GEORGETOWN, Guyana – From the time I was old enough to recognize my real desires and ambitions, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I had always been a writer interested in analyzing the political and cultural aspects of my society. When the time came for me to make a career decision after leaving high school, journalism just seemed the natural option for me. I signed up for a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Guyana, and several months later joined the local media fraternity at Kaieteur News, which specializes in anti-corruption coverage.
The first story I ever reported on was a prison fire in Camp Street, in Georgetown, the Guyana capital, in 2015. It was my first day and I was waiting for something to happen. It was already after 6:30 p.m. At any other job I might have been home already, but the editor had warned me the media was not to be confused with other jobs. Late nights and dangerous stories were things that one had to quickly become accustomed to.
So, I sat there waiting and then the phone rang. Before I knew it, I was being hurried along with another journalist to report.
The prisoners had set fire to the Section A block of the prison as a protest action against what they labeled “unfair and inhumane treatment by prison officials and some police ranks.” The air was thick with smoke and the shouts of the prisoners. Police officers with large guns milled around us, vigilant. I did not feel safe, but I swallowed my fear in pursuit of the story. It would be the first of many times that I would do so.
The fire was quickly contained with minimum damage. We gathered our information, did our interviews and then went back to the office to finish the article in time for the next day’s press. It was my baptism by fire. I did not have much time to think about the impact the prisoners’ words, the fire or the atmosphere had made on me until I got home. I fell into bed that night thinking of the conditions it took for these men to threaten their own lives just for an opportunity to be heard.
I soon requested to be taken off the crisis beat that covered things such as fires, accidents and shootings. These stories usually caused me a lot of emotional turmoil and they were not even the kind of stories I was interested in. I longed to write about political instability and governmental policies and legislation. I was a “baby journalist,” however, and these beats were usually reserved for those who had been in the game for a while. I had not even gotten my feet wet yet, but I was ready to tread water.
My editor and I came to a compromise: I could focus on feature articles exploring cultural traditions, people, education and entertainment. I spent some time doing features on women in technology, masquerade bands and cultural practices, movie reviews and criticisms — but I did not stop trying to snag more impactful stories in the hopes of being placed on my preferred beat. Finally, a lot of queries and snooping later and I was in possession of an audit report for the 2008 Caribbean Festival of Arts X. Hundreds of millions had been siphoned from the CARIFESTA account by the Ministry of Culture under former minister Frank Anthony of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic.
It was a big story. And a dangerous one.
Only the year before, in 2014, the then-attorney general and minister of legal affairs, Anil Nandalall, had made threats against journalists of Kaieteur News who he thought were giving the PPP/C bad press.He said, “Not everybody have a newspaper to use as a weapon … but people got weapons. If they continue to attack people like this, they will have no way of responding other than walking with their weapon into your office.”
Kaieteur was also an establishment that had had five of its pressmen killed in 2006 because of the newspaper’s coverage of a group of gunmen. I knew I had to be careful, but I could not escape the excitement of finally being able do the sort of work I had signed on to do.
Around that same time period in 2015, U.S.-based oil giant ExxonMobil had struck first oil in the Liza-1 well in Guyana’s waters. It was the first of what now stands at an impressive 13 oil discoveries, setting Guyana on the path to becoming one of the largest producers of oil in the world. As a country that made commitments to significantly reduce and eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels and the drive toward a “green economy,” the government’s seeming reliance on a future funded by oil causes me despair.
The first well in which oil was struck in Guyana’s waters
Shortly after news of the first oil discovery hit, I remember coming across an article detailing Exxon’s funding of climate change denials despite being aware of the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change. I was curious as to how the government planned on pursuing a green economy while lying in bed with an oil company that was a climate change denier. Given that our country’s Environmental Protection Agency currently does not have the capacity to enforce environmental regulations in the oil and gas sector, nor monitor compliance with environmental regulations of the state, I saw this as spelling disaster for the future of our “green state.”
I wondered why I could not find any mention of it in the local press. When I pitched the story to my editor, I soon realized why. Environmental stories were not particularly sensational, so the problem was in convincing my editor that it needed to be covered. It took some angling, but I was allowed to write it. It would be my first entry into the area of environmental reporting. I finished that story feeling depressed. My country, it seemed, would be consumed by oil and there was not much that seemed able or willing to stop it.
I did a few follow-up stories, but they were not the stories that sold newspapers, so they were put on the backburner in pursuit of ones that could.
At the time, my studies at university were becoming more demanding and my hours at work were becoming longer. I was having trouble balancing the two. Still not able to do the stories I wanted, I decided to focus on my studies for a while and sent in my resignation. However, I wouldn’t stay out of the media for long. I began a weekly column in the governmental newspaper, Guyana Chronicle, writing op-eds on sociopolitical issues affecting the country. I would stay there for two years, leaving in 2018 after the editor refused to publish a column titled “Oil and Bad Politics,” which commented on the government of Guyana’s seemingly comfortable relationship with the oil giant Exxon.
Despite my column not being printed, a response to the column from the Ministry of Natural Resources was printed in several of the dailies. At 21, it seemed I was already being silenced by the state. I wondered whether this was a bad or a good thing on my part.
During my time with the Guyana Chronicle, I had restarted my blog, akolathompson.com where I also focused on sociopolitics. It was through my writings there that I would eventually be offered the opportunity to hone and focus my interest in environmental journalism. I remember waking up one morning to a blog notification. Under one of my pieces, titled “Guyana: Culture & Musings,” there was a comment from Mongabay’s forests editor, Genevieve Belmaker, telling me that she was interested in me writing for them on a freelance basis. I could not believe my luck. I had come from a place where I had to plead and connive to write environmental stories and here I was being asked by a conservation and environmental site to do solely that. I wasted no time in accepting the offer.
Despite my previous dabbling, environmental reporting was an entirely new area for me. There was a lot I had to learn very quickly and so much that I am still learning. I have been thinking of the ways in which my entrance into this area has helped me and how much it has helped me to reconnect and learn more about my Afro-Indigenous cultural identity. It has connected me to the celebrations and struggles of people I would have otherwise never had have the fortune to meet and learn from.
It must be understood that the first few years of my life were spent in the small agricultural community of Ebini, on the Upper Berbice River. It was one of those close-knit communities where everyone knew each other and worked toward community goals. Almost on a daily basis, my grandparents would head to the back-dam to tend to their crops that were either consumed or sold when harvested. Sometimes I would get to accompany them. It was on these trips to the back-dam with my grandparents that my love and connection with the land of my country, its history and its first people was born.
My grandfather was a descendant of enslaved Africans brought to Guyana’s shores when it was a British colony. My grandmother was a descendant of the indigenous Carib peoples who were almost eradicated through acts of colonial genocide. Both emerging out of fraught political existences, they tried to teach me the politics of existence, our interconnectedness with nature, each other and the world. I think now about the values I hold and the experiences I have had and I realize how much these first few years shaped my cultural and ecological thinking. These were the experiences that helped propel me on the path of environmental reporting.
Being required to travel across the country to remote areas in which indigenous people and other local populations live has helped me to develop an even more intense appreciation for the beauty and wonders of Guyana’s biodiversity. I have been able to connect more deeply with my indigenous heritage and learn more of its history and cultural landscape through my interactions with people I have met along the way in doing these stories.
In gaining a much closer understanding and appreciation of my cultural heritage, I also learned that I needed to be extra cautious to never fall into the trap of my own biases and preferences.
There is a stereotype of environmental journalists basically engaging in a hybrid of activism and reporting, going only with the truth that confirms their feelings or beliefs. As a journalist, those biases, no matter how well-intentioned, can be poisonous to a story and sometimes it is better to kill our darlings. I recall traveling to the indigenous reservation of Bethany in the Pomeroon-Supenaam region in 2017 to do a story on indigenous land titles and logger encroachment into their territory. I left the community after two days knowing that I could not write the story the way it needed to be written. I was too invested — too angry to be objective. I am still learning how to separate myself from the story, knowing full well that I may never entirely be able to, but trying for the sake of balance.
Regardless, I am honored to be in the privileged position of now being able to explore and document indigenous cultures and assess the impact of environmental destruction on their populations in the forests of Guyana. I am grateful for the space that has been provided me to learn and grow and to tell the sort of stories that can have lasting impacts on culture, conservation, education and the environment. Most of all, I am grateful for the connections I have made along the way.
Banner image: Kwakwani loggers Jennifer Edwards in tractor, and (l-r) Devina Palls and Lorraine Franco. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay.
Akola Thompson is a Guyana-based freelance journalist and social activist. You can follow her on Twitter at @akolathompson.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this article. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.