By Stabroek staff May 31, 2009 in Features, Sunday
‘The Lethem road would only make economic sense if it was complemented by a deep water harbour’
Ambassador Arthur VC Meyer took up his position as Brazil’s top diplomat to Guyana in October 2005 and is now scheduled to leave the country in early July for another posting. In this edited interview with Miranda La Rose at the Brazilian Embassy on Wednesday May 27, 2009 the ambassador spoke on a number of issues ranging from his tenure here to hemispheric matters.
Sunday Stabroek: Could you speak briefly about your foreign service career?
Ambassador Meyer: During my career in the Brazilian foreign service, I have had assignments in the United States, Venezuela and Japan. I was ambassador to Guinea Bissau in West Africa for six years before coming to Guyana… My next posting would be as Ambassador of Brazil to the Republic of São Tome and Principe… a country of the community of Portuguese-speaking countries. I also speak English, French and Spanish.
I have been here for a little over three-and-a-half years since my arrival in October 2005. I have had a very fruitful and enriching experience in Guyana. I am happy to say the relations between Brazil and Guyana are in very good shape. We have a long list of cooperation projects going on. I do think the prospects for the future remain bright. We have many other possible areas of cooperation to be developed in the future especially in the domains of technical cooperation and trade and possibly even in energy and telecommunications.
SS: What areas of technical cooperation and trade could be developed?
AM: In terms of trade, Brazil has an agreement – the so-called Partial Scope Agreement with a number of territories within the framework of the Latin American Integration Association by which Brazil grants tariff preferences to Guyana. The Brazilian government is open to the idea of extending the list of those tariff preferences that are granted at present to Guyana. Right now we do not have a very high volume of bilateral trade. The latest figures that I have indicate that Brazilian exports to Guyana reach a figure a little over US$20M a year. We think that the deficiencies in physical infrastructures are mainly responsible for this. This is why the Takutu River Bridge and the possible reform of the road from Lethem to Linden would be useful to expand bilateral trade.
I might point out that the Manaus Industrial Zone located in the State of Amazonas in Brazil has nowadays an annual volume of exports to foreign countries of about US$3B a year. Brazilian businessmen and industrialists located in the state of Amazonas especially would very much like an alterative route for shipping their produce abroad. They are at present using the route by the Amazon River and they also export to the northern hemisphere via Venezuela. But Guyana might be an interesting alternative which is always useful to the existing routes.
SS: Isn’t Brazil also interested in shipping goods from northern Brazil to others parts of Brazil using a Guyana route?
AM: It might be possible to use Guyana to ships goods from northern Brazil to other parts of Brazil because some regions in northern Brazil are very far from Manaus. Speaking of distance, Brazilian farmers in the State of Roraima have already indicated to Guyana that they would like to purchase from the Guyanese markets bullocks to renew their herds. It is very expensive for farmers in Roraima, even in the northern parts of the Amazon state to bring bullocks for their renewal of bovine herds from other regions of northern Brazil such as from the states of Acre and Para. So we might also envision the possibility of a deep water harbour in Guyana serving the function of a transshipment point for trade between the northernmost parts of Brazil to other regions of Brazil via Georgetown, or from another deep water harbour in Guyana.
SS: How do the road from Lethem to Georgetown and the deep water harbour fit into your country’s development plan?
AM: The idea of the renovation of the road from Lethem to Linden must be considered in tandem with building a deep water harbour in Guyana. From the preliminary studies it seems that the investment in the reform of the road would only make economic sense if it were complemented with a deep water harbour… This is why this matter is now under consideration by the Brazilian National Bank of Social and Economic Development. The Guyana Government has indicated to the Government of Brazil that it would like to receive a longer term loan for the reform of the road and the construction of the deep water harbour on very concessional terms. This is why this matter is now under consideration in Brazil. We hope that the impending inauguration of the Takutu River Bridge will bring further stimulus to the study of the subject.
SS: How much funding is being sought?
AM: I can’t tell you the exact figure. I can only tell you that it seems that the rehabilitation of the road between Lethem and Linden with a coating of laterite or gravel might perhaps cost between US$30M-US$40M.
SS: When is the Takutu River Bridge to be opened and what are the problems hindering its official opening?
AM: The city of Bon Fim has already been declared an official port of entry into Brazil for goods and cargo coming from Guyana. It seems that the agenda of President Lula is somewhat loaded now, and it is difficult for him to find a convenient date to go to the State of Roraima for the official inauguration of the bridge. For that reason I have received instructions from Brazil to ask the Government of Guyana for a provisional opening of the Takutu River Bridge. I am waiting for the reply. The Minister of Foreign Affairs [Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett] has indicated to me that Guyana views this idea favourably and I am hopeful that the opening of this bridge, even on a provisional basis, may occur very soon…
SS: There is a possibility of an influx of Brazilians into Guyana with the opening of the Takutu River Bridge, the road and a deep water harbor. The monitoring of illegal cross border activities could be a problem for Guyana given the fact that Guyana lacks the resources for this. Is Brazil willing to assist Guyana in this regard?
AM: Yes of course. Brazil is entirely willing to cooperate with Guyana in this regard. The Brazilian community that lives in Guyana is very small. According to official figures I have received from Guyanese high-ranking officials, the number of Brazilian citizens who now live here number around 5,000. It is not a very large number even by Guyanese standards. In the same way there are Brazilians living in Guyana there are many Guyanese citizens living in Brazil, and especially in the regions closer to the border… Many Guyanese citizens go to Brazil to receive free medical treatment in hospitals and health posts in the cities close to the border between the countries. It is a very common occurrence that the hospitals and health posts in Bon Fim and even Boa Vista receive Guyanese citizens and provide them with medical treatment free of charge.
SS: How many Guyanese are living in the border states?
AM: I don’t know the figures. The State of Roraima is an under-populated with about 500,000 people, which is less than the population of Guyana. The state of Roraima has roughly the same area as the territory of Guyana.SS: Brazilian miners are reportedly contributing to mercury contamination. Is Brazil willing to assist Guyana in dealing with this problem?Has assistance been requested?
AM: The Brazilian government is aware of mercury contamination in Guyana. This is a matter of concern because this also happens in Brazil. We are open to cooperate with the Guyanese authorities in finding ways to reduce the extent of this problem. As should be pointed out gold mining is a very risky and costly activity. So whenever a miner finds some gold he or she cannot neglect any small residual gold… This is why it seems that at present there is no alternative to mercury. But the Brazilian government is ready to cooperate with Guyana in the effort to reduce the negative effects of mercury contamination. This problem is also very prevalent in Brazil because we have many micro-gold mining activities. No assistance has been sought. Not yet.
SS: There are large numbers of Brazilians in Suriname and French Guiana and to a lesser extent in Guyana. Could you comment on their contribution to these societies?AM: All I can say is that the size of the Brazilian communities that reside in Suriname and French Guiana is much larger than the community that lives in Guyana. They also make a very valuable contribution to the development of the mining industries in French Guiana and Suriname. In spite of the problem of mercury contamination I would like to point out that the Brazilian miners have brought to Guyana many useful technologies that have allowed for significant progress in the mining industry. This fact has been acknowledged by many high ranking officials in Guyana.
SS: Could you say what some of these technologies are?
AM: I am not an expert in this field but they are mining equipment. There is one, the ‘lavador’ for instance, which was little known in Guyana until some years ago but largely introduced in the country by Brazilian miners… I cannot elaborate further because I am no expert in mining.
SS: Guyana and Brazil have porous borders that would attract a range of illicit cross border activities. Is there any joint arrangement in place to patrol the border on either side?
AM: We have already made a deal that we are open to increase cooperation with the Guyanese authorities in patrolling the borders. This problem of porous borders does not occur only between Brazil and Guyana. We have the same problem with many other countries in South America. Brazil has very long land borders with about ten countries in South America. We also have the same problem with other countries but we are quite willing to cooperate with Guyana in joint battles of the border in the repression of illicit activities including the drug trade. We have an agreement. There has been some cooperation especially between the military authorities, which involves regular exchange of information in order to ensure peace in the border region. In the agreement the policing authorities may also be involved, and at this stage we are ready to involve them.
SS: Could you provide any details on upland rice farming in the Rupununi?
AM: By the end of last year Brazil had signed with Guyana four technical cooperation agreements on matters within the scope of the Ministry of Agriculture in Guyana. One of those technical cooperation projects is for the cultivation of upland rice. The documents for this project which specifies the days of implementation and the sums that will be spent as well as a timetable for activities was recently signed. I hope that the implementation will start soon. You may have more information about the areas in Guyana where this project will be implemented from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Guyana Rice Development Board.
SS: It was reported in the Brazilian media that at least one farmer who was evicted from an indigenous people’s reservation in Brazil was interested in cultivating rice in the Rupununi; could you comment?
AM: I have no information about that. What I know is that there have been rumours that some Brazilian farmers who were established in Raposa do Sol, an Amerindian reservation area were ordered to leave their farms in that region by a decision of the Brazilian Supreme Court. They have shown interest on a preliminary basis to establish themselves in Guyana. I have not received a communication from them as yet, but if they want to come to Guyana to grow rice it is up to them and to the Guyanese government. They have to apply for a permit or land lease to develop those activities.
SS: How does Brazil sees its role in regional organizations?
AM: Brazil is very keen on promoting and strengthening the integration of the Western hemisphere, especially in South America. So this is why we have been promoting with such emphasis the movement towards closer integration both in physical and economic terms in South America. This is why Brazil has lent her support to the idea of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the South American Defence Council.
SS: Could you comment on the exclusion of Mexico from the Union of South American Nations and the South American Defence Council? How does Brazil view the idea of an organization of Latin American and Caribbean countries as Mexico proposes?
AM: As the names UNASUR and the South American Defence Council indicate, these are institutions that comprise countries of the South American continent. We feel that the concept of an organization of Latin American and Caribbean countries is beautiful in some contexts but not always for every possible activity because there is a great diversity of situations among the full gamut of Latin American and Caribbean countries. They comprise many different countries in size, population, economic and situational prospects. For that reason although the idea of a Latin American and Caribbean group is beautiful and we support this idea, we also feel in Brazil that for integration to be more effective it should be built on a step by step basis, and for that reason the concept of South American integration is very valuable because it is more restricted, more effective and more realistic. This is why these two institutions – UNASUR and the South American Defence Council – are limited to South American countries.
It is obvious that Latin America and the Caribbean countries also have their own institutions which are restricted in scope like the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and the Central American Common Market. Brazil has never been worried about the existence of regional integration mechanisms to which it does not have access. It is natural, for instance, that Central American countries have a mechanism for themselves, and Brazil is not a part of that mechanism. The same happens for the Caribbean. So there is no reason for concern for the existence of a regional integration mechanism that is limited to South American countries.
SS: What are the functions of the South American Defence Council?
AM: The South American Defence Council is not a military alliance. It is just a forum of discussion and debates on matters of common concern. It is a means to achieve some rationalisation in the implementation of the principal issues among South American nations, especially in terms of the harmonisation of equipment and procurement policies. We also have with Guyana an agreement of cooperation in defence methods that is due to be signed soon, possibly at the inauguration of the Takutu River Bridge – either the official or the provisional opening.
SS: Could you expand on the defence methods agreement?
AM: I have to stress that the South American Defence Council is not a military alliance and it is not a threat to any foreign power. It is not meant to address any possible existing dispute among South American countries. It is just a forum of discussions and debate in the means to rationalize and harmonise the implementation of defence policies among member countries. So the defence method agreement between Guyana and Brazil will be in keeping with the policies of the South American Defence Council.SS: How does the Rio Group fit into the objectives of the Union of South American Nations? Is there a duplication of objectives here?
AM: The Rio Group is a much larger in scope organization because it encompasses South America, Central American and Caribbean countries as well as Mexico. The Rio Group is mainly a forum of debates and discussions on matters of common concern. The Union of South American Countries has possibly a more concrete goal of fostering concrete initiatives of physical and economic integration. But for that reason it is limited to the South American continent. There is no duplication of objectives. Both institutions are useful and serve their own interests.
SS: How does Brazil view its role in the global community?
AM: Brazil has had a very important and constructive role in all the international organisations that make up the United Nations system but not only in the UN system but also in specialist agencies like the World Health Organisation, World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This is in line with Brazil’s foreign policy to ensure two main objectives – the maintenance of world peace and security and a fair diffusion of economic and technological progress all over the world. Those two main objectives are upheld by Brazil and I do think they are shared by many countries. This is why so many countries support the proposal advanced by Brazil and other countries like India, for instance, to get a reform of the UN Security Council.
SS: Brazil is considered Guyana’s most important neighbour, how does Brazil view Guyana?
AM: The Brazilian population is about 190 million. The growth rate of the population has been showing a decline in trend recently. Nowadays the Brazilian population is growing a little over 1 per cent a year. Maybe in will stabilize by the mid-21st century, perhaps to 240 to 250 million. Brazil views Guyana in very friendly terms. I am happy to say that relations between our countries in spite of the differences in size and population and the sizes of the Gross Domestic Product of both countries are very good…
SS: What would you say was your most important achievement since you’ve been here?
AM: I would say the Takutu River Bridge is the most important achievement because the construction of this bridge began many years ago and it was completed during my tenure. The bridge project was handed to the Guyana Government about 30 years ago and it took a long time to start the actual construction. And after some time the work was interrupted due to some financial irregularities. I strove to remove the hurdles that stood in the way of the resumption of work. I was not the only person responsible for that, but I made a small contribution to the removal of those obstacles and finally the court that dealt with accounts in Brazil allowed for the resumption of the work some two years ago. I took part in many meetings in Bon Fim and Lethem to assess the evolution of the work. I am pleased that the work has been completed. It only remains to choose a date for the inauguration ceremony. I am hopeful that it may even be possible to hold a provisional opening of the bridge very soon according to the information I have received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SS: Is there anything more you’d like to say?
AM: I am going to leave Guyana soon… possibly… in early July. I am sad to leave because I have made many friends. I have very good recollections from Guyana. The foreign service life is that way. We cannot stay in a specific country forever however much we like it, but I will always be a friend of Guyana and I would always recall my stay here with gratitude.
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