Integrating infrastructure in the Guiana Shield By Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Chronicle
February 25, 2007

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ON DECEMBER 13, 2006, the national coordinators of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) met in Quito, Ecuador, to review the progress made by this special unit organised within the framework of the South American Community of Nations.

The meeting reassessed the objectives surrounding the construction and integration of communication and other forms of infrastructure in the ten development “hubs” across the South American continent.

The IIRSA was launched in 2000 by the South American presidents in Brasilia, more than four years before the formation of the South American Community of Nations. No doubt, the presidents were fully convinced that an integrated communication and infrastructure system could be a determining factor in advancing continental unity.

Subsequently, meetings of specialists from the 12 countries proposed a list of 335 major projects to increase economic opportunities across the continent by building highways, railroads, bridges, dams, ports, waterways, natural gas pipelines and electricity networks and improving telecommunications, among other initiatives. Many of the planned projects overlap national territorial boundaries.

These projects involve an investment of nearly US$38 billion. Technical and financial support will be provided by the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Financial Fund for the Development of the Rio de la Plata Basin (FONPLATA), and other regional financial organisations.

These financial institutions have already drawn up an action plan prioritising specific projects. This action plan is overseen by a South American Infrastructure Authority at ministerial level whose task is to identify projects qualifying for IIRSA funding in the ten “hubs”, designed on the basis of actual and potential trade flows.

But some civil society groups in various countries are critical of a number of the projects claiming that they could pose major environmental risks to areas with a high concentration of biodiversity. They also feel that since many already poor countries would need external funding for project implementation, this will force them to increase their indebtedness.

Interestingly, many of the projects involve only the improvements of some already existing infrastructure. But even these are criticised by environmentalists and indigenous groups for having negative effects on surrounding eco-systems. These include the Camisea gas pipeline in Peru which takes natural gas from the tropical Amazon jungle region to the country's Pacific coast, and the huge Argentine-Paraguayan Yacyretá dam, currently being developed.

The ambitious 8,000-kilometre gas pipeline project, announced last year by Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, faces similar opposition. This pipeline aims to transport natural gas from north-east Venezuela to Argentina when it is completed within the next decade.

Despite the criticisms, the South American governments are pressing forward with these integration projects which they are confident will substantially improve their countries’ economies and the lives of their people.

IIRSA has mapped out the Guiana Shield hub for the infrastructural integration of eastern Venezuela (the states of Sucre, Anzoátegui, Monagas, Delta Amacuro and Bolívar), northern Brazil (the states of Amapá and Roraima), and the entire territory of Guyana and Suriname. French Guiana is not included, but some governments want its inclusion since its coastal road is vital for linking the Brazilian state of Amapá with Suriname, Guyana and Venezuela.

This hub has an estimated area of 2.7 million square kilometres and a population of 21 million. However, with its very low population density of just about 5 persons per square kilometre, it is one of the least developed hubs on the continent. But it has significant urban centres such as Manaos, Macapá, Boa Vista, Paramaribo, Georgetown, Ciudad Guayana and Ciudad Bolívar.

The Guiana Shield has two markedly different economic sub-regions, one with value-added production and relatively high population density, and the other, with abundant natural resources and a low population density. The more active economic section is located in eastern Venezuela with its petroleum industry and steel, aluminium and other manufacturing plants. The lesser developed area, which includes Guyana, Suriname and the Brazilian states of Amapá and Roraima, is developing at a slower pace with low value-added activities and contributes only about 12 per cent of the hub’s GDP.

Nevertheless, the lesser developed area has, overall, an immense development potential with its mineral, hydrocarbon, forest, and fishing resources, as well as vast areas of arable land – all of which are under-exploited. The territory also includes the Amazon ecosystems, vast savannahs, numerous rivers, waterfalls, mountains and a lengthy Atlantic and Caribbean coast, which demonstrate a huge tourism potential. The general objective of the IIRSA plan is that this potential will be realised by the extra-territorial integration of communication network and other infrastructure.

The integration of communication infrastructure will no doubt boost development at various geographical nodal points within the Guyana Shield hub. Already, with better road and river links between Manaos and other Brazilian population centres, that city has boosted its production of processed food, electronic goods, motorbikes and automobiles. A free zone has been established and the city now has a population of more than a million with several universities and research centres. Its growth, undoubtedly, has helped to generate economic development in the hinterland state of Roraima.

Clearly, this is a pattern that can develop in the Rupununi region of Guyana as permanent road links are established with Brazil with the construction of the bridge across the Takutu River and the completion of the interior highway to Linden and Georgetown.

Actually, the Takutu Bridge, the interior highway and another highway linking Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela and Linden are listed as projects in the IIRSA plan. Also on the list is a deep water port for Georgetown, but further studies on this are still pending. More recently, IIRSA has mentioned the Amalia hydropower plant in Guyana as an infrastructural project for possible support.

It is obvious that the IIRSA plan for the Guiana Shield hub cannot be fulfilled in the short-term. But a start has already been made, and incremental implementation is expected to follow.

Ultimately, the political commitment of the respective governments will determine how successful it will be.

(The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)