The Corentyne River conundrum

Three events – the outbreak of the Black Sigatoka leaf spot disease allegedly affecting Guyanese banana plants, the contraband ‘backtrack’ trade in assorted commodities and the continuing controversy over jurisdiction of the Corentyne River – intersected last week. The consequences – another Surinamese closure of the illegal ‘backtrack’ crossing, another Guyanese half-denial of liability for the disease and another round of meetings between the two sides – were predictable.

It is a diplomatic conundrum that jurisdiction and rights of passage on the river have remained unresolved for more than forty years. It is also puzzling that the Guyana government has not attempted to eradicate the dicey ‘backtrack’ business that has been responsible for numerous arrests, deaths, loss of revenue and other crimes. Decision-makers in Georgetown must surely realise that the unregulated Corentyne crossing cannot be ignored forever and legality must replace lawlessness.

The story so far is that Suriname’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries asked the authorities at Nickerie to close the illegal ‘backtrack’ route across the Corentyne River from August 17 to protect that country’s agricultural economy, especially the banana sector, from the plant disease which it claims is “rampant” in Guyana.

Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture Robert Persaud did not deny the existence, but merely the extent, of the disease. He commented vaguely that “…an unidentified disease has been found in isolated banana fields and is at a level which has not impacted banana production negatively and is being closely monitored by local and international technical staff.”

Plant disease apart, enterprising Guyanese have managed to smuggle any goods that can fetch money – eggs, fish, fruit, meat and vegetables – across the border. Uninspected and unregulated, Guyanese goods undersell those of Surinamese producers who complain about unfair competition. Alcohol, tobacco, firearms, narcotics and more have also been traded. Suriname police in March last year arrested three Guyanese in a Guyana-registered motorcar travelling from Nickerie to Paramaribo who had more than 16 kg of undeclared gold,  with an estimated value of US$500,000.

Tax evaders, duty dodgers and common smugglers have preferred the faster, cheaper illegal route – the favourite recourse of fugitives from the law – instead of the official border crossing at the ferry terminal at South Drain-Moleson Creek. Dozens of Guyanese are arrested routinely for illegal entry, fishing without licences, using internationally banned fish cages and other offences.

Persaud met Kermechend Raghoebarsing, Suriname’s Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries last weekend to discuss “the need to enhance plant health surveillance and response mechanisms.” According to news reports, he was able to secure agreement for the re-opening of the crossing and to allow the entry of “certified” commodities. His meeting added to the long list of meetings that had temporary effects but failed to restructure the regulatory framework on the Guyana side.

Guyana’s President Bharrat Jagdeo and Suriname’s President Ronald Venetiaan had signed an agreement in January 2002 aimed at preventing cross-border smuggling, trafficking in narcotics, money-laundering, and other illegal activities, while ensuring duty and tax collection. Guyana’s Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee and Suriname’s Minister of Justice and Police Chandrikapersad Santokhi signed the ‘Nieuw-Nickerie Declaration’ aimed at preventing gun-running, money-laundering, narcotics-trafficking, trafficking in persons and other trans-national crimes, in September last year.

Guyana Revenue Authority Commissioner General Khurshid Sattaur also met with his counterpart from the Suriname’s customs administration in Nieuw Nickerie to address the issue of smuggling of goods and border control in May this year.

There has been no shortage of meetings. If the Guyana government is serious about the rule of law, enforcement of phyto-sanitary regulations, safety of its citizens, revenue collection and the long-term suppression of trans-national crime, it must regularise the Corentyne crossing.

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