The Barbados-Trinidad and Tobago dispute
It is traditional wisdom that oil poured on troubled waters, of the fishing or other variety, calms them. Here the
situation is rather different in that it is oil and other hydrocarbons that are causing the troubled waters. I am
speaking of course about the Barbados-Trinidad and Tobago dispute.
I knew that there was more to it than fish, although the details were not clear until after a briefing by the Attorney-General of Barbados, and a look at a couple of articles emanating from Port-of-Spain. Fish is indeed only a very small part of it all, and the real issue is maritime boundaries.
As we all know, Barbados is miles to the east of any of the other Caribbean islands. For land masses that far to the
east, one has to go to Guyana and Suriname. This is very important in terms of the Law of the Sea Convention, signed
by some 147 nations and in effect since 1994.
According to the principles agreed on, landlocked countries had no automatic rights to access to the sea. Theoretically, each country has a territorial boundary which extends 12 nautical miles from its shoreline, and beyond that a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
However, in practice, such an EEZ would not be possible between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, so the principle is
that an imaginary middle line is drawn between the 12-mile limit of Barbados and a 12-mile line that goes around
Trinidad and Tobago, considered as one entity.
This applies only to the portion of ocean between us to the south-west of Barbados and a similar distance, representing the mid-point, to the east of Trinidad. East, beyond that point, would be the meeting point between Barbados’s EEZ and that of Guyana.
Beyond the EEZ, a country may claim the sole rights to any wealth at the bottom of the ocean on the basis of a
continental shelf for another 150 miles outwards, (this does not apply to fishing rights. There is no question as to
whether T&T vessels can move through our waters. Any country can sail peacefully through any other
country’sEEZ) and Guyana similarly cuts off Venezuela, Guyana being further to the east, with Suriname, still
further to the east cutting across Guyana in the extra 150 miles over the continental shelf.
While all this may seem good for Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela have gone ahead and signed a treaty, delimiting the ocean space which rightfully belongs to Barbados and Guyana between them.
To do this, Trinidad and Tobago had to uphold Venezuela’s old and absurd claim to about one-third of Guyana!
Why? And why then would Trinidad and Tobago talk of taking the maritime dispute to the Caribbean Community
There are two simple answers: First, according to estimates produced by the Business Guardian of Port-of-Spain, there are some 73.5 tcf of natural gas in that area!
Additionally, taking any such matter to Caricom would mean delaying it even longer so that Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela could go ahead with their joint exploration and development of the area, making it difficult for any tribunal or court to dismiss their claim to the area, possession being a significant part of law.
What is most horrendous about this is that Trinidad and Tobago, a Caricom founding member state, could not have drawn
those lines without recognising that it meant that they were betraying Guyana in the process over a matter where
there has always been absolute Caricom unity.
What is involved in the betrayal of one’s brother here is a rather large mess of potage. We all know that Trinidad and Venezuela are not enemies. They are both very important entities in our Caribbean space. There is little however that impedes a grab for the millions of dollars involved. It must, however, be said that Trinidad and Venezuela were far more pragmatic than Guyana and Suriname, who threatened to go to war about oil found off the Corentyne River.
A unitisation agreement, that is an agreed joint venture, where both sides would agree to joint exploration and
drilling, to sharing of costs and profits in a manner that could later be determined, would have solved that problem
and possibly led these two countries to an understanding that there was even more for both countries out there in the
They would then probably be both parties to the Barbados case being brought before an ad hoc tribunal of the Law of the Sea. Fishing is all part of the deal, but as can be appreciated, it would take several millennia for Bajan traditional fishermen to make catches that added up to anything like the value of our undersea wealth.
However, it suddenly becomes clearer why Trinidad and Tobago were not prepared to sign any fishing agreement with
Doing so would indicate certain maritime boundaries which would contradict their present ambitions. One hopes, most of all that the dispute will be settled without in any way impeding the progress of Caricom as a unified region.