Prodding the Ministers Editorial
Stabroek News
July 12, 2002

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Following two letters which appeared in our edition of June 25 arguing for the preservation of the three nineteenth century railway bridges spanning the Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary rivers, there has been complete silence from the Ministry of Works which still, it seems, has every intention of demolishing them. There has been silence too from the Ministry of Tourism, which, one might have thought, should have more than a passing interest in the matter. Not to forget, of course, the Ministry of Culture, whose Minister is the one with the power under the National Trust Act to slap an interim preservation order on the bridges in question.

While our bureaucrats sleep the sleep of the culturally insensate, those in other parts of the continent are stirring under pressure from private organizations, particularly the World Monuments Fund. They are awakening to the need for preserving their heritage, including their industrial heritage.

According to the Boston Globe, the World Monuments Fund has been looking at the restoration and preservation of the nineteenth century railway installations of the Brazilian town of Paranapiacaba. If it is not exactly a name at the forefront of anyone's consciousness, it was once, says the Globe, an important railway link between the hills where coffee was grown, and the port from where it was exported. "British engineers figured out a way to pull train cars up the steep, previously unnegotiable slopes," reports the paper, and it became their most successful railway. After they departed, "they left behind an industrial archaeological oasis largely untouched for decades."

The report states that the Fund's interest in the railway of Paranapiacaba came out of an NGO conference in Sao Paulo earlier this year, the very first to be organized on preservation in South America. More than 150 experts in the field said their piece, unfettered by officialdom. According to the Globe, the conference was told that the Hawaiian Islands attract more tourists per annum than the whole of South America, a situation which the continent would like to do something about. In this context it was recognised that cultural and heritage tourism are significant contributors to revenue around the world.

Well, as we all know in this country, not quite everywhere around the world. Certainly not in Guyana. It is difficult to imagine our Government committing itself to the preservation of what remains of our industrial (or any other) heritage in the way that the Chilean Government has, for example, in the case of the nineteenth century elevators of Valparaiso. Yes, it costs money; but money is not the main impediment to action because there are sources of funding available. The main impediment is a lack of consciousness of the heritage, as well as a lack of commitment, a policy and a plan.

Suriname, which in this department is light years ahead of us, has succeeded in getting the city of Paramaribo on to UNESCO's World Heritage List. To its credit, the National Trust is trying to do the same for Georgetown. However, that is a good while down the road, and in the meantime the destruction of the capital's colonial buildings goes on apace.

While it is true that Guyana's current political travails hardly serve as an inducement to tourists, that is not an excuse for the wilful destruction of our heritage by a Government Ministry. And it is equally no excuse that the funding for that destruction is coming from an international agency. Some time in the future, one hopes, Guyana will be stable again, and we will be able to develop a viable, if limited tourist industry. In the meantime, we owe it to our forebears, we owe in to ourselves, and we owe it to future generations to be good custodians of the material bequests from the past.

As indicated above, by its silence one can only conclude that the Ministry of Works is hoping that with all the dislocations in the country, the iron bridges from what is reputed to be South America's first railway will have been demolished before anyone wakes up to the fact. Will all the relevant ministries, agencies, organizations and individuals forget about the politicians and the political impasse for a moment, and turn their attention to a problem of a different kind, but one which also will have an impact on our future.

Will someone prod Minister Xavier into some kind of awareness that he cannot go ahead with the tenders for the destruction of the bridges; will someone sensitise the IDB which is blithely funding the destruction of our heritage to the need for amendments to the road project; will someone explain to Minister Nadir why the demolition runs counter to any tourism programme which he might have in mind; and will someone please, please, advise Minister Teixeira to issue an interim preservation order on the bridges in question.