Friday, 31 August 2012

Linden: "Touch One Touch All"

“Dear land of Guyana
Of Rivers and Plains
Made rich by the sunshine
And lush by the rains
Set gem-like and fair
Between mountains and sea
Your children salute
Dear land of the free...”

From Guyanese National Anthem

As a young girl I loved singing these words from our Guyanese anthem. I didn’t at the time understand their meaning. I simply thought them beautiful. I can’t remember at what age I came to know that the indigenous name “Guiana” means “land of many waters.” And there is a lot of rain and a number of rivers, chiefly Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. In 2010 I realised my dream of visiting Kaieteur, one of Guyana’s many waterfalls – and yet unrealised source of hydro electricity.

“Mountains and plains” – were pretty words for imagined spaces. Its “gems?” The reality of Guyana’s vast resources would not be properly understood by me until my return some fifteen years after I left. It was at this time also that I saw for the first time the impressive landscape of Guyana. I travelled to the interior - to Aishalton on an army truck; to Bartica on a speedboat sailing along the Mazuruni; to the North West (Matthews Ridge) on a trawler. I bathed in the coffee black waters; I listened to a Wapishana family sing about their love of the Rupunnuni (area in the South) and of the Kanaku Mountain. I slept in a hammock underneath the brightest moon and stars, feeling a kind of oneness with nature. Mosquitoes didn’t terrorise nor scar me, though they are plentiful in the countryside at night, particularly during the rainy season. I did not see anyone being swallowed whole by anacondas as the stories I’d listened to before travelling had suggested would happen, given the “jungle” Guyana is.

This freedom and privilege to appreciate the landscape of the country where I was born provided me with something I had been missing and which had caused me to feel depressed and unsure of my place in Britain. I felt rooted to this place. Here lay my foundation, the beginning of the self I would live my life trying to actualise. It is from this place I expressed into “being.” This sense of being rooted, of knowing my foundation gave me some confidence when I returned to London (actually Scotland where I was living/studying at the time). I say “privilege” because I was able to save money to explore some of Guyana when I went back. My cousins who had remained almost in a kind of time capsule had never travelled into the interior, let alone “outside” of Guyana. For this reason some of them challenged me when I asserted that Guyana was the size of Britain. They didn’t have a thorough sense of Guyana’s size, beauty and resources. This formed part of the reason for their desire to go “outside” – London, Barbados, Canada, US - anywhere “outside”. This desire was otherwise based on the association of Guyana with poverty, the conception of “outside” with opportunity and prosperity.

So beside the beauty and immenseness of the landscape, the richness of the soil at one time earning Guyana the title of “foodbasket” of the Caribbean; the vastness of its natural resources –gold, diamonds and significantly bauxite, I was left with an intense impression of poverty. It is this contradiction that manifested in the slaughter by police of three men, Shemroy Bouyea, Ron Somerset and Allan Lewis on 18th July this year. I was born into this poverty. The poverty I experienced as a child when my aunt and uncle were parenting us (my siblings and I) as well as their own children. My uncle worked for the bauxite company in Linden. Whether or not he was part of a union I can’t say but when he died there was no pension to meet the needs of his family. By this time I had been shipped to London to “join” my mother. Our migration was bitterly resented by my cousins who saw this as our privileged route out of poverty. For there was no other way to conceptualise Linden – its bauxite deposits, considered one of the world’s largest still, did not amount to economic freedom for its people. Instead it remained a “small mining” town. “Small” confers the status of permanent underdevelopment despite the vast amount of bauxite extracted by the hands of changing companies.

Imagine living in a town which came into being for the purpose of enriching foreign investors? The miners and their families cannot realise any kind of economic advancement because this is not the objective for this community. I didn’t connect my bronchitis and other respiratory problems with the fact that I started my life in Linden, where the oppressive bauxite dust spewing out from the mines was part and parcel of living in the “mining town.” If I suffer with these complaints, how more severe would it be for the workers, daily risking their health/lives so that their families can eat and have a home? These are not luxuries. They are basic human needs. Any society that cannot ensure that such basic needs are met is anti-human. Any state that does not protect its citizens from exploitation by corporations has misunderstood their function as representative of the people. Thus it is that in Guyana our bauxite has been controlled by foreign companies who have never acted in the best interest of the miners/workers and the people of Guyana.

This blatant violation of the people’s civil liberties goes unchallenged by the present regime. Our eyes are focussed on Linden, where bauxite is extracted by Chinese owned company BOSAI. However, the High Court is still investigating an ongoing dispute since May 2011 between BCGI (Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated) a subsidiary of Russian-owned RUSAL and the GB GWI (Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union). An arbitration meeting was scheduled for March this year, but the company manager and lawyer failed to show up. The original dispute was not merely about low wages but also air conditioning in trucks as well as a request for an emergency vehicle to transport injured workers to the nearest hospital in Kwakwani, 16 miles outside of the mining area. The company agreed the concessions at first, but reneged claiming that the Union had induced the strike, had caused it to lose US$290,000 and had trespassed onto their property during the two day strike. Notice that the company’s first preoccupation is with its losses.

Similarly, President Ramotar in his insensitive, callous letter to the people of Linden following the massacre by the police of the three men and the injuring of several others, including elderly, women and children is mainly concerned with damages to property. He is so concerned by the “great hardships”, the “pain”, “difficulties” and “grief” the people experienced following the killings it took him nearly one month to visit and speak with the community. He claims that it is the “organisers of the blockades that are hurting Linden and causing deep suffering” but shamelessly fails to notice that their suffering is the result of his Government’s hike in electricity rates – of 800% in a community with high unemployment. There is no sincerity in his letter for the people – for in it he also writes that “BOSAI is also being hurt.” How so? What is BOSAI really doing for the people of Linden? How is their presence really improving the economic independence of the country? How are BOSAI and BCGI improving the quality of life for the people of the communities from which they extract exorbitant wealth to develop their respective economies and their individual interests? RUSAL is considered the world’s largest producers of aluminium and alumina (comes from bauxite). Yet they quibble over giving workers a fair wage for their labour and protection whilst they conduct their work in the hostile mining environment. This is the sickening realities of profit driven motive. It must always violate the basic needs of human beings. Without this it cannot maintain its leadership in global financial indices.

When I lived in Guyana we were poor. My aunt recycled breadfruit in a number of our meals because we had several trees. I find the fruit unpalatable now. When I returned fifteen years later, my family were still poor. The house I grew up in, situated on a hill in Silvertown had deteriorated; its roof made of zinc sheets was full of holes, my family still used a latrine as they couldn’t afford a flushing toilet. The roads – well these were always tracks with potholes sometimes too large for cars to drive through. 10 years later my family are poorer still – though there is now a flushing toilet, thanks to remissions from myself and other family abroad; the roads are not improved. Everyone has to hustle. What they make from their creative ways to survive is supplemented by the remissions they receive from family “outside.” This was the case over thirty years ago and nothing has changed.

Of course this poverty is restricted to the general population. Everyone knows Ramotor’s government is corrupt, fuelling drugs through the country – which explains his concerns about the protesters “blockading of roads.” When I was there two years ago there were curiously a number of large hotels, some with swimming pools which I was told are built from drug money. Lots of hotels but no tourists to fill them, but the money must be pumped into something to give the illusion of economic advances. We know too that the government is responsible for the deaths of nearly 500 Africans during its 20 years in office. But race politics, though the PPP would like us to focus on it is not the most pressing issue. It is capitalist exploitation that ensures Ramotar and his predecessor Jagdeo can live opulently, signing contracts with foreign companies that perpetuate Guyana’s underdevelopment – despite its being “gem-like and fair.”

And herein is the brilliance of Walter Rodney’s analysis in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Underdevelopment in Africa is consequent to development in Europe – that the phenomenon of underdevelopment is “comparative.” One of its features is “exploitation” of one country by another. Rodney is clear when he identifies underdevelopment as a “product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation” (p.22). This is the legacy of countries/economies like Guyana and those of Africa where so called “Western Democracy” is the order. Countries controlled by “capitalist powers” deprive “societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labour” (p.22). That is the nature of underdevelopment being perpetuated in Guyana by the PPP Civic regime under the guise of good governance.

That too is the nature of the transgression and betrayal by the ANC government of Azania (South Africa) where 44 miners were brutally massacred by the police in Marikana earlier this month. President Zuma has not condemned this cold blooded action by the police against the workers legitimately striking for increased pay. The only “clarity” he needs to see is that he has betrayed his people; that he is paying the price of selfish, individualistic leadership motivated by profit over people. The state apparatus has illogically charged 270 workers involved in the strike with murder, not only of their fellow workers but of two policemen – Zuma’s response? Silence. The spectre of Apartheid looms but worse than this is that big companies like the British owned Lonmin hold countries to ransom, are given licence by governments not only to treat workers inhumanely but to perpetuate underdevelopment within African countries and elsewhere in the so called “developing world.”

I repeat Lonmin is a British owned company, like RUSAL commanding trillions whilst paying pittance to workers daily risking their lives in the mines. The company’s response to the workers demand for a fair wage to feed, clothe and shelter their family (basic needs) is to shoot them down like hunted animals. For they know that ANC has no power over Lonmin – it is Lonmin and other multi-national corporations that own the country. They know that they can manipulate the country’s laws to get away with murder – for whose laws are they? Lonmin knows that despite these murders and inhumane treatment of workers there will be no intervention by the UK to ensure justice is served to the workers because their actions/motivations are underpinned by those other veritable forces – imperialism, capitalism and neo-colonialism. The company and its home country are upheld by these systems.

Comparisons can be made between what’s happening in Linden and Marikana with other countries in Africa. In Sierra Leone a woman was killed during a protest at the Tonkolili mines. Again in another area in Sierra-Leone, the people of Lunsar Town do not benefit from the extractions of iron ore by the London Mining Company. What are these sought after benefits? “jobs, good schools, roads, hospitals and a youth training centre, among others so they and generations after them would benefit from their minerals” (1). Whilst the people struggle to meet these basic needs with hundreds abysmally suffering from cholera in 2012, the President Ernest Koroma siphons billions of their currency (Leonnes) on erecting multiple Hollywood Boulevard style mansions.

Words and phrases like “plagued”, “beleaguered”, “tortured history”, “conflict minerals”, “atrocities”, “violence” are enshrined in the distressing reality of the Democratic Republic of the Congo whose immense natural resources continue to be a curse rather than advancing the economic conditions of its people. The lust for Africa’s natural wealth persists in the “finding” of two large diamonds by the Australian diamond company Lonrho Mining. This company, not the people of Northeasern Angola will benefit from this “dazzling” discovery. The impression is that this will “brighten” the future of Angola. But for me warning bells resound when we know that the Lulo project which enabled the discovery “operates as a joint venture between Lonrho and the Angolan government-owned Endiama”(2,my italics).

The killings in Linden by the police have forced me to make these connections of its underdevelopment with countries throughout Africa. The oppression, poverty, exploitation and slaughtering of workers in the world is underpinned by greed and shameless profiteering. The “freedom” hailed in the national anthem is an illusion because the country and its people are blighted by deliberate impoverishment. I have not forgotten this poverty out of which I emerged into the world. It is this that has shaped who I am; forged my connectivity with the struggles of Africans and other dispossessed people and inspired my commitment to Pan-Africanism. Our struggle in Guyana is not simply against racism as some would have us exert our energies fighting, it is for an economic system that will benefit all, not just a few of our people. Until such time that this system is achieved murder by any state officials must not deter the people from their natural right to protest.

(1) ( sierra-leone/)