Essequibo, the Territorial Dispute between Venezuela and Guyana


The Essequibo (in Spanish, Esequibo), is an undeveloped, sparsely populated but resource-rich jungle territory region, nearly sixty percent of modern Guyana, consisting of all its territory west of the Essequibo River (see map). Venezuela’s deeply rooted belief is that the Essequibo region was unjustly taken from them by meddling foreign powers. It is a matter of national integrity, made more alluring by the possible wealth of natural resources there. Guyana’s position is that they are trying to defend the land that has been part of their country for almost 200 years, land they need to help develop their country economically. The territorial dispute, dating back to the 1830s, has heated up in recent months, after Exxon Mobil, working for the Guyanese government, announced in May 2015 that it had discoverd a large reserve of oil in ocean waters off the disputed territory.

By D. Zwaagstra

Venezuela (now officially the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) was first colonized by the Spanish in 1522. Most of Venezuela eventually became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, the name given in 1717 to the jurisdiction of the Spanish Empire in northern South America, including modern Venezuela. The provinces of Venezuela were separated from the Viceroyalty and assigned to the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777. After two independence movements were crushed in 1811 and 1813, Venezuela was included as a department of the federal republic of Gran Colombia in 1821, achieving independence from Spain. Venezuela remained part of Gran Colombia until 1830 when Venezuela achieved full independence as a separate country.

In 1616 the Dutch established the first European settlement in the area of Guyana (now officially the Cooperative Republic of Guyana). Dutch sovereignty was officially recognized with the signing of the Treaty of Munster in 1648. In 1621 the government of the Netherlands gave the newly formed Dutch West India Company complete control over the trading post on the Essequibo. This Dutch commercial concern administered the colony, known as Essequibo, for more than 170 years. The Dutch West India Company's charter expired in 1792. Renamed the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo, the area then came under the direct control of the Dutch government. In 1795 the French occupied the Netherlands. The British declared war on France and in 1796 launched an expeditionary force from Barbados to occupy the Dutch colonies. The United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo was under British control from 1796 to 1802. By means of the Treaty of Amiens, it was returned to Dutch control. War between Britain and France resumed in less than a year, and in 1803 the United Colony was seized once more by British troops. At the London Convention of 1814, it was formally ceded to Britain. In 1831, the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo and Berbice (all settlements) were unified as British Guyana. The colony would remain under British control until independence in 1966.

The origin of the territorial claim

The Essequibo (in Spanish, Esequibo), is nearly sixty percent of modern Guyana, consisting of all its territory west of the Essequibo River. The Treaty of Munster nor the London Convention defined a western boundary of (the later called) British Guyana.

In 1835 the British Empire sent a German-born naturalist and explorer Robert Herman Schomburgk to conduct geographical research in British Guyana. In the course of his explorations he produced a map between Venezuela and British Guyana. The British government then commissioned Schomburgk to demarcate the territorial boundaries. This Schomburgk Line led to Venezuela protesting British encroachment on their territory, provoking the territorial dispute that has remained unresolved to this day.

In 1850, after years of arguing over the territorial boundaries, both sides agreed not to occupy the disputed territory. Nonetheless, the dispute reignited in the decades after that with the movement of British settlers into the region and with the formation of the British Guyana Mining Company to mine the gold deposits discovered in the zone. In 1897, after pressure from the United States, it was decided by a Treaty of Arbitration (‘The Washington Treaty of Arbitration’) to submit the determination of the boundary line between British Guyana and Venezuela to arbitration. On October 3, 1899, the Arbitration Tribunal delivered its award.

Arbitration Award 1899 and Mallet-Prevost Memorandum 1949

Their decision was to grant Venezuela full control over the disputed area at the mouth of the Orinoco River (Delta Amacuro), and to grant Britain control over the remaining disputed land west of the Essequibo River (around 90% of the territory in dispute). There are different views according to how the Arbitral Award was viewed by Venezuela and Britain, but tensions rose again in 1949, when a memo from Mallet-Prevost, one of the American arbitrators on the Tribunal, was made public posthumously. In the memorandum he said that the American arbitrators had been pressured to agree to the final deal by the Russian President of the Tribunal. In 1962 the Venezuelan government declared the 1899 agreement null and void and revived their claim for all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River.

Geneva Agreement 1966, Port of Spain Protocol 1970 and Good Offices

On the eve of Guyana’s independence, Great Britain and Venezuela, with the concurrence of the government of British Guyana, concluded the Geneva Agreement on February 17, 1966. Both sides agreed to an amicable resolution to the controversy and established a mixed commission. This commission would seek ‘satisfactory solutions for the practical arrangement of the controversy between Venezuela and the United Kingdom which arose as consequence of the Venezuela contention that the Arbitral decision of 1899, regarding the Venezuelan and British Guiana border, is null and void’ (Art. 1 Geneva Agreement). In the event that all bilateral efforts should fail to reach results, the Agreement gave the UN Secretary General the role of assisting the parties decide which of the methods for resolution contemplated in the UN charter should be used. The mixed commission submitted its final report in 1970. The report reflected a complete lack of agreement. Shortly afterwards the parties signed the Port of Spain Protocol that essentially called for a 12 year postponement of any action on the dispute. Tensions between the two countries rose further when in 1982 Venezuela declined to renew the 12-year moratorium agreed in the Protocol of Port of Spain. Formally, this meant that the provisions of the Geneva Convention were fully taken up again. Subsequent discussions by the two governments under the terms of the Geneva Agreement eventually led to both governments agreeing to request the UN Secretary General to find a method, based on Article 33 of the UN Charter, for reaching a settlement. Subsequently, the UN Secretary General in 1990 appointed a “good officer”  in charge of assisting the parties in choosing a means to settle the dispute (Sir Alister McIntyre 1989-1999; Oliver Jackman 1999-2007; Norman Girvan 2010-april 2014).

Meetings involving the UN and both governments continued at regular intervals but reached no decision as to the method to be applied to reach a solution. On March 3, 2015 the Guyana government announced its intention to opt out of the United Nations Good Offices process because the Good Offices process had yielded little results over the last past twenty-five years. Guyana was examining other available options. These “other options” will eventually have to be decided by the UN Secretary General. According to Article 33 of the UN Charter, they include, in addition to “Good Offices,” the resort to mediation, facilitation, dialogue processes, arbitration and judicial settlement. However, all, except a judicial settlement process Venezuela doesn't want, have already been tried. The Guyana-Venezuela border dispute has been a recurring problem for the region for almost 200 years, although an escalation is unlikely, a solution seems far away.