Muddy Road Molds Debate on the Future of Guyana
FIFTY EIGHT, Guyana — A battered, decades-old Bedford truck that would not look out of place in a “Mad Max” movie pulled off the road. Gold miners crawled out of its mud-splattered cab, sauntered into Peter Rajmenjan’s diner and asked if he had any bush hog for sale.
“The only wild meat I have left today is deer,” replied Mr. Rajmenjan, 55, whose establishment lies at the 58-mile marker on the main road cutting through the Guyanese jungle.
Over plates of deer curry, travelers chatted in Caribbean-accented English or murmured in indigenous languages like Macushi, Arawak and Wapishana. Around them, the forest buzzed with mosquitoes. The siren moan of howler monkeys could be heard in the distance.
Then they climbed back into their Bedfords and continued their journey on one of South America’s most remarkable roads. It runs more than 300 miles, from Georgetown, the sleepy capital of this former British colony, to Lethem, a boomtown on the border with Brazil.
The status of this muddy, sometimes impassable road represents nothing less than the future of Guyana itself, many Guyanese say. Investors from Brazil, the region’s rising power, want to pave the road and dredge a deepwater port near Georgetown, giving northern Brazil a modern artery to export its goods to the Caribbean and North America.
For Guyana, which has just 753,000 people in a country about the size of Britain (population 61 million), the project holds both risk and reward. Many here liken the debate over the road to a battle for the identity of Guyana, a nation pulled between competing desires to delve into the global economy or pursue a slower, more ecologically sustainable path toward development.
President Bharrat Jagdeo, a Moscow-educated economist, has won plaudits for the nation’s forest protection policies, but his government is also considering far less pristine endeavors, like oil drilling.
The road is a physical manifestation of these two poles. At one end are echoes of the nation’s colonial past, like cricket pitches and hackney carriages (taxis). Hindu temples, for the many Guyanese descended from laborers from the Indian subcontinent, dot Georgetown’s canalled streets.
At the other end of the road, on the border with Brazil, every other conversation seems to be in Portuguese. Chinese merchants sell goods to traders, businessmen broker deals to lure Brazilian rice farmers and signs welcome Brazilians and their robust currency, the real, to this outback.
Between these two worlds lies a frontier: thick rain forest and empty savannas in one of the hemisphere’s poorest and most sparsely populated countries.
Environmentalists are especially concerned about the road’s potential impact on forests that are home to animals like river otters, the 400-pound arapaima fish, even jaguars that can be glimpsed at dusk along a stretch of the road through the protected Iwokrama rain forest. Studies show that more than two million acres of rain forest could be affected if the road is paved.
“Asphalted roads in tropical areas cause deforestation, poaching and attract settlement, and this road happens to run through one of the most species-rich areas in the world,” said Graham Watkins, a biologist and resource management consultant in Georgetown.
Those arguing for the road to be paved acknowledge some upheaval will occur. But they also say the road could ease Guyana’s poverty, a legacy of isolationist economic policies. Forty-four years after Guyana gained independence, the country remains the poorest in South America, with a per capita income lower than Bolivia’s.
Up and down the road, signs of daily struggle abound. Close to where the pavement ends, Dennis Williams, 42, an Arawak Indian, eked out a living in a downpour that stymied even vehicles with four-wheel drives.
“Rain don’t humbug the coals,” said Mr. Williams, pointing to a lumpy bag at his feet. Translation: the rain doesn’t spoil the cooking charcoal that Mr. Williams harvests from trees around his village and sells for about $3 a bag to feed his children.
Only about 100 vehicles a week make the trip all the way to Lethem, taking anywhere from 12 hours to two days to complete it, depending on weather conditions. The muddy, pot-holed road might seem atrocious today — drivers place their vehicles on a pontoon ferry to cross the Essequibo River — but it used to be worse before the early 1990s.
“That’s when I shifted Guyana’s gaze from the Caribbean toward South America,” said Colin Edwards, 63, a Briton who oversaw the upgrading of the road from a cattle trail.
“Now Guyana’s continental destiny hinges on the road’s asphalting,” said Mr. Edwards in the foothills of the Pakaraima Mountains, where he settled, married a Macushi woman, had three sons and opened a roadside hotel. It has a watering hole called the Dakota Bar, where cattlemen used to gather to watch DC-3s depart with steers bound for the coast.
Samuel Hinds, Guyana’s prime minister, said it was Henry Ford who originally had the idea of cutting a road through Guyana’s forest in the 1920s. Some Guyanese argue that Ford was searching for a way to export cultivated rubber from Fordlândia, his failed outpost of capitalism on a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil.
Companies in Brazil still want the road improved, and many Guyanese consider it a foregone conclusion that it will be. Still, the Brazilians may have to wait.
“Sleeping with a big neighbor, 200 times your size, you know they might not intend it, but if they roll over it could be the end of you,” said Mr. Hinds, reflecting concerns in Guyana over being swallowed up by its southern neighbor. Still, Mr. Hinds said he could support the project, as long as Guyana could find $350 million to finance it.
For now, the road captures both the splendor and the squalor of Guyana’s isolation. At one spot where a logging truck had overturned, the piercing song of the screaming piha resonated through the canopy. Loggers gossiped about recent reports of jaguar attacks on people. Ali Shazeez, a truck driver, rolled up his window. “Malaria,” he explained, gesturing toward mosquitoes.
Farther down the road, past the lyrically named “bush mouth,” where the Rupununi savanna abruptly unfolds from the rain forest, the lights of Lethem beckoned. Workmen labored on dozens of structures on Lethem’s outskirts. The dirt bikes weaving between Land Rovers on Lethem’s dirt roads, as Jamaican dance hall music boomed from speakers, gave the town an almost frenetic vibe.
For the “coast landers” from Georgetown, Lethem was their journey’s end. But for those dwelling in Lethem and the surrounding frontier of savannas, where cattle rustlers still abscond into the Brazilian state of Roraima, the dirt road unfolding from the edge of town represented something else.
“That road is going to end our way of life,” said Justin de Freitas, 35, who worked as a porter along the road before returning to Dadanawa, a sprawling cattle ranch where he grew up. Dadanawa’s vacqueros, or cowboys, are still Wapishana Indians clad in jaguar pelts who ride their horses for days over the empty savanna.
“Nothing,” he said, “will be the same around here once it’s paved.”