A railway could be the catalyst that transforms the 340 miles from Georgetown to Lethem into farmland

Dear Editor,

As most of the world and our Caricom partners begin to run out of domestic food supplies and imported substitutes increase in price, all eyes will be on Guyana to pick up the slack. It would seem that both Trinidad and Barbados are already eying our vast open spaces as potential food producing lands capable of feeding not just Guyana but all of Caricom well into the 21st century. Hopefully the upcoming Regional Agri-business Forum will address Guyana’s vast potential for feeding the Caribbean and its comparative advantage in economic terms.

Guyana must plan earnestly to cash in on what is now being termed “global food insecurity.” To do so successfully, critical infrastructure will have to be put in place to provide easy access to these wide open land areas able to transport man, material and machines.
The greatest examples of how vast, uneconomic regions have been changed are to be found in the history of railways. The Trans Siberian railway which runs for 580 miles from St Petersburg to Vladivostok was built between 1891 and 1916 and still carries 30% of all Russian exports. To a large extent it industrialized, fed and unified the nation. The first transcontinental railroad was built across the USA in the 1860’s from Sacramento, California to Iowa in the Mid-West. It populated the West and changed America for ever. Similarly, a railway can be the catalyst that transforms the 340 odd miles from Georgetown to Linden (67 miles) to Lethem (273 miles) into farmland. Such a railway linking Guyana to Brazil across W. Central Guyana could make fairly inaccessible, under populated regions open to agricultural technology that could, in time, feasibly turn Guyana into the veritable bread basket of the Caribbean. It would also move the centre of food production away from the coastal belt which, as we now know, is under serious threat as a result of global warming and climate change.

The pre-feasibility study on the Linden/Lethem road was recently started. According to the Stabroek Business of April 4 its terms of reference include consideration of a set of alternatives. However, it is not clear whether this refers to alternative road routes or modes of transport. I hope it means both. A high-speed railway is clearly the answer to those carbon emission fears and its construction is likely to be more environmentally friendly than an all weather highway which when complete will be used by fleets of fuel-inefficient, high-polluting trucks of all ages and types. Solar panels could be fitted to the roofs of the trains to lower the railway’s carbon footprint. Also, with the intractable nature of our border security problems a railway may allow greater control over the flow of contraband, drugs and illegal weapons. It will be extremely difficult to monitor the type and volume of freight carried by hundreds of trucks, semi-trailers, artics and other forms of road transport on a regular daily basis.

Eventually the railway could run from a deep water port and Export Processing Zone at Crab Island on the Berbice River (seemingly the preferred location) to possibly Manaus in Brazil via Lethem and Boa Vista.

Such an ambitious project, probably lasting 5 to 10 years or more would create thousands of jobs for all Guyanese whether directly and indirectly involved in the rail construction. It will give a badly needed boost to our economy. Much of the land can be cleared by hand and small machines. To offset the high cost of construction, lands some 15 miles either side of the proposed route and the land that will be used to build the eventual new towns along the route, probably at places like Rockstone, Arisaru Mountain (40 mile), Mabura Hill, Kurupukari, Iwokrama and Good Hope can be leased to the construction company for a long period. These train-stop towns should also be sustainable with the emphasis on low emissions. To that end, government could invite sustainability city experts Arup to scope the sites for the new eco-towns. I believe, where the leasing of these peripheral lands is concerned, similar ideas may be under consideration for the road construction project.

The rail service would be used not only for transporting produce and goods along the route but it could also serve for very interesting and romantic tourist excursions, particularly if a series of well-thought-out national parks is created along the more scenic parts of the rail route. Established eco-investors like the UK’s Consensus Business Group may well be interested in this type of long-term eco-investors like the UK’s Consensus Business Group may well be interested in this type of long-term eco-venture.

More importantly perhaps the land along the rail route could become of prime agricultural importance as a result of accessibility, and amount to a landmass bigger in size than Trinidad and Barbados combined. Borrowing against this land in the form of sovereign bonds, perhaps additionally backed against the still unpaid millennium sums pledged by the G8 nations means the availability of funds that could easily cover some of the cost of the railway. The G8 could additionally support this project by providing tax relief to any corporate citizens willing to invest. Caricom governments and private sector interests can also invest in lands peripheral to the railway which are sure to appreciate in value over time. The project can be promoted as the Caricom Guyana Green Railway.

Yours faithfully,
F Hamley Case

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