Cost constraints? Editorial
Stabroek News
September 22, 2002

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When everybody’s attention is riveted on the crime situation, other concerns, no matter how important in their own right, get shunted aside. So it is with the matter of the proposed destruction of three of the few remaining items of our industrial heritage, namely the nineteenth-century railway bridges which span the waterways between Mahaica and Rosignol.

The bridges are to be dismantled as part of the project to rehabilitate the road from Timehri to Rosignol which is being funded by IDB money. A number of concerned citizens had written to the Minister of Works requesting that the decision be reconsidered, and some arrangement be explored whereby the iron relics could be preserved and co-exist with the new road.

What must be construed as a response to this request appeared in this newspaper on Saturday, September 14, signed by Mr Walter Willis, the civil engineer attached to the Ministry of Public Works. He wrote: “... from my knowledge during the environmental studies required by the I.D.B. and the several scoping meetings held with residents in the immediate area of these bridges, no concerns were raised at that time that these bridges should remain or be retained as heritage sites.” He went on to state that “cost constraints will not permit the government through the Ministry of Public Works and Communications to retain these bridges. They will have to be dismantled.”

He proposed that the railway bridge across the Abary river be preserved plus a railway bridge and a road bridge across the Boersirie, which, he said, would retain “the history of our railroad legacy.” When we had first reported on this eradication of our material heritage some weeks ago, our understanding had been from a Ministry spokesman that the three bridges across the Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary rivers were under threat, but that the Ministry was prepared to entertain a suggestion emanating from a group of engineers that the Mahaica bridge be dismantled and then re-erected in the MMA/DA compound. From Mr Willis’s letter it now seems as though the Ministry of Public Works is to spare the Abary bridge, but not the other two.

The engineer did not volunteer any information as to why “cost constraints” would allow the Abary bridge to be saved, while condemning the others to oblivion. In addition, what is a little unnerving about Mr Willis’s argument is that he appears to be persuaded that as long as a bit of railway heritage is preserved somewhere or other in the country, then we can cheerfully dispense with our earliest railway bridges with no particular loss to the communal inheritance.

It might also be remarked that it was not sufficient for the Ministry of Works to ask the residents in the immediate neighbourhood of the bridges what they thought about the dismantling, and then to plough on blithely if those residents raised no objections. The remnants of what is reputed to be South America’s oldest railway are not merely a matter of local interest, they are a matter of national interest, and their fate cannot be left to the opinion of a limited number of villagers who may or may not be seized of their significance in larger historical terms.

Whatever environmental studies and consultations the Ministry undertook, it certainly did not tell the nation of its intentions until it was too late. As a consequence, we now have to listen to a recitation of what they presume to be an unassailable argument, namely, that “owing to cost constraints” nothing can now be done. The very least that can be said is that the Ministry failed to recognize at an early stage what the bridges represented, and that they then compounded their mistake by failing to inform themselves on the subject.

Following the publication of Mr Willis’s letter, Messrs Malcolm Alli and Max Hinds took the engineer to task in respect of other issues in letters which appeared in our editions of September 17 and September 19, respectively. Mr Hinds, for example, with reference to the Mahaicony bridge, exhorted Mr Willis not to dismiss out of hand the suggestion of a theme park, which would benefit the local people far more than a high-speed bypass. To date, neither Mr Willis nor any other spokesman from the Ministry of Public Works and Communications has responded to the observations of these correspondents.

One suspects that at the bottom of the fiasco of the railway bridges is a failure of imagination. Apart from the fact that no Ministry of Government whether funded by the IDB or not, should decide to eradicate the national heritage lightly and without engaging in the widest possible consultations first, it should also be remarked that if the Government is serious about developing a tourist industry, then it cannot go around wantonly destroying every landmark which could be utilized in the cause of developing that industry.

A bypass will not bring in the tourists, but the railway bridges might if a plan is developed with a theme encompassing the industrial history of the country.

Along with the various correspondents who have written to this newspaper, and the concerned citizens who wrote to Minister Xavier, we ask the Ministry of Works once again to explore alternative solutions which would reconcile the construction of the new highway with the preservation of our nineteenth-century railway bridges.