An inlet into the Amazon Rainforest with the Caribbean sea lapping at its coastline, Guyana is rich in natural beauty and resources but is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. More than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line while the former Dutch and British colony’s raw materials have been aggressively sought by foreigners since the end of the 15th century.
But since the 1970s, Guyana, the only Anglophone country in South America, has attracted attention from the government and business community of China.
One of the most shocking developments in Guyana in recent times is the government's decision to lease an area of almost one million acres of virgin forest to Chinese company Bai Shan Lin (BSL) for logging operations. According to analysts, the company has committed a series of infractions and is accused of exporting logs directly to its wood flooring factory in Beijing in quantities unverified by any government entity. It is also accused of trading below international prices.
"It is common knowledge that BSL's trucks and containers are not stopped at checkpoints or inspected before being exported," said John Palmer, senior associate of the Forest Management Trust, a Florida-based NGO which calls for a revision of the agreements between BSL and the Guyanese government. Palmer also recalls that local Guyanese press reported on several occasions that the CEO of BSL, Chu Wenze, has been accused of bribing various figures in the current and previous governments.
Officially, BSL's plan is to invest about US$ 100million in the development of a massive logging operation in Guyana. The company also holds a concession to establish a gold mine next to a 20 kilometre stretch of a major Amazon tributary, in addition to other permissions in the local real estate market.
"Direct foreign investment agreements in Guyana are made by people at the highest levels of government, by the president personally, and are strictly classified," Palmer told Diálogo Chino, adding; "the current government has publicly stated that BSL enjoys considerable concessions, such as tax-free fuel purchases and fiscal advantages. Meanwhile, the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) refuses to publish data on the production and export of wood by BSL."
"BSL only offers high-level jobs to Chinese workers, while the subaltern positions are for the Guyanese, who are often subjected to working conditions resembling slavery," says Guyana native Janette Bulkan of the University of British Colombia, whose specialises in the illegal exploitation of wood in Guyana by Asian companies.
Diálogo Chino attempted several times to contact Bai Shan Lin's representatives, the Chinese consulate in Guyana, Guyana's federal government, and the Guyana Forestry Commission to respond to these allegations, but did not receive replies.
In 1972, Guyana became the first Caribbean country to establish diplomatic relations with China, which has facilitated dozens of investment initiatives in the years since.
In addition to extracting wood, Chinese companies were involved in the construction of Guyana’s international airport and the luxury Marriott hotel (both in the capital, Georgetown), in addition to the as yet incomplete Amaila Falls hydroelectric power plant and other mineral exploration projects.
"The relationship was initially established in order to encourage development and mutual cooperation, but recent decades have witnessed a growth in Chinese interest in Guyana's natural resources, which leads the local population to question the value of this supposedly egalitarian and beneficial relationship," says Kevin Edmonds, a Caribbean specialist at the University of Toronto. Edmunds is clear in his assessment that the relationship between the two countries resembles colonialism.
The Chinese presence in the country is so strong that China's ambassador to Guyana, Zhang Limin, is often presented in local media as one of the country's benefactors. Although meetings between Chinese companies and the local government usually take place behind closed doors, Zhang, who has been in this post for over eight years, has a notable public presence, awarding cash prizes to young students for achieving good grades and delivering Chinese medical equipment to the country's struggling hospitals.