Story and photos by Alva Solomon
With a population of less than 1,000 persons, residents of the remote community of Matthew’s Ridge in the North West District are banking on the development of the nearby manganese mine to breathe life into the community.
Matthew’s Ridge, which is said to be one of the oldest Amerindian communities in the Barima/Waini administrative region, was once touted as the potential capital city of Guyana when the manganese mines were being developed there in the 1960s.
However, following the closure of the operations of the company, Union Carbide, in 1968, the community experienced a downward spiral as its population dwindled, and economic hard times came to envelop the area.
Matthew’s Ridge, according to residents, got its name from the late Matthew Young, a public official who traversed the area in the earlier years of its development. The many ridges around the area give it the second part of its name. The community is divided into three main sections: Heaven’s Hill, Hell Hill and the valley where a majority of the residents live.
Over the years the community’s survival has depended heavily on gold mining and to a lesser extent, agriculture, and residents noted recently that Matthew’s Ridge has been through the toughest of times within the past two decades.
Matthew’s Ridge resident Jennifer John told Stabroek News recently that the community remains an important area where the development of the country is concerned. She said, however, that over the years the lack of jobs, investment by government and private entities and the absence of extra-curricular activities, among other things, have all taken their toll.
John said that she was born and grew up in the community, and though she was schooled on the coastland, her home town will always remain the place closest to her heart. “The area is well known, it is known around the country and I think internationally for our manganese,“ she said.
At present, she continued, the community relies on the proceeds of the gold mining sector as well as the many small businesses “to keep it alive,” while there has been a recent spike in the population because of an influx of mainly coastlanders who have settled there in their quest for gold.
John stated that items in the shops are expensive, because of what the merchants have to pay to ferry cargo to the area. “Things in the shops like foodstuff get here by boat through [Port] Kaituma on the barge, and by plane to a lesser extent, so the price will be high… for instance in the shop a small 20 ounce Coke costs $400,” she explained.
Another resident of the community, who asked not to be named, noted that the area “reminds me of a wounded animal which is slowly moving along and which is looking for something to keep him going.“ He said that the mining community is home to a mixture of people from the coastland and interior.
“Historically, the people who lived here in the early part of the 20th century were the Caribs, but as time went by we had a mixture of other Amerindian tribes and most notably, coastlanders came into the area and set up small businesses,“ he said. He observed too that when the manganese company left the area in the late 1960s, “It took away with it all the plans and hopes we the original residents had for this area.“
Former president, the late LFS Burnham once spoke of plans to move the capital city to Matthew’s Ridge, an elderly resident recalled, and in his view had the plan materialised, the community and other hinterland areas would have been more developed economically.
During a recent visit to the area, residents told Stabroek News that the community has a number of critical matters which need to be addressed. These include health care, an issue which they noted needed to be publicized. A resident of the area during a visit to the Pekera District Hospital said that the “Cost of drugs in the area as well as some services is unfair.“ The man said that he was suffering from dengue fever and had serious difficulty sourcing the $3,000 being charged at the hospital for a smear. He said too that the hospital needed additional staff as well as an administrator, noting that the personnel tasked with discharging certain duties at the medical institution are often “away from work“.
The absence of community based initiatives to boost development, the use of illegal drugs as well as the lack of qualified teachers are also problems which have plagued the area.
Canadian manganese company Reunion Manganese recently came to Matthew’s Ridge and the presence of the company has seen a flurry of activities set in motion. The company’s officials have plans to invest in the community, including in agricultural initiatives to boost development.
Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) Chairman Burchell Flatts said that Matthew’s Ridge residents were looking forward to the manganese mines being restarted. Flatts told a public forum that the residents were eager to engage the company to develop the area’s potential.
Mathew’s Ridge is accessible by river, air and road. It lies some two hours by road from its northern neighbour, Port Kaituma. The community is home to a nursery and primary school, and a Pentecostal as well as Jehovah Witness church. Telecommunications company Digicel recently launched its phone service in the area and as the price of gold climbs on the international market, residents are banking on the spin-offs the current scenario may have on their hometown.