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GUYANA: Brazil Opens Gateway to Wider Caribbean

GEORGETOWN, Sep 22 2009 (IPS) - Earlier this month, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula DaSilva flew more than 1,600 kilometres from his base in Brasilia to a remote state on the Guyanese frontier to formally commission a border river bridge with his country’s English-speaking neighbour.

More than just a new land link, the project will eventually give Brazil a long desired economic and geopolitical footprint in the nearby Caribbean Community trade bloc.

Successive Brazilian administrations have never hidden their desire to boost the living standards of some of their landlocked northern frontier states, which have no major waterways on which to haul manufactured goods or agricultural produce to markets outside Brazil. A 12-hour land route through Guyana could change all that in a matter of years.

This is why the Brazilian government didn’t ask its less prosperous neighbour to contribute anything to the five-million-dollar construction costs of the 720-foot long bridge across the Takatu River. It did so itself, and mobilised a military engineering battalion to do the actual work.

Speaking before Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo, a clearly enthusiastic and upbeat Lula talked about the efforts by some of the left-leaning South American nations to build infrastructure projects that would physically link neighbours, spur development and boost direct investment that could improve the lives of historically poor people in frontier states throughout the continent.

But the moment that drew the most genuine applause came when he said that a Brazilian technical team will fly to Guyana in a matter of days to examine the possibility of paying for a 560-km Amazonian jungle road linking the respective border towns of Boa Vista and Lethem with Georgetown, the Guyanese capital.

Georgetown is just a day’s sailing or a 45-minute jet plane ride from seaports in oil- and gas-rich Trinidad.

Trinidad sits just above Guyana and is the most southerly of the Caribbean island chain, representing the actual beginning of the islands stretching all the way to the Bahamas. This lucrative potential market for Amazonian producers could even include nearby Central American states, North America and Europe by sea.

“With a bridge over the Takatu River, we will be incorporating Guyana once and for all into South America,” said Lula. “I am convinced that there will be no South American or even Latin American integration without the strong presence of the Caribbean,” he added.

For his part, Jagdeo pointed out that “there is room for expansion between Guyana and Brazil and the rest of the Caribbean. This is a dream come true after more than a generation of anticipation. There is no limit to what can be achieved through cooperation and political will.”

The Brazilian head of state even announced plans for a first summit with Caribbean countries next year as Brazil eyes a lucrative market that beckons just north of Guyana, the home of the regional trade bloc.

Officials at the bloc’s Guyana-based secretariat say that all Brazil needs to do to conquer the regional market is to set up factories anywhere in Guyana or fellow trade bloc member Suriname. Such a move would benefit from regulations dealing with the origin of goods – exports will be duty-free, as they will have been manufactured in a member state.

To underscore how serious it is about creating opportunities for its northern territories, Lula said that apart from stepping up efforts to pave the fair weather jungle highway, Brazilian engineers will also be flying to this former British colony to prepare for construction of mega hydro plants that will power frontier provinces on both sides of the river and open opportunities for agriculture, mining, logging and other areas.

But even as both countries remain upbeat about the bridge and possibilities that could flow from it, rights groups like the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) say they are worried more than ever about what the bridge means for indigenous, mostly Macoushi Indians, near the border.

“Right now there are barely any controls by Guyanese authorities. We already see what has happened with the influx of illegal Brazilian miners polluting rivers with mercury, bringing disease and prostitution. There have to be more official controls and we are not happy with the lack of it,” said APA spokeswoman Jean LaRose.

The APA appears to have the support of some international academics like Guyana-born Indiana University assistant professor Wazir Mohamed, who has been campaigning against Brazilian landowners seeking to cultivate rice and other crops in Guyana – where they don’t have to clash with powerful Indian and land rights groups and a government trying to correct centuries of land ownership atrocities.

He praised authorities for so far holding off on granting licenses, saying they should not be allowed refuge in any country where indigenous peoples have been waging land rights struggles for centuries.

“This affords Guyana the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of Brazil, which for a long time had turned its back as lands were being seized from indigenous Indians and the descendants of slavery by rapacious investors. No amount of short-term gain, as Brazil is now finding, out can compensate for the long term damage social exclusion brings,” he argued.

Estimates of the number of relatively poor Brazilian wildcat Garimpeiro miners working in gold and diamond pits in Guyana range from 10,000 to 20,000, many of them undocumented.

The regulatory mines commission and environmental groups have been waging a serious campaign against them for using larger amounts of mercury to recover gold than Guyanese counterparts, resulting in serious pollution of previously unspoiled rivers.

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