Airstrip not the top Wakenaam priority

–residents say

Building an airstrip on Wakenaam is not a priority, residents who spoke to this newspaper last week said.

Students of the San Souci Primary School pose for a photograph in front of the Wakenaam Cottage Hospital.
Students of the San Souci Primary School pose for a photograph in front of the Wakenaam Cottage Hospital.

Government plans to construct an airstrip on the Essequibo River island as well as one on Leguan Island, and has allocated $184 million in this year’s budget for that purpose. This is not the first time such plans have been made; $108 million had been set aside in the 2008 budget for the construction of airstrips at Wakenaam and Leguan and the rehabilitation of one at Baramita. However, no work was undertaken.

When this newspaper visited Wakenaam on Wednesday and spoke with residents on the subject of the airstrip, only some were aware of the proposal by the administration; others only knew about it when it was mentioned by this reporter. However, most of the islanders said that instead of constructing an airstrip, the authorities should focus on other issues which need to be urgently addressed. These include the plight faced by the rice farmers on the island, the repair and maintenance of roads in certain areas, a high unemployment rate and the establishment of a water treatment plant among others.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a retired educator related that there are “other little things”, which need to be looked after at the moment. He said while an airfield on the island was a good idea, since it could enhance the island in terms of tourism and make travelling to Georgetown more convenient, the cost of air travel and the general usage of the airstrip needed to be considered since most persons on the island were poor.

According to another resident, an airstrip would not garner any economic returns. He said the island had become a transshipment point for contraband fuel and narcotics and an airstrip would only assist the illegal trade of these items. Other residents also expressed similar views. They recalled an incident which was featured in the news recently, in which persons were alleged to have had in their possession millions of dollars in cocaine in an area known as ‘the Ridge’. They said the island was a peaceful place but persons with criminal intentions have been traversing the area in recent times.

The residents said they were told that the airfield would be constructed in the vicinity of Maria’s Pleasure, a village located on the northern section of the island. However, they said that major infrastructural work will have to be done on the land in this area.

A Wakenaam farmer selling his produce from a cart which he pushes around the island.
A Wakenaam farmer selling his produce from a cart which he pushes around the island.

Additionally, the roads in that section of the island are in a deplorable state and it would cost the authorities a lot of money to repair them. This newspaper was unable to verify this since the drivers in the public transport system on the island said that, except in cases of emergencies, they rarely venture into those areas. They said the vehicles would often develop mechanical problems as a result of the many potholes and general bad state of the roads there.

No tangible benefits
Another resident related that an airstrip at Wakenaam “wouldn’t make sense”. The primary school teacher said that there would not be any tangible benefits from an airstrip on the island and the authorities should channel the money into developing the island’s current infrastructure. A rice farmer, when asked if he knew about the proposal, responded bluntly “airstrip? To go whey?’

He said persons told him a few weeks ago about an airstrip being built on the island but he thought “dem deh jokin”. He said there are more important things to be addressed at present, such as the rice industry since he and other rice farmers from the island have been waiting months now for monies owed to them by rice millers. He said the rice industry is presently collapsing and this issue needs urgent attention.

This newspaper noted that many persons at Wakenaam are involved in agriculture activities. Many persons cultivate fruits, ground provisions, coconuts and cash crops. However; the rice farmers are facing difficult times. They believe that measures need to be put in place to protect the industry from failing.

A resident of Wakenaam points to a mark on a tree where the water reaches during spring  tide.
A resident of Wakenaam points to a mark on a tree where the water reaches during spring tide.

One rice farmer related that private rice millers have been paying $2,000 for a bag of paddy; half the amount which was paid in recent times. He said the rice millers buy their paddy but have not been paying farmers the monies owed to them for about six months now. He related that they are often paid with post-dated cheques, which can only be cashed sometimes for as long as five months after. He also said that the island is in need of an excavator to adequately fix the drainage problems experienced in the rice fields. Other rice farmers substantiated his views.
Another area which residents are calling on the authorities to address is the sea defence. They said during spring tides, water sometimes overtops the sea dams located aback of their villages.

Child labour, drugs
At the home of Latchman Gheer, his 83-year-old wife said she has been living on the island for 53 years and within the past 13 years water has been flooding her yard during spring tides. She said a few years ago mud and sand bags were placed on the dam behind her home but the dam has been eroding over the years. Her grandsons showed this reporter marks on a small tree located on the sea dam where the water is usually level with the dam during spring tides.

A student of the San Souci Primary School on his way home. Many residents of Wakenaam, including students and workers, use bicycles to move around the island.
A student of the San Souci Primary School on his way home. Many residents of Wakenaam, including students and workers, use bicycles to move around the island.

While on the island, Stabroek News also noticed a few children including some teenagers at home or conducting errands during school hours. A few persons said the issue of child labour, lack of recreational activities and the frequent use of illegal drugs by youths in the area need to be addressed. They said that while there is a cricket ground in the village of Good Success, there is need for additional recreational facilities such as playgrounds to be established in other parts of the island. The provision of these facilities would keep the young  people on the island meaningfully occupied, since, according to the residents, the absence of such facilities has seen many youth turning to drugs and alcohol.

The residents also said that the Arthurville and Essequibo Islands Secondary schools located on the island need upgrading. A former head teacher said that the schools are in need of craft and home economics departments among others, to provide a broader education curriculum. He said the Essequibo Islands Secondary School has an Information Technology department but the students only use the computers after 4 pm, since the island is supplied with electricity between 4 pm and 8 am from Monday to Thursday and on a 24-hour basis thereafter. He said the electricity supply needs to be upgraded since “these are modern times”.

Other issues mentioned by the residents include, the need for an incinerator/landfill site and the establishment of a water treatment system. They said the water supplied by the Guyana Water Inc, has a reddish colour and persons only use the water to bathe and to wash clothes, to some extent The residents said the island is in need of a more efficient river transport system, since the MV Malali operates on only one engine during its journey from Parika to the island. Additionally, the residents said that the Wakenaam Cottage Hospital is in need of a resident doctor. They said the current administrator of the hospital is a retired medex and was often annoyed when residents approach him for treatment for various ailments after seeking medical attention in Georgetown. Sources at the hospital believe that the hospital is in need of more trained personnel, an x-ray department and a lab to further expand its operations.

A rice field on the island of Wakenaam nestled in front of a coconut plantation (in background). In forefront is a canal filled with vegetation and rice farmers say that adequate drainage is needed in this area.
A rice field on the island of Wakenaam nestled in front of a coconut plantation (in background). In forefront is a canal filled with vegetation and rice farmers say that adequate drainage is needed in this area.

Investors needed
There are approximately 5000 people living on the island, less than half of the 16,000 who once resided there in the early 90s. Persons related that most families have relocated to other parts of the country mainly to the housing schemes located in West Demerara. There are two ports located on the island; one which is privately owned located in the village of Noitgedacht on the eastern end of the island and the other which is managed by the Transport and Harbours Department located in the village of Good Success in the south-western section of the island. While it would take approximately 45 minutes from Parika to the latter port by speedboat, it is a mere 10 minutes to Noitgedacht from Parika. More than 70% of the residents live on the western section of the island in the closely connected communities of San Souci, Good Success, Belle Plaine and Sarah. It is within these villages that the Wakenaam Cottage Hospital, San Souci Police Station, the Regional Democratic Council office and the post office are located — within walking distance of each other.

The residents said the government should encourage overseas and local investors to invest in the island since there are vast amounts of agricultural produce such as coconuts, ground provisions and fruits which can be utilized.

Meanwhile, this newspaper spoke to a few residents of the island of Leguan at the Parika Ferry Stelling on Wednesday concerning the construction of an airstrip on that island. Like their neighbours at Wakenaam, they said that there are other important issues which should have priority over building an airfield on the island. The budget announcement has been debated by members of the public at various forums including the letter columns of this newspaper.

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