Mon | Jun 27, 2016

Guyana: Prospects for sustained development

Published:Friday | May 31, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Ferry awaiting load of cars, trucks at Parika Stelling in Guyana.
Guyana's St George's Cathedral ... an example of neglected maintenance.

By Wilberne Persaud, Financial Gleaner Columnist

Describing for a friend my impressions of the Guyanese economy after a brief visit, I simply exclaimed: the economy is bubbling.

The observant traveller needs no recourse to gross domestic product numbers, growth rates, bauxite, rice, rum production or foreign-exchange rates. The hustle and bustle is evident any day but Sunday in Georgetown, the country's capital.

It is evident as well, should one do a sampling of road, boat or air treks, arriving at any of the smaller towns linked to mining, forestry, fledgling ecotourism and transportation across the big rivers: Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo.

The country's population has barely grown in the last quarter century primarily as a result of outward migration; but today, there is influx of others, Brazilians in particular.

Guyana has neighbours that once disputed territory. Indeed, had the claimants succeeded the land would have shrunk immeasurably. But at least one neighbour today takes a new and very different attitude: foster, encourage or cast a blind eye upon economic engagement.

Thus, there's a Pentecostal church in Georgetown with its signage adorned in Portuguese, even as the language is spoken at the borders and at least one local school plans having it on the curriculum in the next few months.

reality trumping potential?

So what's at core of all this? Many factors come together to drive this outcome. For decades, every commentary one stumbled upon about the country described Guyana as filled with potential.

It should be the breadbasket of the Caribbean; instead of migration north, Caribbean people should migrate south; what a marvellous opportunity being missed - these were commonly expressed views. Today, it appears reality begins to trump potential.

So commodity exports, interest in exploiting the forests for timber, panning the rivers and mining for gold all play their part. But above all, the vibrant Guyanese economy takes on an almost frontier-like character.

It seems to embody the dynamism inherent in untrammelled private initiative that Adam Smith famously spoke of as "the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another" common "to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals".

Yes, one gets the impression of a government that has consciously taken the decision to let private initiative prosper. It is also apparent that decisions allow exploitation of the huge interior of the country, inclusive of the potential attractiveness of the wildlife and eco-tourism potential hitherto enjoyed by but a few adventurous ones willing to face the perils of the 'bush'. All this is well and good.

One important element of policy, however, appears absent: mechanisms to render development sustainable and preserve heritage. Commercial activity is allowed to set up and flourish almost anywhere.

Georgetown, once known as the Caribbean's 'Garden City', is losing its beauty for want of attention - put bluntly, uncomplicated neglect. Accompanying this narrative is a picture of the beautiful St George's Cathedral, constructed almost exclusively of woods of the Guyana forests - the tallest wooden building in the world.

Beside it is a piece of detail, an example of a malignant neglect of heritage.

disquiet about the chinese

Two concerns expressed by folks, among different age groups and occupations, struck me. There was an undercurrent of disquiet surrounding the presence of Chinese interests seeking resources - the resources of pristine and virtually virgin forest. The other was their view that 'trickle down' was not the way to improve the lives of the majority of the population.

There are, undoubtedly, many more issues in need of exploration, but it's easy to pick a bottom line: development ought not to be construed as material accumulation irrespective of impact on the natural- and human-built environment, be that ancient ruins or other expressions of what is considered cultural heritage.

So government must intervene for society's sake. Preserve heritage, establish minimum basic ground rules. Among other things, figure out a comprehensive policy of zoning that finds support among the people.

Economic growth is an absolute, but by no means an unconditional requirement given the country's stage of development. Should it additionally be reasonably distributed, that would make it wonderful!

But material accumulation alone doesn't, cannot replace heritage, myth, symbols and for want of the perfect term, the 'spirit' of a country and its people.

Wilberne Persaud, an economist, currently works on impacts of technology change on business and society, including capital solutions for innovative Caribbean