Guyana-Suriname locked in undiplomatic row over fishing permits

Chan Santokhi
President of the Republic of Suriname Chandrikapersad Santokhi speaks at the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
John Angelillo/Pool Photo via AP

When both governments came to power in August 2020, there was renewed hope that the decades-old row between Guyana and Suriname over licenses for Guyanese nearshore fishermen would have been settled amicably as the two sides had vowed to take a fresh approach towards a resolution.

In trying to settle marine boundaries between Guyana and its eastern neighbor, colonial era Dutch officials basically handed control of the border Corentyne River to Suriname, meaning that Guyanese fishermen would have to deal with Suriname authorities if they want to fish in so-called Surinamese waters.

The issue has festered for decades with Guyanese fishermen complaining that a large brigade of Surinamese businessmen buy licenses from their government for about $100 per year and rent to them for up to $5,000 per vessel in addition to other mandatory fees. Their anger also has a bit to do with the fact that the middlemen make a financial killing without ever buying a fishing net or stocking a vessel to head to sea by simply owning a permit.

Guyana President Irfaan Ali, delivers remarks during a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Monday, July 25, 2022, at the State Department in Washington.
Guyana President Irfaan Ali, delivers remarks during a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Monday, July 25, 2022, at the State Department in Washington.Sarah Silbiger/Pool photo via Associated Press/File

Well, two full years have now passed and the administrations of President Irfaan Ali and Chan Santokhi of Suriname are no closer to resolving the issue with both resorting to undiplomatic language and threats of a trade war in recent days.

Guyanese Vice-President Bharrat Jagdeo has openly blamed official corruption in Suriname for the delay in resolving the issue, noting that the time is fast approaching for Guyana to take tougher measures. He has even threatened to take the issue to CARICOM.

“We have to start playing hardball now. We know that they control fishing in their waters and they have a right to license whomever they wish. But we also have a right, in this country, to deal on a reciprocal basis with the Surinamese who are here doing business. Because for too long now we are just tiptoeing around the issue. We are working at the diplomatic level, but the commitment of the government of Suriname seems not to be worth the paper it is written on, a frustrated Jagdeo said last week.

Jagdeo argues that the Surinamese had promised to license up to 150 boats and that such an agreement is enshrined in a joint statement the two sides had issued after meeting on the issue, a figure that Suriname refutes. The deal should have been sealed at the beginning of January last year but he said that Suriname had reneged on the agreement.

For its part, Suriname has said that it had made no such agreement with Guyana as over-fishing and other issues are already besetting the industry. Therefore, it would be foolhardy to hand out such a large number of permits at this time. Fisheries Minister Parmanand Swedien has argued that local laws forbid authorities from issuing licenses to Guyanese fishermen and therefore any such would be illegal.

Another Surinamese Minister Krishna Mathoera dubbed threats for retaliatory action by Guyana as “an unfriendly act” adding that such was “irresponsible, not diplomatic and not in line with the spirit of cooperation as neighbouring countries.” Guyana’s Ambassador Keith George has already been summoned to the foreign ministry as the row escalates.

During a recent meeting on the Guyana side of the border, local fishermen said they were harassed for the tiniest of infractions, their catch and boats seized and sometimes sold without a hearing.