TUSCHEN, Guyana, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Venezuela and its small neighbor Guyana are locked in a dispute over territorial waters that could slow the development of Guyana’s offshore oil and gas reserves.
Guyana, a former British colony, asked the United Nations in September to extend its continental shelf - the area where countries have control over ocean resources such as oil and minerals - toward a region where Venezuela has granted natural gas concessions to Chevron and other companies.
The region lies off the coast of the Essequibo, an area that is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Georgia and makes up about two-thirds of Guyana’s territory. It is claimed by Venezuela in a dispute that dates back to the early 19th century.
The rival claims sparked small military skirmishes four decades ago. Though unlikely to lead to fresh violence or a diplomatic rupture, the new dispute could delay energy-poor Guyana’s efforts to produce its own crude from an offshore area along South America’s eastern shoulder.
The area is believed to hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil and Guyana is boosting exploration in efforts to offset the cost of fuel imports. Spanish oil company Repsol is preparing to drill for oil off Guyana’s coast.
A recent discovery off nearby French Guyana has been described by industry experts as a game-changer for the region, spurring new interest in energy exploration.
Venezuela rejects an 1899 arbitration proceeding that gave Britain rights to the Essequibo, and says it renewed its opposition to that ruling upon Guyana’s independence in 1966.
The area has for decades appeared on Venezuelan maps in red and white lines denoting the “reclamation zone,” where gold, diamonds and bauxite lie buried under rolling savanna and verdant but sparsely populated jungle.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry described Guyana’s request to extend its continental shelf as an “irregular situation” and said it was working to protect its maritime rights.
Guyana says Venezuela accepted the arbitration in 1899 but revived its claim in the 1960s as a way of harassing Guyana’s leadership at the time, which was flirting with communism. It also accuses Venezuela of stirring up a rebellion of ranchers in the 1960s.
Guyana has granted mining concessions for bauxite and gold in the Essequibo, which ranges from urbanized coastlines to isolated jungle.
The region shows few traces of Venezuelan presence. Spanish is rarely heard, cricket rather than baseball is the dominant sport and Venezuelan cuisine is nowhere to be found on menus.
“Venezuela wants to come take the Essequibo, but we can’t let them because it’s Guyana, it’s our country,” says Ramroop Rampersaud, 50, who hunts bushmeat such as wild boar and capybara and runs an informal gold mine in the disputed area.
“The riches of Guyana are in the Essequibo.”
Apart from small military confrontations in the late 1960s and early 1970s - including one in which Venezuela took over an island at the eastern end of the disputed region - the conflict has largely lay dormant. But it is bubbling up again now.
Critics of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez say he has not taken a strong enough stance on the issue.
“Venezuela has been excessively passive about this issue. If time goes by and Venezuela doesn’t protest, then that area is lost,” said Anibal Martinez, a geologist who heads a group called the Front for the Defense of Petroleum.
Chavez’s government dismisses such criticism as “warlike and threatening attitudes of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.”
The socialist leader has worked to ease tensions in recent years by offering Guyana fuel on advantageous terms under Venezuela’s Petrocaribe accord, and by striking up a friendship with former President Bharrat Jagdeo, who led the country for more than a decade before handing over power to another member of his ruling party earlier this month.
That dynamic may change in the light of new oil finds, and the dispute is fueling nationalist sentiment
“ If they get this piece, they’re rich. They’ll have the mineral, the gold and the oil,” said local driver Kwame Boodien, 31, taking a break outside a market along the Essequibo river. “But we can’t let that happen. This is Guyana, not Venezuela.”
Venezuelan rock group Tempano’s tune “El Esequibo” stirred up popular sentiment about the issue in the early 1980s, while Guyanese calypso group Tradewinds released a similarly popular song called “Not a Blade of Grass” in defense of Guyana. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)