David Jessop, Contributor
Has the time come to give greater consideration to the opportunity presented by what might be described as the space in-between: the millions of square miles of ocean and seabed that lie between the islands and countries of the Caribbean?
Largely unmapped, scarcely considered and vastly greater in promise than what for the most part is possible onshore, it offers a new frontier.
This is the implication of the progress now being made by Jamaica's Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Anthony Hylton, in encouraging investors to turn Jamaica into a maritime logistics hub for the Caribbean Basin, and in the message from others in Cariforum governments who are promoting the prospects for offshore oil and gas.
What by now should be self-evident is that the seas that surround the Caribbean can provide new opportunities for much-needed growth.
The Caribbean commands access to the widened Panama Canal and is at a north-south, east-west intersection for international shipping.
As such, it offers multiple opportunities for the creation of trans-shipment ports linked to development zones for manufacturing, the assembly of finished items and the provision of services for nations like China and Brazil, which are seeking new tariff-free ways to access markets in the Americas and Europe.
It is the sea too that offers the potential to develop new ports and industries linked to the road and rail routes that could open up areas within Brazil and the Amazon Basin or help facilitate links across the Central American Isthmus to the Pacific.
Moreover, it is the sea space that enables not just the regional and international movement of goods and services - legal and illegal - but also provides the access that brings the largest number of visitors to the region, the cruise ships.
Beyond this, there lies beneath its surface potential wealth in the form of oil and gas, minerals, and possibly rare earths as the technology to drill and recover oil and gas from huge depths now exists.
As matters stand, oil exploration is under way, planned or licensing being considered in blocks off the coasts of French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Belize, Barbados, The Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica; and Grenada and possibly in other islands in the Windward chain.
However, as recent developments in Belize indicate the opportunity is not without significant challenges. There, environmental groups have in the last week mounted a successful legal campaign that resulted in all offshore oil-drilling contracts between 2004 and 2007 being void.
There is also a potential global interest in the challenging opportunity of seabed mining.
Although most attention in this respect is focused on the Pacific, there are indications that in the long term, it may be possible to exploit submerged ocean ridges, undersea plate junctions and undersea thermal vents in mid-Atlantic areas.
These lie between the Caribbean and Africa and off Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana and may be, scientists suggest, resource rich in iron-manganese nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich polymetallic crusts.
Some also believe that rare earths contained in deep-sea muds in concentrated and extractable forms may lie beneath the oceans, although the viability and challenges of recovery presently make this seem remote.
The level of exploration now taking place in the region makes it quite possible to imagine a Caribbean, a decade from now, where some nations are energy rich, net exporters of oil and gas and in some cases trying to address the problems associated with wealth that hardly anybody is thinking about.
Some may say this is fanciful as the US and other nations are beginning to supply an ever greater amount of their energy needs from shale gas.
However, the pace at which an ever-increasing number of global oil corporations have begun to invest huge sums in prospecting for oil and gas in the Caribbean Basin suggests that before long more than one Caribbean nation other than Trinidad will become an oil or gas producer.
It is a process that responds to the continuing industrialisation and growing wealth of advanced developing economies, making the cost of deep-sea recovery viable and demand for energy is forecast.
Despite all of this, there has been no holistic accounting or mapping of the economic and physical resource that exists within the Caribbean Basin's economic zones or that may be beneath the seas beyond.
Instead individual nations - Jamaica, Cuba, The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic - have only recently turned to face the sea, recognising it as an economic opportunity that has the potential to bring investment and long-term growth.
Up to now, and Trinidad apart, almost all Caribbean economic thinking has been focused onshore, with the emphasis on commodities, manufacturing, tourism, financial services, cultural industries and only rarely on artisanal fisheries.
This is understandable as it is where immediate opportunity lies; but ignoring the spaces in between when technology is changing rapidly carries with it the danger of missing the possibility to explore the growing interest of major global companies to partner offshore with countries and local business.
Making greater use of the Caribbean Sea is an issue that requires national, regional and international consideration as it touches physical security, policing, the environment, food and energy security, sovereignty, defence and sea-level change.
It also may also change inter-regional and geopolitical relationships if as seems possible recovery of offshore oil or gas were to occur in French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, The Bahamas or Cuba. It would seem also to require fresh consideration of maritime security, traditional notions of sovereignty and the environmental interdependence of Caribbean ecosystems.
As the Caribbean struggles to find new ways to generate growth and greater consideration is given to making use of the seas, there is strong case for reorienting thinking and for recognising that the seas too are the Caribbean's resource, heritage and future.
David Jessop is director of the Caribbean
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