August 30, 2002
So now we are forging ahead (or trying to) with a road to Venezuela. Never mind that we can't seem to get a road to Brazil with all the necessary controls in place underway; never mind that we can't even manage the problems that the present Georgetown to Lethem trail is generating; never mind that our neighbour to the west is preferring a spurious claim to three-fifths of our land space; and never mind that that neighbour is, in addition, inherently politically unstable. All of this notwithstanding, we are, it appears, still insistent on blundering forward without adequate planning in the cheerful expectation that by so doing the country will emerge from its chrysalis of underdevelopment to become the butterfly of economic success.
A few weeks ago this newspaper carried a feature entitled, 'Georgetown to Lethem: lawless road.' In it we recorded evidence of corruption, bribery, and incompetence on the part of officialdom, as well as the degradation of the environment along the rudimentary highway which carves southwards through our forested interior.
Our reporter who made the journey described how the Brazilian miners travelling with him had flawed documents, and how he saw them pay a bribe to the policeman on duty at Mabura Hill. He listened too as the driver of their vehicle complained that the police had not given him his normal cut from this bribe. The reporter wrote that it was evident that there was a "nexus between interior police outposts, passing cruisers and Brazilian miners," and further, "that people passing through (and living on) that route had their own ways of subverting the law".
The Brazilians who later reported to the Lethem police outpost were humiliated, he said, by a strip-search in public. The one miner who was not prepared to subject himself to this procedure because he was carrying gold out, disembarked from the vehicle before the post, and then reappeared subsequently on the other side of the Takutu. Circumventing the local authorities clearly presented no particular challenge.
The immigration official at Lethem was hardly a model of efficiency either. Our reporter related how it took about an hour-and-a-half to get an exit stamp organized because the officer was asleep.
Disturbing at a different level was the littering of the forest. The reporter wrote: "I was almost glad, in a way, that we couldn't find packaged food easily en route. Through the journey, start to finish, the occupants of the cruiser (Guyanese and Brazilian) steadily spewed an unending stream of plastic waste into the forest. Finished with the water can? Out it goes. Cigarettes over? Throw the packet away. Old tins? Chuck them. I asked one of the Brazilians much later, why he did that. 'I take care of my forest in Brazil. Everyone throws garbage in Guyana,' he said..."
In such an authority vacuum, it does not take much imagination to visualize what will happen when a fully-fledged road goes through, let alone when a deep-water port facility is added at its terminus. If the country has problems with bandits, deportees, drugs and imported crime methods along the coast now, just think what it will be like when Guyana becomes a major transit route for Colombian cocaine and heroin. As the pressure mounts in Colombia itself against guerillas whose activities are funded by drug operations, alternative corridors will be sought by the cartels for the export of narcotics. For some time now, for example, one third of all Colombian cocaine has been exported through Venezuela.
In addition, given the 'lawless' state of our hinterland, it is not too difficult to conceive of the appearance of cocaine processing laboratories in our forest, once the drug lords have an easy exit route. In other words, while the road to Brazil has the potential to facilitate our economic development, if it is not properly controlled, it has an even greater potential to destroy our legitimate economy, and, it might be added, what is already a very fragile society.
The question of environmental degradation too is pertinent, not least because we are seeking to develop an eco-tourist industry, as well as because the Lethem road will bisect the Iwokrama reserve. Of course, the Government's whole approach to interior roads highlights its failures in the area of macro-planning. After ten years in office, it still has no hinterland policy reconciling the often competing requirements of Amerindians, extractive industries, border security, conservation and eco-tourism, and now willy-nilly it is adding roads to the mix.
The Brazil road will eventually become a reality. The point is, however, that before that happens the Government must start doing some serious planning with input from all the relevent ministries, agencies and stakeholders to evolve a viable interior policy. In addition, it must address itself urgently to the question of the rule of law and the hinterland.
And finally, the Minister of Foreign Affairs should halt all discussions on the matter of a road to Venezuela for the time being. Aside from the obvious point that we need to see what difficulties the Brazil road throws up before embarking on an arterial link to the west, as already suggested above, there are political reasons why in Venezuela's case we should exercise extreme caution. Surely Mr Insanally, who has considerable diplomatic experience, needs no detailed lectures on what these are. One can only hope that he will advise his more impatient government colleagues to make haste slowly in this instance.