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Caricom countries feuding over border dispute

Bert Wilkinson | 4/10/2014, 9:52 a.m.

In the very near future, Caribbean trade bloc governments might be called upon to intervene in a feud, because two of its larger members are again engaged in a land and river border dispute dating back to the British and Dutch colonial era.

Oil-producing and Dutch-speaking Suriname is set to host an international energy, mining and petroleum conference in June, but Guyana’s government this week said it was pulling out because official conference documents published by Suriname and being circulated to delegates are showing an area Guyana has long says it owns as that of Suriname.

The two, along with Belize, are the only mainland countries in the 15-nation community of former European colonies. They are also the only two with major simultaneous land and river disputes simmering at the surface in the bloc. The remaining countries are all small island nations.

Guyanese Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud said this week that Guyana “no longer has an interest in participating” in the June 17-19 conference that is designed to show off the Guyana-Suriname basin as one of the biggest but largely untapped areas for potential investment. The two have long feuded over the area. In 1969, Guyanese troops, armed with guns and modified commercial aircraft, chased Surinamese counterparts from the area in a military tiff that brought the two small South American mainland nations to the brink of all-out war. It nearly happened again in 2000 as Suriname paid back Guyana for the 1969 defeat by sending gunboats to expel a Canadian oil rig that was drilling for oil and gas in an offshore area that both had claimed.

The issue has since been settled by a United Nations ruling offering a compromise to both. Arbitrators drew a new international marine boundary line that gave both a piece of an offshore area thought to contain oil fields and huge amounts of gas, but the land and river boundary currently at the center of the dispute on the southeastern border between the two continues to simmer. Suriname refers to the remote area as Tigri, while Guyana has a military base there.

Persaud said that the documents showing the New River Triangle as Suriname’s “are a violation of our territorial integrity and an insult to the people of Guyana, so we have informed them that we have withdrawn from participation.”

He added that the local foreign ministry has also sent a diplomatic protest note but has not received a reply from Suriname as of late Monday.

Several international companies like Tullow Oil and Repsol have in recent years shown an interest in the marine area. Suriname, in the 1970s, found oil onshore while drilling for water but has yet to make an offshore discovery. Guyana, on the other hand, said that at least two offshore wells have shown commercial promise, but one had to be abandoned for safety reasons because of its depth.