Sea space security Editorial
Stabroek News
April 17, 2007

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After months of unconvincing responses to complaining fishermen and unfulfilled promises to deal with the country's worsening piracy problem, it was reassuring to hear that commander of the Guyana Defence Force Coast Guard Godfrey George had ordered that patrols be intensified in areas where fishermen are prone to pirate attacks.

Even if the Coast Guard possessed enough vessels to do so, patrols will hardly be enough. Realising this, Commander George called for the creation of an information and intelligence network to assist in tracking the pirates. But such a network requires a whole new system and nothing has been done to establish one.

Any maritime information system will take years to build; it will require a new generation of radar and communication equipment, coastal stations, trained personnel, a coordinating headquarters and more aviation and maritime surface vessels to start with. None of these is in place and the commander's call seems quite academic at this time. And so it is back to committees.

Minister of Agriculture Robert Persaud recently established the Fisheries Advisory Committee to oversee the management of the fisheries sector, claiming that piracy will be "one of the priority issues" to engage its attention. The Coast Guard has been recruited into that committee along with the Guyana Police Force; Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit; Guyana Energy Agency; Fisheries Department and the Transport and Harbours Department. Exactly how a fishery management committee will perform the law enforcement function of eradicating piracy is still to be explained.

The dispossessed fishermen, also, have been urged to form more committees to protect themselves; these, Mr Persaud says, should be similar to the land-based Community Policing Groups which themselves have not been conspicuously successful in arresting violent banditry in rural areas.

Mr Persaud claims, moreover, that "he has had four meetings" on the matter so far with the Minister of Home Affairs and that both he and Mr Rohee have had separate meetings with some of the affected fishermen. There has been no shortage of meetings. In his meeting, Mr Persaud reassured the fishermen that the Ministry of Home Affairs was "exploring plans" to improve interception and detention of pirates but the Ministry of Home Affairs itself has not yet disclosed what those plans are.

Without belittling the efforts of the police who raided and arrested suspected pirates at Fort and Hogg islands in the Essequibo River, it should be evident that such success is unsustainable. The police learnt about the pirates' loot and lair only when an attempt was made to sell off the stolen fish and tackle on the East Bank Essequibo.

The police then conducted searches during which they seized firearms, bullet-proof vests, outboard engines, an electrical generator and drums of diesel. The police, however, have not had similar luck on the Corentyne coast where piracy has been rampant.

For several years, gangs of pirates have been terrorizing artisanal fishermen from the Essequibo Coast and Corentyne Coast, stealing equipment and supplies. On account of the extent of the coast and the vast expanse of sea space, conventional patrols by the Coast Guard have been a mere drop in the ocean. At no time have the fishermen really been given effective protection.

Coming from areas as distant as the Essequibo Coast, Essequibo Islands, West Coast Demerara, East Coast Demerara and Corentyne Coast, desperate groups of rural fishermen continue to travel to the city to appeal to the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Home Affairs to protect them from pirate attacks. To little avail.

Fishermen for years have been fobbed off with bland assurances from officialdom when it is clear that nothing was being done to deal with the core problem of piracy. Indeed, Commander George is correct: nothing can be done until a maritime information system is set up. And that is not about to happen soon.