An aerial view of Kaieteur Falls, the world's largest single-drop waterfall, located in Guyana. (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)
Guyana: A country hanging in the balance
Guyana is a country located in South America that is not often discussed in Western mainstream media. Home to some of the most vibrant, pristine, untouched and natural attractions the world has to offer, including a large chunk of the Amazon Rainforest, Guyana is one of the most biodiverse and beautiful countries in the world. However, it has also been the bearer of intense natural disasters and rising sea levels.
Most of the country is below sea level, with seawalls on the country’s coast stopping the Atlantic current from rushing in. As the sea levels have risen, the walls have been able to do less and less, and Guyana’s capital Georgetown and the rest of the coast have been the subject of devastating flooding. Lack of adaptability and infrastructure have led Guyana to suffer from excessive flooding during La Niña events and crippling drought from El Niño events.
These events can often leave infrastructure incapacitated for months at a time, giving no time to prepare for the next natural disaster coming ahead. Often, a complete damage report cannot even be filed for weeks as many roads remain flooded long after the initial event has subsided.
Guyana, Exxon, and the World Bank
As this has been happening, oil was found off the coast of Guyana, and ExxonMobil jumped at the opportunity to begin operations with the country, and commence drilling for an estimated 11.3 billion barrels of oil. In 2020, the World Bank contributed 55 million USD to aid fossil fuel extraction from Guyana, a direct contradiction of their support of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
At a time when most of the rest of the world is seeking to stray away from reliance on fossil fuel extraction, Guyana is traveling in the opposite direction with powerful influence from actors like Exxon and the World Bank. To a country already vulnerable to the growing effects of climate change, to begin extracting fossil fuels will have devastating effects on the country and the coast of Guyana, where 90% of its people live and where 75% of economic activity takes place.
If Exxon is allowed to continue mining off the Guyanese coast, it will become one of the world’s largest oil producers by 2030, coinciding with a timeline established by the research group, Climate Central, which suggests that Guyana’s capital of Georgetown will be underwater by the same year. The situation in Guyana is a precarious one, and the devastation that the Guyanese people have experienced as a result of climate change is only worsening.
However, some people are taking the fight to Exxon. Lawyers Melinda Janki and Ronald Burch-Smith are currently fighting Exxon in the courts to hold them accountable for the externalities that Guyana and its ecosystem will face as a result of Exxon’s drilling. Janki is an accomplished international lawyer whose impact can be seen on the Guyanese Constitution, having implemented the idea of natural capital, and the people’s right to a healthy environment.
Going up against hundreds of lawyers and the vast resources of Exxon, it is hard to imagine a more one-sided fight, but it is a fight that the two lawyers have taken on with vigor. Janki took a resounding win for Guyana in 2020 when a court brought Exxon’s permit for oil field development down from 20 to five years. But many court battles lie ahead for Janki and Smith as they seek to take on the oil giant that is Exxon.
“Traditionally, economists treat the natural world as if it has no value.” – Melinda Janki
Hanging in the balance
The name ‘Guyana’ hails from the Indigenous peoples who first inhabited this land, and it means, ‘land of water.’ Guyana is home to many rivers that intertwine throughout the country, and much of the diverse sea life and nature that the people depend on comes from these rivers. Not to mention the coast that is the base for most of Guyana’s economic activity. If the coast and the rivers of Guyana are not protected from the drilling of Exxon, then the results will be disastrous for the people of Guyana. Exxon also maintains the practice of burning off its excess gas, which has already taken place in Guyana.
“In the first 15 months of production alone, that flaring contributed nearly 770,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of driving 167,000 cars for one year.” – The Guardian
The fate of the Guyanese people and their ecosystem depends upon whether Exxon’s advances can be stopped. There is already much to be done to help Guyana with climate change, and what happens there will be important for the rest of the world to see whether the profits of corporations are valued, or the survival of our earth and the well-being of its people.
“One People, One Nation, One Destiny” – Guyanese National Motto