Guyana’s Foreign Minister, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett Thursday night said that the formalizing of the ‘back-track’ unofficial port at Skeldon, depended on moves by Suriname to do so at Nickerie on the eastern bank of the Corentyne River that borders the two countries.
Addressing the formal opening of a Guyana-Suriname Trade Mission at the Princess Hotel, Providence, East Bank Demerara, she said that the sister Caribbean Community (Caricom) member-state will have to take similar steps before the ports are regularized.
“In order for us to fix the back track, it has to be done simultaneously on both sides because if one fixes it and the other side doesn’t, it wouldn’t work and so we have been working with our Surinamese counterparts to see when we can do this at the appropriate time because we also have to remember that everyone using there must have all their documentation as well,” she said.
The Foreign Minister said that the process was “gradual” but both countries were working on streamling that travel route. Although there is a daily Guyana-Suriname Ferry Service from Moleson Creek to South Drain, nationals from both countries prefer to cross the river in small wooden boats because it is much faster to travel to either country.
Latest available statistics show that there is a huge trade imbalance between the two countries in favour of Suriname. Guyana’s exports to Suriname for 2010 to 2014 were valued at GUY$5.3 billion in contrast to Surinamese imports for the same period totalling GUY$31.8 billion; a huge chunk being for Bunker fuel purchases from that former Dutch colony. Rodrigues-Birkett said that Guyanese exporters still have a very good opportunity to “leverage the market access in Suriname.”
Concerns have been raised repeatedly by government authorities in both countries that the poorly monitored back-track route is a thoroughfare for the smuggling of goods, drugs, guns and people.
President of the Upper Corentyne Chamber of Commerce, Abraham Subnauth hoped that one of the outcomes of the Trade Mission and Conference would find ways of eventually replacing such terms as ‘back-track’ and smuggling. “It is not a very nice word, nor is it a healthy culture so we need to change it and the Upper Corentyne Chamber of Commerce is hoping that this conference will start building the tools to replace the term back track with open border,” and the “term smuggling with free trade.”
For his part, Guyana’s President Donald Ramotar recommended that the two countries harmonize customs duties and taxes on some items to help make smuggling a disincentive. “I think is time we start thinking seriously about unifying some of our regimes, making some of our regimes similar so in that way we can cut down on smuggling and we maximize the benefits for the people of our country particularly as it relates to some our wasting assets,” he said.
He singled out gold as one product for which the taxes should be harmonized. Guyanese authorities believe that a lot of the country’s gold is smuggled to Suriname where the taxes are lower.