It is a pity perhaps that Governor Lethem’s idea of a railway link between the Rupununi and Georgetown in the 1940s was never followed up. Railways are arguably less destructive to our kind of environment than roads, and in this particular instance would have integrated the south of the country with the coast at a meaningful level at a much earlier stage. In addition, this would have occurred at a more leisurely pace than would have been possible with a highway.
As things stand, Lethem in particular has fairly tenuous links with the centre of government to the north. These come in the form of the trail, air and the telephone, but in spite of them, Region Nine’s administrative centre is still a different universe from that of the coast, with its cross-border culture and independent dynamics. The population on both sides of the frontier moves easily between Lethem and Bonfim, the Brazilian township, and even further afield to Boa Vista and Manaus. The Guybraz culture is alive and well, and various degrees of bilingualism are the norm among a significant proportion of the population of the two towns on either side of the Takutu River.
The government talks in rosy, but very hazy terms about tourism; however, there is no evidence that there is any planning for the longer term inspiring their pronouncements. Have they worked out, for example, the tourist burden that the various aspects of eco-tourism can sustain in a given location? There are a number of successful independent tourist ventures in the Rupununi, often coupled with conservation efforts of one sort or another, and access to them is sometimes – although not always – through Lethem, and Lethem is anything but inviting for any tourist.
As the government centre for Region Nine, the region’s primary settlement and economic hub, and the official land entry point to Brazil, it is the victim of serious central government, if not regional government, neglect. Cross over the River Takutu to the far sleepier township of Bonfim, and one will encounter paved roads complete with pavements for pedestrians, street lights, a dependable electricity supply and a reasonably tidy environment. Lethem, in contrast, has very unreliable electricity – in fact, on Thursday one of the two generator sets currently in service went down, leaving the township dependent on one aging Caterpillar set. It means that for the time being, if not longer, each section of Lethem in turn receives only a few hours of current a day. As Georgetown knows well from bitter experience, that is not a recommended way to development, economic or otherwise.
Then there is the infernal red dust from the roads which penetrates everywhere. Every vehicle which passes churns up a choking cloud of red dust which coats anything and everything in the vicinity. The same red dust can be seen on the Lethem-Georgetown trail, but why should a populated area of a fair size which is a regional capital to boot, be criss-crossed by trails rather than roads? The few paved roads there are, are poorly constructed.
There are other issues too, such as the litter in some parts of the community – the curse of Guyana. The NDC does have a trailer which collects rubbish, but only in certain areas of Lethem. For the most part residents burn their garbage, and at any given time of the day columns of smoke can be seen rising to the sky.
For all of that some things are positive. The place has its own kind of rhythm, and in the commercial sector there is obvious expansion, much of it a consequence of Brazilian investment. Brazilians now come from over the border to shop, according to locals. Then there is the new Guyana Immigration building which is fairly spacious, and is as congenial as an official institution is permitted to be. It is staffed by courteous and pleasant officers. On the Brazilian side of the Takutu Bridge are the Federal Police, who are equally pleasant and courteous, but who operate out of less spacious quarters and who take a lunch break until 2pm in the afternoon, despite the fact that commendably, their Guyanese counterparts work through. For those travellers arriving at the Bonfim immigration and customs control point during the break, there are no chairs to accommodate them in the searing heat outside the building. At least Guyana is familiar with shift systems.
For Lethem to even begin to develop in a way that in some sense corresponds to government propaganda, the issues of electricity and the roads have to be addressed in the first instance. There is nothing to be gained from flying in with largesse and promises every five years close to election time, and ignoring the township for the rest of the time.