The disclosure towards the end of May that the Guyana-Suriname Ferry Service had been suspended (for how long this will remain the case is, as yet, unclear) on account of what appears to be serious mechanical problems afflicting the MV Canawaima, would probably not have come as a complete shock to frequent users of the service. That said, the suspension of the most important cross-border transport link between the two countries is regrettable, even undesirable, and ought to be addressed without undue delay.
In making the announcement of the suspension of the service on May 27th, the local Terminal Manager, Gale Culley-Greene, was quoted as saying that the Canawaima had been experiencing “mechanical difficulties” for some time. It appears that a point has now been reached where there is no choice but to ground the vessel for repairs. Ms. Culley-Greene is also quoted as saying that a replacement vessel would be sourced, though it is unclear as to when that replacement will be found and installed. Meanwhile, we must assume that the level of traffic between the two neighbouring countries will be considerably affected.
But that is not all. It appears as well that the matter of which side, Guyana or Suriname, is responsible for both temporarily replacing and repairing the Canawaima so that the ferry service can be restored in the shortest possible time, may have become the subject of testy differences of opinion between the two sides. That is, to say the least, disturbing.
About a week after the Canawaima was withdrawn from service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that there was no onus on Guyana to fund the replacement of the service. In fact, Takuba Lodge asserted that responsibility for both the repairs to the Canawaima and such temporary replacement for the vessel in its absence as is required ought to be the responsibility of the joint company set up to run the service, the implication here being that responsibility for the operation of the company, including the management of its finances falls to Paramaribo, not Georgetown.
This is not the first time that this issue has arisen though now that the 20 year-old Ferry appears to be seriously stricken and will, presumably, be out of service for some while, the matter of which side picks up the bills for repairs and for the temporary replacement of the vessel could become a matter of strife between the two capitals.
All of this, though, is more than a little strange since circumstances like the prevailing ones ought surely to be covered and clearly spelt out in clauses in the vessel’s operating contract. In other words, the issue of who foots the bills for repairs and temporary replacement really ought not to be a matter of the kind of controversy that continues to arise. Takuba Lodge appears to be adamant that the contractual arrangement is clear on Paramaribo’s responsibilities in the matter. In fact, the Foreign Ministry here asserts that in the face of Suriname’s protracted delinquency Guyana has continually been picking up the slack as far as repairs and maintenance to the Canawaima are concerned.
Official concerns on this side of the Corentyne River over the welfare of the Canawaima and the importance of the service that it provides, have, the Foreign Ministry says, been raised both at the level of the Guyana/Suriname Cooperation Council at its meeting in 2018 and underscored as well by President David Granger during his meeting with President Bouterse last year. Arising out of the latter forum President Bouterse reportedly undertook to look into the matter though, we are told, there has been no evidence of any corrective initiative on Paramaribo’s part.
The role of the Canawaima as a means of enabling free movement of people and cargo between the two countries is considered to be an important mechanism for helping to keep on ‘even keel’ relations between two countries that have, on more than one occasion, ‘locked horns’ over Suriname’s claim to the New River triangle area. Put differently, apart from the practical role that the ferry service plays in sustaining what, over the years, has become the important movement of people and goods between two countries with long-standing social and economic ties, it also serves, one hopes, as a symbol of the preparedness on the parts of the two governments to maintain, as far as possible, a normal and neighbourly relationship, Suriname’s territorial claim notwithstanding. For this reason, if no other, the business of restoring the ferry service should be settled quickly and in the manner prescribed in the contract.
It is of course no secret that discourses between Guyana and Suriname through the mechanism of the thirty-year-old Cooperation Council have not always taken place in an environment of the greatest agreeability and that the sourness had reached a point where, for ten years, between 2007 and March 2017, there had been no meeting of the Council. It would not now be the desirable thing if, going forward, future meetings of the Council were to become cluttered by the issue of who takes responsibility for remedying the situation arising out of the circumstances of the stricken Canawaima.
As was mentioned earlier, it is entirely reasonable to assume that the respective responsibilities of the two sides in the management of the ferry service are clearly underlined in an agreement thus providing a clear road map to an amicable and hopefully early settlement of the issue at hand. But then we need to remind ourselves that this is not the first time, the fact of a presumed contractual arrangement, notwithstanding, that the Canawaima issue has surfaced.