme had been designed for major works to be undertaken in those areas by Central Government and since 1994 the region has been hearing that funds are available and the projects will be undertaken but nothing ever happens within those communities. Yet, he said, neighbouring communities which have traditionally supported the party in government get Central Government funding for similar projects.

Using Central Government funds, he said the government has built spanking new roads and markets and executed a number of projects in some areas such as Enterprise and Mon Repos while next door at Melanie Damishana the roads are in dire need of repairs; Buxton cries out for drainage and irrigation, good roads and a market. The RDC, he said, can only patch a few roads with the funds it gets and do maintenance works.

At present Buxton is without a good market. The market, which is in need of rehabilitation, is being used to house the pupils of the Friendship Primary School while a new building is being built to accommodate the school.

He noted that funds were quickly found to complete the Mon Repos market and to get people to occupy when it had been deemed a white elephant.

In an interview, a senior regional administrative official, who preferred to remain anonymous told Stabroek News that funding for capital projects in the region are indeed retarded by budgetary allocations which are generally slashed by less than half of what is requested.

He said that last year the region sought $178 million but got $75 million; the previous year, the region sought $150 million and obtained $78 million. This year the region is seeking $171 million but the question now is how much will it get?

Though Central Government and other agencies conducting projects in the regions are supposed to inform the regions about pending works and supply the region with copies of the contracts after they had been signed, Central Government has been failing in this regard, he contended.

He said that apart from Central Government, the Social Impact Amelioration Project (SIMAP) and the Basic Needs Trust Fund (BNTF) have been carrying out projects in the region but to their credit they have been providing the region with the necessary information and documentation. These projects would be based on the demands from the communities to those funding agencies.

In terms of Central Government funded projects, the senior official said that "you would just see a structure being put up or roads being built and you're just left with your mouth open." Even with their authority they could have extended some courtesy, he said.

Sometimes, he said that Central Government, without consulting the region embarks on a project which the region had budgeted for. In that case the region has to go back to the drawing board and request that the funds be diverted to other projects.

He noted that the region has done some of its own works including the rehabilitation of the Mon Repos Nursery School, the rehabilitation of two roads in Buxton, and rehabilitation of others at Grove and Herstelling on the East Bank Demerara.

In addition, he noted that Neighbourhood Democratic Councils carry on their works through government subventions and the collection of rates and taxes. Affluent communities, he said may be able to get more work done but relatively depressed communities like Buxton and Victoria cannot afford to pay up the rates and taxes demanded of them because of economic considerations there.

While Munroe feels that marginalisation and discrimination may be the source of the tensions on the East Coast Demerara, a village leader of Enmore who preferred anonymity said that everything the community now has, "it had to fight hard for".

He said that if the village did not get started on a project itself government would not come and do it for them. Not naming any project but inviting this newspaper to visit, he said that the community would begin its project by itself and government seeing the work it would have begun on its own, would chip in or complete the work.

When Enmore was without telephones and other neighbouring communities had telephones, the community had to fight both government and the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph company to get the service. Nothing he said comes easy.

Enmore, he said, had to get an active community policing group because at one time the community was completely cut off and no help was forthcoming from the police when help was urgently needed because of the absence of telephones to communicate urgently. The area, he said had been prone to violent robberies and people's lives and properties were at risk. The situation has not changed very much but people feel safer with the community policing groups, he said.

He said that residents of Enmore want to be friends with neighbouring communities but because people are suspicious of each other, things will not change overnight but villagers are willing to discuss their differences in a cordial manner. How and when that will be done will have to be explored, he said. He noted that young people in Enmore took the lead in wanting to promote peace by posting up a number of placards along both sides of the village at the eastern end on the day that slain Water Street vendor Donna McKinnon was buried at the neighbouring village of Golden Grove. The messages were clear and called for unity - `Our Sweat, Our tears, Soaked one Soil', `Let Peace Reign', `Indians are not Racists', `Hoyte and Bharrat, Please Talk' among other slogans.

One of the young people who had put up the posters told this newspaper that he did not want to grow up with hatred for any race group but with love for all. He said that the old hatred was being perpetrated by the older folks, even within his own community. He said that if it is being perpetrated in his community which is predominantly Indian in origin, he feels the same is being perpetrated in other communities which are predominantly populated by peoples of other ethnic origin. This, he said, is the source of the problem and "it must be tackled but it cannot be tackled if we fight one another." He said it is frightening when the majority of the people you see who are being beaten and robbed are of Indian origin.

Village leaders of Bachelor's Adventure Eric Anderson and Tularam Jairam of Enterprise said that the leaders from both of their communities have been meeting to eliminate the level of provocation which they feel their communities had been experiencing at the hands of each other.

Because of the tensions, persons who would buy and sell in neighbouring communities peddling their goods in baskets from bicycles, donkey carts or from their shoulders have not been going into each other's communities.

There had been reports of the exchange of gunfire between the two communities with people being terrorised at both ends. While residents of Bachelor's Adventure and Melanie Damishana claim that the vigilantes at Enterprise "come out showing off their weaponry" they said that "the vigilantes must be warned; that they must not believe that they are dealing with impotent communities."

Like the village of Enmore, the residents at Bachelor's Adventure and Melanie Damishana said that they want peace as well but they will not accept peace at all costs. Residents of Bachelor's Adventure (a community of Guyanese of predominantly African origin) said that they have over 100 children attending school in Enterprise (a community of Guyanese of predominantly Indian origin) and would want security for their children or they would not send their children to school.

One resident of the Bare Root, the community next door to Enterprise said that the vigilantes go there and terrorise the people there because they have weapons.

In the same manner they have had and are having discussions on resolving differences with Bachelor's Adventure, the leaders in Enterprise have said they would welcome discussions with the people of Bare Root.