Fishermen express piracy concerns By Ruel Johnson
Guyana Chronicle
February 28, 2007

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A SMALL group of fishermen met Agriculture Minister, Mr. Robert Persaud yesterday, expressing their concerns about the increasing incidence of pirate attacks on members of their trade.

Coming from areas as diverse as the Essequibo Islands, the West Coast Demerara, and the East Coast Demerara, the men – accompanied by one female colleague – highlighted a litany of woes they faced from piracy.

One representative told the minister that from the mouth of the Pomeroon River to the north-western tip of Guyana – the area bordering Venezuela – there were hardly any fishing boats in operation because of pirate attacks.

The men noted that the pirates would usually hide their small, swift boats on uninhabited islands, attacking at dusk, or later, using the cover of darkness to hide the robberies and to escape. They said identification was also difficult since most pirates not only wore masks but were usually completely covered, including wearing gloves.

The captain of a vessel hijacked last week, Mr. Hansram Dowlitram, said his boat was attacked around 21:30h February 16.

He said the hijackers took him and his crew to an island he later discovered was called Liberty Island, and left them there. After trekking for some time through the night, they found a man who took them off the island to one of his relatives for a meal and then on to Parika where they made a report.

Owner of the boat, Mr. Vidishnand Jewanand, told the Guyana Chronicle it was a major loss for him.

He said criminal activity along the East Coast Demerara had forced him to close the shop he had operated for years and to try his hand at the fishing business. He said he had invested some $6 million in the venture and now had nothing to show for it. The hijacking occurred on the boat’s second trip out.

Police non-response was a major issue highlighted at yesterday’s meeting, with the fishermen contending that police often responded to reports by saying there were no patrol boats available to go after the pirates.

Jewanand, for example, said he was forced to pay for a boat to take a search expedition out to look for his vessel.

Another issue raised was what the fishermen viewed as relative leniency in the prosecution and sentencing of persons allegedly involved in piracy. They stated that there were cases in which proof was given against certain individuals and days after being arrested they would be free again.

Responding to the concerns raised, the minister said the government is looking at a multi-sectoral approach to the issue of piracy, stating that he has had four meetings so far with Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Clement Rohee.

Persaud added that he spoke with Rohee yesterday morning and encouraged the group to meet the Home Affairs Minister later.

Persaud said the government’s current strategy on fighting piracy has several key elements. The first was ensuring there was an efficient system in place for the apprehension, prosecution and sentencing of those involved with piracy.

“My view is,” he stated, “that anyone who is charged or arrested for hijacking, that should be a non-bailable offence. It is tantamount to kidnapping and under our laws, now, kidnapping is a non-bailable offence.”

The second element is the formation of a Fisheries Advisory Committee (FAC), due to be officially launched Friday. Persaud explained that on the FAC – whose chairman, Mr. Andrew Bishop was in attendance at the meeting – there would be representation from the Guyana Police Force, the Coast Guard and the Attorney General’s Chambers among other entities.

“The third thing we have been looking at,” said Persaud, “is that I met with Laparkan executives…In Berbice, Laparkan had stopped making engines available in hire purchase arrangements because of the incidents of hijacking and the losses they faced.”

Persaud stated that Laparkan had agreed to begin their hire purchase programme in the area again, and the ministry was also in talks with insurance companies to provide some sort of coverage for fishermen.

The fourth element of the strategy, he said, was to suggest viable alternatives to some of the fishermen affected and who were no longer interested in the industry. He said his ministry has been encouraging them in aquaculture as opposed to fishing on the open seas and officials had been visiting Berbice primarily with a view to supporting interested fishermen there.

The fifth element, he said, involved providing some form of assistance to fishermen affected.

“The reality is that our budgetary resources do not allow us to offer cash.” He said that in light of this, one of the approaches being taken by the ministry was to see if an arrangement could be made via the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) to provide seized engines to fishermen who have been victims of piracy and are unable to secure new equipment for their boats.

The minister said one initiative that has been taken in the Fisheries Department is raising some $3M – from cutting corners in several areas – half of which would be made available to fishermen’s co-op societies to purchase supplies for the use of their membership. The other $1.5M is intended to be used to either build a patrol boat for the Guyana Police Force, or to be turned over to the Force for it to have the boat built.

Persaud recommended that members of fishermen’s co-ops form themselves into the equivalent of community policing groups. He stated that, in terms of security, collective action provided a greater chance of success than individual measures. It would be easier, for example, for a co-op society with some structured system of security training for its membership to be granted a firearm licence or licences than it would individual fishermen.

He said it was also necessary for fishermen assist the relevant agencies in their investigations into acts of piracy since there was a need for adequate information, provided in a timely basis, to ensure a higher rate of successful prosecutions against those accused of piracy.

“We have a serious problem at hand and we have to work together in terms of dealing with it”, he said.