Circumstances throw people together.
A week ago, I was at a cocktail party for the departing British High Commissioner, wondering where I could sit and rest my badly aching knees. Too many years of sport were taking their toll and I had legs that said "enough". I parked myself on a stone bench and looked at people trying to impress each other with stories. Then a man asked if he could sit next to me. No problem. We struck up a conversation and soon had covered almost all regional and international issues. He let out that he was a scientist and we lamented that Barbados had not done much to gear itself up well in that discipline and the region had also not seen a way to consolidate its scientific talents.
Then we got talking about immigration. The man mentioned that he had floated an idea about how to deal with the pressures that seem to drive people from the region's largest land mass, Guyana, towards one of its smallest and most densely populated, Barbados. He then mentioned that he had proposed a solution. He described it and then we got into a long debate about how politics and social issues would make it nigh impossible. We agreed to disagree, but his idea is intriguing. Its principle is not novel and is part of moves such as 'decentralization' that are done within an existing national space. But it is a major challenge to try it for two separate national spaces that are separated by a lot of water.
The man, John Phillips, is Barbadian. He is a biologist and trained in the UK as a teacher. He has a Master of Philosophy degree from UWI. He is a former science teacher at Harrison College, Barbados.
He wrote an intriguing paper some 15 years ago, looking at how the two divergent countries of Barbados and Guyana could produce a vibrant economic space. To me, there are lots of questions that such an idea begs, but it has some fascinating possibilities as one considers ways forward for a country that is densely populated, small, and scarce of resources, compared with another that is grossly under populated, but has a huge resource rich land mass. Of course, there is the not so little matter of vastly different cultural, political, and historical roots.
I understand that the original version of the article was published in the Nation before the Owen administration started its first term. I read the piece and was struck by how much of the assessment still seems relevant. Does that tell us that some problems are that intractable? Or is it that problems take so long to find their solutions? Or, is it that many other things are going on?
A country going down the drain
Barguyados: New hope for the future
WHILE Barbadians are bracing themselves to face the harsh economic conditions ahead, they have overlooked the fact that a fundamental problem of this country is the problem of overpopulation. Ironically, this is a problem that no one is talking about. We simply have too many people in this island of ours. We in fact have one of the highest numbers of people per square mile in the world. We are tenth in the world population "league". In the Caribbean, we are second only to Bermuda, as the graph (at right) shows. Bermuda is just off scale with 2,834 per square mile. This problem that we face is not a new one but could have been far worse had we not been able to "lose" people through emigration and had not the Family Planning Association been successful in implementing their policies.
We live close to a very spacious country, Guyana, which could easily absorb our population without a "whimper." If Guyana had the same population density as Barbados, it would now be bristling with some 130 people, instead, Guyana has less than three quarters of a million people.
If our politicians get their act together; that is, if they are prepared to look beyond just the next set of election results, we can hope for some form of political as well as economic union for the Caribbean territories at some point in the not-too-distant future. However, we here in Barbados do not have much time; we have to act now or witness the deterioration and eventually disintegration of our society. We must do all we can to speed up the regional integration process. Herein lays the hope of our ending a dependence on quotas and subsidies.
The population trends for Barbados leading up to the year 2000 are a model for any country (many developing countries will double their population in 25 years). But this is not enough; the standard of living that people want to achieve is rapidly getting out of reach and their expectations of life are now more surreal than real. Our youths are beginning to despair. 'What have we to look forward to?' they ask, and 'what are the national goals?'
Ours is a land of too few resources and too few opportunities. We do not have enough land space, we get too little rainfall, we have very few natural resources and we cannot or do not grow enough food for ourselves. Yes, it is true; this is nothing new. We have always had this problem, but until recently, we had other things going for us so we never had to face these problems 'head on.' We were a few steps ahead of our neighbours, we were better developed, we were better educated, we had better roads, better schools and better air and seaports. Our utilities such as water and electricity were excellent and communications were always good.
Thus, it was easy to attract foreign investors to set up industries here. Tourism has served us well. It had been a minor industry in the '50’s with a few hotels down the "gold coast" in St. James graduating to become the main foreign exchange earner in the '70s and '80s. Perhaps it is a mistake to expect tourism to last forever, especially when the psyches of our people still have difficulty distinguishing between service and servitude. People soon get tired of the sea and the sun (which is bad for the skin!) and we haven't got old castles, dungeons, 'lost' cities or forests for them to come and look at. It is anybody's guess how many and for how long tourists will be attracted to come and play golf.
What has happened over the past few years is that we are now in a much more competitive world. Our neighbours have: simply caught up with us and can successfully compete with us. Whatever we produce here can be produced cheaper elsewhere, with as good or better quality. This problem has a lot to do with the economies of scale. Our miniscule home market does not gear us to produce items with that competitive edge needed to penetrate extra-regional markets. What we needed to do was to keep our machinery running for longer, to work harder and longer than our competitors, to capture the markets like the Japanese have done. But, as another writer mentioned, our trade unions have been too good at extracting better and better conditions for the workers over the years, without the concomitant increases in productivity. Our complacency didn't help much; and we relied less on the land to produce our own food and more on purchasing it from elsewhere. We got away with it as long as there was an easy flow of tourist dollars into the country. Complacency mixed with too much pride and procrastination kept us ignorant of the problems we were facing and told us that these problems were not real or serious.
Among the problems we faced were: Considerable loss in shipping trade due to inefficiency and high port charges; loss in tourist trade due to the deterioration in "tourist product" and general decline in the tourist industry worldwide; loss in earnings of raw sugar on the world market due to high cost of production and the general movement away from cane sugar (a trend which started to show itself in the 1970s). All the while, we have been producing more and more people to overflow an ever-shrinking job market.
'Brain' drain in reverse
Traditionally we have looked to Europe and North America as a safety valve to ease unemployment problems. We have proudly "exported" our people when they were calls for labour overseas; in more practical terms, we were giving economic aid to these already developed countries. The peak for this emigration was in the '50s and early '60s. Today the exodus of people overseas has been reduced to a mere trickle. We have therefore to look to non-traditional means to alleviate today's problems.
This brings us back to where we started -Guyana. Guyana holds the key to our future; we can do much for Guyana too. We need space and Guyana needs people. Barbados, having a population of some 250 000 people and with 1 535 people per square mile, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The first settlers found a wooded, unpopulated island. Within 50 years of settling, the trees were cut down and the island put under intense cultivation, sustained by a large slave population. The intense cultivation, which Barbados underwent, was no doubt facilitated by the accessibility of the terrain, the equitable climate and the relative freedom from disruptive disturbances.
We are now having problems sustaining economic growth, and since we have been "shuttled" towards the IMF for help, we can expect decline, as was the case with the countries in the Caribbean, which came under the same harsh economic management. It was under such conditions that people used whatever contacts they had to help them flee the economic oppression, which ensued. In the countries like Grenada and Guyana, the exodus was so drastic that it has led to negative population growth trends for this decade (extremely unusual for developing countries). Belize is off the scale with a growth rate of 3.6 per cent; this leads to population doubling time of 20 years.
If the harsh economic conditions experienced by Grenada and Guyana come to Barbados, they will cause a "brain drain" here. If the trend continues, Barbados will find itself in a much worse position than Guyana and it will be catastrophic for the region if our best brains are lost forever to the extra-regional workforce. However, it is unlikely that a 'brain drain' will solve our population problem but will impact negatively on our development. When our best people have left, surely it would be more difficult to run the country efficiently, it would be more difficult for businesses to find skilled personnel; and therefore more difficult to grow economically. The effect of mass unemployment will increase the tension in our citizens, and this easily translates into civil disturbance, strife, xenophobia and the singling out of specific groups to carry the blame for the current problems. Where this can lead to in terms of the destructive effect on a country, no one knows. But the sheer numbers of people that we have to deal with in such a small space is a serious cause for concern.
If the following plans were put into effect immediately, I believe it would give us hope for the future, particularly our young people, and encourage our educated, skilled and professional people to stay in the region and even make sacrifices for the noble cause.
Guyana is one of the least populous and at present one of the poorest countries in the region, although it is rich in natural resources. Guyana lacks the human resources and financial investment needed to develop the country and raise its citizens out of the "poverty trap" in which they are caught. Can it climb out of this situation without "selling out" to foreign (outside the region) investors? Wouldn't this lead to a situation where Guyana's wealth will be owned and controlled by foreigners? Wouldn't it be more desirable for the people of the region to share in the development of Guyana while we all move towards political and economic union?
Guyana now owes Barbados some $150 million through the Caribbean Multilateral Clearing Facility. It is very unlikely that this money will ever be paid back in cash in the near future, given the state of the Guyana economy. Barbados would do well to accept payment in kind. $150 million could buy 150,000 acres of forest at $1000 per acre, or an area equivalent to 234 square miles. This area though larger than Barbados represents only 0.28 percent of Guyana.
Guyana has an area of 83 000 square miles as compared with Barbados which has an area of only 166 square miles. A transaction of this kind would be a positive benefit to both countries. This new territory could become a part of Barbados and could be used to establish a colony for Bajans who would clear the forest under strict ecological management and build a city or cities to house 50 000 to 100 000 Bajans over the next 25 to 50 years. It would be important to choose the site very carefully to ensure that there are sufficient natural resources that could be exploited. A site well away from major settlements, somewhere in the interior, would have minimum disruption of already established communities. Agreements could be reached, as the relationships between the new settlers and the Guyanese citizens and a time framework established so that the cities eventually revert to Guyanese control, rather like Hong Kong reverting from British rule to Chinese rule after 99 years. In other words, they lose their colony status and become again part of Guyana. Thus in the long term Guyana would gain a fully developed county (shall we say) with viable industries and people with high academic and professional training -the brain drain in reverse.
Wiping out debt with one 'stroke'
GUYANA has benefited before, from a major influx of people during the 19th century when a labor shortage arose there, after the abolition of slavery. From 1834 to 1865, more than 127 000 Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and West Indians among others, fleeing famine, poverty and oppression in their own countries, went to Guyana in search of freedom and fortune. But the flow of liberated slaves and free men continued right up to the end of the century. Records were difficult to obtain about this period, but it is estimated that "no less than 40 656" persons went into Guyana from Barbados.
The proposal is given in outline; the details could be thrashed out and alternatives considered. For instance, how long should there be before the "colony" becomes controlled by Guyana? What would be the new relationship between the "colonists" and the "Mother Country" once control has been relinquished? Could an alternat1ve arrangement be made where the land 1s leased to the "colonists" rather than sold?
It may well be that 50 years down the line, we may have some semblance of a federation or at least some kind of economic and political union; then such questions may indeed be irrelevant. However, just going to Guyana and selecting a "good" piece of territory would not be enough. Considerable investments and careful planning over a long period of time would be necessary. The goal of settling a new territory to improve conditions in this country and add to the overall development of the Caribbean could unite us and focus our attention for a generation. A company could be formed financed by shares from the Government and people of Barbados, including private companies, perhaps like the East India company which operated in the Far East during the 18th and 19th centuries.
What would the "colonists" do and how would Barbados benefit? Well that depends on what kind of territory is selected. Guyana is exceedingly rich in minerals so an early part of the programmed would be to gain wealth from the exploitation of these minerals. Forestry would also come in for early consideration. With the abundance of rain and fresh water, typical of tropical rain forests, agriculture would also be a major consideration. Vegetable and fish farming could be conducted with relative ease, without the restrictions of water and land space that we now face in Barbados. Even ecotourism could hardly be bettered in the genuine primeval forests.
The benefits for Guyana would be immediate. An enormous national debt would have been cleared in one stroke.
John Phillips. 1993.