In bad weather the long roads leading into Region Nine can seem like another country. At times like this the gap between coastal and hinterland communities appears at its starkest. After the relentless rains batter the fragile red earth surface of the road to Lethem it exposes it to the mercy of the huge, heavy trucks heading for Lethem, laden with supplies of all sorts. The truck drivers have no clear idea as to whether or not they will get there. They may reach a point where, without help, the road will prove impassable. There is a knock-on effect. The goods on the laden truck may eventually become in short supply.
When we got to Lethem about two weeks ago we met a community that appeared to have good reason to celebrate. Contractors had finally been recruited by the government, to surface the roads and install an underground concrete drainage system. A businessman named Anil Narine told us that the flooding that usually affected both social and commercial life after every brisk downpour had persistently sucked some of the economic life out of the community. It would, he said, be good to finally be able to cross the roads and drainage in Lethem off the list of ‘to do’ things.
The bigger headache remained getting to Lethem by road during the seasonal inclement weather. Once the roads become impassable there was no choice beyond the more costly aviation option. The heavy dependence on the condition of the access road keeps the community guessing.
The inconvenience associated with ground transportation in Region Nine during the rainy weather is a microcosm of a wider problem. The reduced
ability to move stock to the shops in the region impacts on what is already a fragile economy. There is another problem. Lethem serves as a kind of trading post for other even smaller communities and getting to Lethem in bad weather is – to say the least – not easy.
When the weather is favourable A&U General Store, which has been operating in Lethem for around fifteen years ‘imports’ around 65,000 pounds of goods into Lethem every two months. The goods are hauled by truck and the cost per trip is $550,000. Fuel alone accounts for $200,000 and the driver’s fee is $80.000. The porters who must unload the truck get between $40,000 and $50,000 each. Those costs aside there are wear-and-tear related expenses associated with the vehicle. What makes the cost of the trip prohibitive is that the return trip is invariably empty.
The shops offer a wide range of goods though it is easy to understand why costs are considerably higher than those in Georgetown. In a community where good all-weather roads are not commonplace cycles and motor cycles are the common means of transport. At Lethem the sizes of the businesses are constrained by the spending power of the population.
Nor does one have to look too hard to find the fault lines in Lethem’s economy. State-run employment-generating operations are few and far between and there are no projects
The weather, the roads and the fall-off in customers have combined to make Anil nervous. He explains that what keeps the Lethem economy going is the salary-earning Guyanese public servants stationed in the Region and Brazilians who cross the border.
People we spoke with in the community told us that some of the more trying times occur when the cut-off of fuel supplies results in an acute shortage of fuel. “Everything slows down,” one resident said. At the time of our visit the Macedo and Lammy filling stations had been out of fuel for several days, the last sales having been made over the previous weekend. At times like this the community relies on supplies from neighbouring Brazil.
Inevitably, a comprehensive solution to the socio-economic problems afflicting Lethem is linked largely to the fixing of the roads. It is a demanding multi-million dollar exercise but if we are to reliably connect the township of Lethem to the capital with all that such a connection implies, there is simply no choice.
At the end of January this year the Ministry of Public Infrastructure had announced that the first phase of the Linden- Lethem road, covering the distance between Linden and Mabura would commence and that the roadway would be completed with the support of the United Kingdom government. Almost six months later work on the first phase is still to begin. This first phase is expected to cover 122.5 kilometers of roadway and the construction of a connecting bridge across the Essequibo river at the Kurupukari Crossing. The government, we were told, is still seeking to engage a consulting firm to assist in the preparation of a capital project submission that includes the upgrade of just over 122 kilometers of roadway, including drainage and the creation of a new fixed structure bridge across the Essequibo River at Kurupukari.
The fragility of the Lethem economy is reflected in the absence of any real structure outside the intrepid pursuits of the handful of traders. Their dependence on the limited purchasing power of Lethem-based public servants and a modest level of patronage from Brazilians across the border is patently and worryingly obvious. If the economic infrastructure was there it would have been possible for Lethem to create a few profitable economic ventures out of the abundance of cashew, mango and peanuts cultivated there. There is, however, no evidence of an agro-processing infrastructure that can create and export marketable products and there are no signs of any kind of initiative to kickstart such an industry. When the trees come into full bloom and give up their harvest you cannot help but marvel at the uncontrolled waste.
There is a connection between Lethem and Karasabai that is sustained on the ground almost entirely by minibus. The economy of Karasabai is sustained largely by cattle-rearing and by subsistence farming. The bus service operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When it is up and running it costs $2,500.00 per seat. There is a thriving trade between the border people of Guyana and Brazil across the Ireng river. When the rains step in and the road becomes impassable the cross-border trade can be more reliable than attempting to deal with the Lethem option.
The Lethem economy is linked to the vagaries of the weather and the movement of people and goods in several obvious ways. As development proceeds in other parts of the country the underdevelopment of interior communities like Lethem is unsustainable. Simply put, we run the risk of dividing Guyana in ways that are unacceptable. The situation becomes all the more worrisome when account is taken of the fact that there is a circumstance of shared borders and that while cross-border interaction between peoples is important people-to-people friendships, the creation of a syndrome of dependency – or an economic engine that has to be ‘fueled’ in some measure from outside the home country is undesirable. The people of Lethem, ordinary residents, bureaucrats and businessmen cannot, at this time, seem to see past the vicious cycle of economic strangulation connected to a road link with coastal Guyana that cries out for remedial action.