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Can Guyana oil its wheels of development?

Or must it remain underdeveloped for the sake of the planet?

By Ricky Browne

Some countries just can’t get a break in this global order.

Take Guyana. The country is one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere – and is mineral rich. Gold, bauxite and more have been exploited. The country is about the size of Great Britain, with a population of less than a million people, most of who live on the coast.

Since 2019 the country has been on the verge of becoming the fastest growing economy in the world, with the discovery and exploitation of its oil fields. But just as it is set to vastly improve the lives of its poverty-stricken people, experts living in the comfort of their first-world homes have determined that there should be no new exploitation of oil resources anywhere.

A view of Georgetown, capital of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana — also showing the wooden cathedral of St George’s, which was once the tallest wooden building in the world

Guyana is an intriguing country.

A British colony until 1968, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, bordered by Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil. It is largely underdeveloped and is racially divided, with almost 50 percent descendants from African slaves and another almost 50 percent from descendants of the ‘indentured labourers’ (slaves by another name) brought from India. Although in South America and on the Atlantic Ocean, because of its history as a British colony, it is considered to be a sister nation of other former British colonies in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados — and therefore a Caribbean nation, which is the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (Caricom).

IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE

Much of Guyana’s internal region is jungle. Three large rivers run through the country – the Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo — not quite as big as the Amazon, but big enough to make rivers like the Thames look like streams. One river contains an island within it – Hogg Island – which is said to be as big as Barbados. It isn’t really, but it gives an idea of how massive Guyana’s river systems are that anyone could suppose that an island of little distinction could be thought to be as large as Barbados – a small and fairly wealthy island with a population of 300,000 people.

The Demarara Harbour Bridge in Guyana was once the longest floating bridge in the world

Since its independence in 1968 Guyana has had an economy that was the worst in the English-speaking Caribbean Community countries. As bad as things were in Jamaica under ‘Democratic Socialism’ in the 1970’s – things were even worse in Guyana, with two political parties that were divided on racial lines, but in agreement when it came to idolising socialist ideals. A black market for toilet paper was just one of the symptoms of an economy that was unravelling. Its currency made the Jamaican dollar look strong.

Things may have improved once Forbes Burnham, who had basically become a dictator, ceased to be in power thanks to a death on the operating table that caused quite a few rumours. But the country has remained a Caribbean backwater, belittled by its nearest English-speaking neighbour, Trinidad – a country which built its wealth on the oil industry.

Guyana is also the home to the headquarters of Caricom, situated in its capital of Georgetown, a small city protected that is protected from the sea by dykes, first built by its earliest colonizers – the Dutch.

So the country is well aware of the dangers of climate change, and what it would mean if the seas were to rise to unsustainable levels.

SKINNY DIPPING WITH PIRANHA

I visited Guyana some years ago as a journalist for Jamaica’s Gleaner – to report on its nascent tourism industry. Guyana has no decent beaches. But it can give an Amazon-like experience – staying at river lodges, seeing real Arawak Indians living in the forest, swimming in the rivers with the piranha, which the Guyanese assure you are not at all like the piranha found in the Amazon. Oh no. In the Amazon the piranha are very small and swim in large schools, and can eat a cow in minutes. But in Guyana, the piranha are much larger – you are reassuringly told – and swim by themselves. So all they’ll do is take a chunk outta ya and then move on. So don’t worry about. But think twice before you go skinny-dipping.

Watch out for piranha

The river lodges are also a great place to get closer to Guyanese wild life. When I went to my first lodge – run by Jardim – I was deserted by my other media mates to stay in the one room where a large tarantula spider had been lurking. The generator shut down at about midnight, and I had to somehow try to get into my bed, tucking the mosquito netting under the mattress, and go to gentle slumber, while trying not to remember scenes in Dr No of Bond waking to a tarantula crawling on his body.

I got some relief a couple nights later at another lodge. Once again I had my own room, while the other guys had a room much further away – with a lovely high thatch roof. I went over there to have a look, and noticed a couple bats – rat bats – hanging from the ceiling. These were the most hideous bats I had ever seen. I pointed them out to the guys, saying I thought they were probably vampire bats, and wished them a good night.

PEPPERPOT AND KAIETEUR FALLS

So, Guyana is a great place to visit for the adventurer – and one who wants to explore an Amazon environment, without having to learn Brazilian Portuguese. I highly recommend it.

Kaieteur Falls — the largest single drop falls in the world

And I look forward to returning one day to see the Kaieteur Falls which is the world’s largest single drop fall. It can only be reached by plane, and though planned for our trip, we were unable to make it. I think I will return at some point, as I ate pepperpot – the Guyanese version of a stew dish that also exists in Jamaica (actually a soup in Jamaica) – but this one contains God-knows what, and may be years old, with fresh ingredients continuously added to it over a long period. It is said that anyone who eats pepperpot and who drinks the ‘tea coloured’ water of the rivers, will one day return.

But apart from the stunning beauty and feeling of solitude that the Guyanese rainforest gives you, and apart from the wooden architecture in Georgetown, and the Jamaicaness of much (though not all) of the culture – one of the things that sticks out most is the poverty of the country.

Finally, in the last couple of years, it has appeared that Guyana is on the cusp of becoming the fastest growing economy in the world, with the discovery of vast amounts of oil offshore.

The discovery and the start of extraction is destined to bring great wealth to the country, which could mean that it will soon have a per capita income far greater than Trinidad – a country that has looked down upon Guyana for some time.

PROBLEMS

But problems persist.

First, there was a general election – two years later a winner has not been declared. The stakes are too high for any governing party to give up the reins of power at a time like this – because whoever gains power now will most likely retain power for a very long time.

The National Assembly of Guyana, the country’s parliament, in Georgetown

Second there is Venezuela, which claims about a third of the country. This problem is a can that has been consistently kicked down the road by Guyana’s Caricom brothers – as they wished to receive oil aid from Venezuela and didn’t wish to bite the hand that was feeding it.

Third there is the fact that Guyana is not well developed, and nor is its government, and it is susceptible to not getting the best possible deal with the international oil sharks that it has to deal with. But even if it gets an unfair deal, the fact remains that Guyana will still be much wealthier than it was.

Fourth there is the pandemic – which has put a freeze on much of the development momentum that was taking place up to February last year. The country already had a very fast growing economy after having one of the worst-performing economies for much of its history.

IEA

Today the latest spanner to be thrown into Guyana’s wheels was reported.

Paris – France

 According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, the world needs no new oil and gas developments. The IEA also expects global oil demand to collapse by 75 percent by 2050 as the world moves towards net-zero emissions.

Why is it that states that have not benefitted from the exploitation of their previously undiscovered oil resources should be denied the opportunity of developing their countries, while countries that did become wealthy via their own oil resources should continue to enrich themselves?

It may well be that oil production should be radically reduced for the sake of the planet. But it does not follow that new producers should be denied their chance to benefit from the diminishing oil pie. Let those current producers cut back on their current production, and leave poor, undeveloped states alone so that they can finally get a foot on the development ladder.

Maybe countries like Guyana should be compensated in some way if they decide to not produce oil – maybe by the long-time producers in countries like the UK and Arabia and the USA and Canada, which have benefitted greatly from the industry and which continue to.

FLIPSIDE

There is, however, another argument – which is that oil rarely benefits the people of undeveloped states. Nigeria is a case in point, where despite being the largest producer in Africa, the majority of people live in abject poverty., and its oil industry can be considered a curse – which destroyed other nascent industries.

Venezuela is another case, where the country looked like it was fast developing to become one of the wealthiest countries in South America, with a massive social outreach both nationally and internationally  – only for their economy to go straight down the drain, even though it too is one of the largest producers of oil.

Angola is another example, where the per capita income of the people may have increased rapidly, but the population in general remains poverty-stricken, while only a lucky few have been able to create lives of extreme luxury for themselves.

Guyana is vast

Would Guyana be better off it decided to forget about its oil – a resource that could intensify social injustices within the country, as the rich become fabulously rich and the poor become even poorer? Even worse, the division between rich and poor could also become a racial one – with either Guyanese people of Indian descent or Guyanese people of African descent benefitting, depending on which of the two major parties are in power.

That is a valid argument. Especially as the history of Guyana doesn’t suggest a country with low rates of corruption, nor a government that is not self-serving, with a strong sense of promoting unity or seeking fair growth of the economy.

So maybe, just maybe, Guyana may be better if it postpones its dreams of the new El Dorado – that mythical city built of gold – and concentrates instead of a more equitable development of its people and nation.

If push comes to shove, they could always dam-up the beautiful Kaieteur Falls, to produce some hydroelectric power. But what would the environmentalists living in comfort in the first world think about that?

Whatever decision Guyana makes, it should have the right to make it as a sovereign country. It should not be browbeaten by entities that are based in cities of comparative comfort or made to make decisions that are not in the best interest of their citizens. The problem with oil is not the new producers, it is the old producers and the current users. And that is the part of the equation that should be addressed.

Nice spot for a hydroelectric plant?

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