Thursday, 29 September 2011

Venezuela criticies Guyana over new border line

A new row has erupted between Guyana and Venezuela over a planned extension to the former's maritime boundaries, which Venezuela says was decided without consultation.

Earlier in September Guyana applied to the UN for permission to extend its continental shelf by 150 miles, which would expand the border beyond the standard 200 miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone. Venezuela has complained that it was not informed by Guyana, with which it has a long-running border dispute stretching back into the nineteenth century. The new maritime border, Venezuela says, would interfere with its own offshore zone.

Guyana has dismissed the allegations, saying that it informed Caracas of the requested changes as long ago as 2009. The document submitted to the UN, however, contains the assertion that “there are no disputes in the region relevant to this Submission of data and information relating to the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles”, despite the unsettled nature of the border.

Venezuela has reacted coolly. Although it has described the Guyanese claim as an “irregular situation” and a source of disagreement, the usually-bombastic President Hugo Chavez has told his diplomats to “walk on eggshells” regarding the dispute. The UN has stated that it will begin studying the Guyanese claim in April, a process which could take years.

The argument is particularly acute at the moment due to the large oil and gas reserves which are believed to lie beneath the sea. In early September Tullow struck a potentially huge oilfield off the coast of nearby French Guiana, sparking speculation that the whole region was rich in reserves.

The maritime boundary is unsettled in large part because the land boundary between the two is still contested. In the nineteenth century, the border was effectively drawn up by the British, which became a bone of contention with Venezuela. US-backed arbitration in 1899 set a line largely in Britain's favour, but the claim was revived in the 1960s.

Since becoming independent in 1966, Guyana has administered the territory, but Venezuela insists that the boundary is a colonial hangover which is null and void, and refers to the disputed area as a “zone of reclamation”.

The argument is unlikely to escalate into anything serious, with Venezuela aiming at a cordial solution, but until the outlines of a settlement are reached it introduces a further degree of uncertainty into regional oil and gas exploration.

Sources: El Universal, Latin American Herald Tribune

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