I believe the oil find can benefit us, providing that we put systems in place – including laws, to manage the industry and ensure we police and make the system work. This requires a coming together of minds from all strata in society. Given it’s a new industry we need to look at the best practices of other societies in this particular area, and most of all, understanding as a people there exists another opportunity for doing better with our lives.
For Guyana, oil has been used to subvert the progressive path we were travelling towards self-sufficiency in the 1970s and 1980s. With the several announcements, we are beginning to question that while in the past our political leaders – Forbes Burnham and others – believed oil existed in commercial quantities how credible were the oil companies that explored back then and told us no. Many still believe the true declarations were not made because the western political forces were not comfortable with the independent political determination of the government, which was that of a non-aligned foreign policy.
In the Cold War era, this policy meant the freedom to work with nations in the West and East based on Guyana’s national interest – a position the West found threatening and discomfiting given the geopolitical climate at the time. The children of Guyana grew up poor, though within her bosom lies billions of barrels of oil and so many other rich resources. Only imagination can guide what could have been the possibilities, were we allowed to freely exploit all our available resources.
In discussing oil, it is important to remember every country that shares diplomatic relations and has a presence in Guyana, its primary objective is to determine and protect its national interest, not ours. Consequently, the extraction of this resource has to be a responsibility of us, not others. This does not say that Guyana cannot seek advice and technical assistance from other countries, but advice is made to be considered, not taken lock, stock and barrel.
Let it be understood, Exxon and every oil company operating places the interest of their country of origin first, and makes sure the business makes profit for their shareholders, who are primarily citizens in their country of origin, and channeling that wealth back. These businesses are not here with the primary objective to create jobs and economic opportunities for us. We have to ensure such benefits accrue to us. Making profit is not bad, but it must not be made to the detriment of the host country and its people.
The Bauxite Company was nationalised with the objective to bring greater benefit to Guyanese. During the nationalisation period, the bauxite communities experienced massive expansion by way of housing, education and health which created jobs and other economic opportunities, direct and indirect, within and outside of the communities.
The undermining of industries like bauxite and sugar was consistently done from forces within and out. The political influences that were allowed to creep into the day-to-day management of the organisation for control at various levels, events and times, undermined the solidarity of the people seeing these industries as their own.
Instead, these industries were looked at through the lens of who is politically in charge not as instruments for workers’ personal development. Simultaneously, the multinationals and foreign countries never stopped working in making sure mechanisms were in place to immobilise a young nation and its people’s right to self-determination.
Those aware of our struggles for independence would appreciate that we fought for it and independence was reluctantly given. As such, there still exists perception that others must be the final arbiter in determining our day-to-day activities as it was in the pre-independence period.
The new industry of oil brings with it pitfalls that we may not have been accustomed to, and we cannot allow ourselves to make the similar mistakes as seen when we set out to control the commanding heights of our economy. In fact, we must not allow ourselves to be divided. A divided nation opens itself for exploitation by the ethnic entrepreneurs and foreign forces. It is time we take the opportunity to talk with each other, coming together as a people, to protect and advance our national interest.
Already, the negatives of oil have begun to seep into the society, though the first barrel has not yet been produced. I’m not prepared to lay blame as to who is right or wrong, but commend all the forces for efforts being to make the issue a national conversation. However in pursuit of awareness, we must not lose sight of the benefits of ensuring positive engagement.
The absence of this, which society looks to its government to pilot and create the enabling environment for, leaves space for engagement inimical to our well-being, and opportunities for external interest to exploit in pursuit of accomplishing their national interest. The vacuum being created allows for confusion, uncertainty and finger-pointing, as Exxon and others continue their focused determination to benefit/cash-in on our resources.
The attitude towards oil has intensified the divisions in society not between classes, as expected because it ought to be an economic issue, but between the two major races, African and East Indian. The intensification of historical mistrust is seeing neither group wishing the other leads this country in making decisions as to who will get what, when, where, and how.
The cosmetic representation where the presidency and prime ministerial posts are held by the major groups will not suffice or appease existing mistrust. The current charges of racial preference in employment practices and expected rigging of national and regional elections cannot be dismissed given their political potency. At the same time, society can be done a disservice where silence prevails to any errant conduct, once it is coming from one’s group out of desire to see their group remains in or enters office.
Mistrusts, real or perceived, and the absence of proper systems to ensure all will benefit from oil, must be addressed. Failing to do so will intensify divisions at a time when it requires protecting and advancing our national interest by working collectively.
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