By Vishani Ragobeer
In the Upper Corentyne region of Guyana, there are scores of Guyanese fisherfolk who ply their trade in a marine space off the coast of neighbouring Suriname.
Those Guyanese join numerous other local fisherfolk who willingly engage in a costly and exploitative arrangement with Surinamese so that they can fish in the Dutch-speaking country’s waters.
With Guyana and Suriname now enjoying closer ties, the Guyanese fisherfolk are hopeful that a promise to grant 150 special fishing licenses will be fulfilled. This is seen as the solution to the longstanding illegal arrangement.
“Guyana is a strategic partner for many reasons but building that relationship will have ups and downs.
“… We know that bordering neighbours always make use of each other’s facilities, rivers and so on, so we just have to create a situation where everybody knows what they need to do,” Suriname’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Ramdin told the News Room in a recent interview.
He was asked to comment on the delay in granting the licenses to Guyanese fisherfolk.
Though he remained vague in his responses, stating instead that he does not want to “invite a discussion over the media”, Ramdin acknowledged that there are some “complicated issues” surrounding the licenses.
Over the past two years, these two neighbouring countries have been deepening cooperation, with plans to jointly develop offshore oil and gas resources central to the partnership.
Apparently stemming from the deepening relations, President Dr. Irfaan Ali announced last year that Surinamese authorities will issue those much-needed fishing licenses directly to Guyanese.
This announcement was made during a joint press conference held at the end of Suriname’s President Chandrikapersad Santokhi visit to Guyana in August 2021. Subsequently, it was noted that 150 SK licenses would be provided by the Dutch-speaking country to Guyanese fisherfolk.
Surinamese authorities claim that they have granted licenses to Guyanese already, an assertion that invited scrutiny from Guyana’s leaders.
Ramdin declined to state how many licenses were already granted but clarified that those licenses were granted to Guyanese who live in Suriname.
Amid mounting agitation on both sides with Guyanese fisherfolk clamouring for the promised licenses, some Suriname businessmen are against the issuance of the licenses.
But Ramdin implored stakeholders to mull the joint developmental plans afoot.
“We have to keep in mind the greater good as well.
“It will not be to the benefit of Suriname nor Guyana if, for these reasons, we are not able to progress in that collaboration,” Ramdin said.
The situation seems more complex than the Foreign Minister lets on.
Because of the proximity of Guyana’s Berbice county and Suriname, fishing in Surinamese waters has been ongoing for decades. Based on Surinamese law, however, it is illegal for Guyanese fisherfolk to obtain licenses to fish there.
Harry (not real name), a Guyanese fisherman from the Upper Corentyne area, explains that Surinamese license holders often lease or rent these licenses to Guyanese fisherfolk, though this is prohibited by the country’s law.
Harry’s real name has been withheld due to his comments on the illegal arrangements fisherfolk engage in. He also fears his livelihood may be seriously threatened.
“… they take out these licenses and call the Guyanese man and tell them to bring the boat to Suriname but they register it as their own.
“They (the Surinamese license holders) don’t have boats but they just get the paperwork,” Harry told the News Room on Wednesday.
A decade ago, licenses cost about US$500 (or about GY$105,000). Now, this arrangement can cost about US$3000 (or about GY$630,000) or more, making it quite a lucrative scheme.
Guyanese fisherfolk have, however, admitted to duplicating those licenses. Last week, three captains found with fake licenses were detained in Suriname. They were fined and released, with the Surinamese authorities seizing their boats.
Under the current scheme as well, the fish caught by Guyanese usually goes to Suriname first and the rejected catch is then sent to Guyana.
Sometimes, this requirement is bypassed and the fish is smuggled directly to Guyana.
This licensing situation has troubled Guyanese fisherfolk for quite some time.
The mounting cost prompted Berbice fisherfolk to lobby President Ali for some relief. Hence, the direct provision of licenses to Guyanese was pursued. And those licenses were expected by January 2022.
Guyanese leaders, including President Ali, Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo and Agriculture Minister Zulfikar Mustapha, continue to assure the local fisherfolk that those licenses will be granted to Guyanese.
As recent as Tuesday, Minister Mustapha reminded the News Room of the assurances from the Surinamese government.
“… I have had conversations with the Minister of Agriculture in Suriname and he promised me faithfully that we will have the 150 licenses,” Mustapha said at the sidelines of an event.
Previously, Mustapha said that the government had written proof of the promise made. He vowed to make those documents available in due time.
Last month, when the News Room visited Suriname, the country’s Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Prahlad Sewdien declined to offer comments on the matter.
Udo Karg, the President of the Suriname Seafood Association (SSA), was keen on registering his opposition to the distribution of these licenses, however.
“We know nothing about the 150 licenses because according to our law it is impossible.
“For us, it is not even a discussion (and) we are looking very surprised at how it comes to be a discussion,” Karg told the News Room recently.
His opposition to the granting of these licenses doesn’t only stem from Surinamese law.
Karg explained that he is concerned about overfishing, like many other stakeholders in the Surinamese fishing industry.
As per the country’s fisheries management plan, Surinamese authorities have been limiting the number of fishing licenses granted in the various fishing zones. It is advised that SK licenses are reduced.
With Surinamese fisherfolk hoping to sustainably manage their fishing resources, Karg suggested that Guyanese authorities explore additional avenues for increasing various fish populations in Guyana. This should provide the much-needed fish for Guyanese.
In the meantime, he does not support any carve-out for Guyanese fisherfolk to receive these licenses. And he advocates for the maintenance of strong penalties for those involved in the illegal arrangements.
He says he has no qualms with Guyanese but believes that overfishing, which may be exacerbated by granting licenses to Guyanese fisherfolk, should be of paramount concern.
“It has nothing to do with relations, it has to do with common sense,” Karg stressed.