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Telling big environmental stories in a close-knit country (insider)

A wood-burning coal pit, located not too far from Guyana's main airport, Cheddi Jagan International (or Timehri Airport as it's more commonly known). A friend took me here on the way to visiting their relative's farm. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

  • Long ignored by the mainstream media, Guyana is getting a lot of new attention as the world’s latest oil nation. Now, telling its environmental stories is more important than ever.
  • With its rich biodiversity and continued threats to its ecology, Guyana is a fascinating place to be an environmental journalist.
  • Lack of internal resources means the environmental agenda is often led by international organisations or overseas funders. Add to that expensive travel costs, and telling the stories of what’s really going on at the grassroots level isn’t always easy.

In the few years I’ve worked as a freelance journalist in Guyana I’ve been told by editors, “There’s not much interest in Guyana”; that two reports from the Caribbean in one magazine would be “a little too close”; and to do my best as “this might be the one and only time we write about Guyana for ages.” Yet things are slowly starting to change, which might have something to do with the fact that Guyana began drilling for oil at the end of last year. Nothing commands attention like having a big pot of black gold in your backyard (or ocean).

I’ve seen more and more pieces about Guyana pop up in the mainstream media: The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, to name just a few. Last year I worked as a fixer for a BBC radio documentary called “Guyana — bracing for the oil boom,” and have had many other requests for info, insights and contacts. One filmmaker who got in touch recently spoke excitedly of the uneasy balance the country is trying to negotiate: shiny new oil nation and green eco-haven — a real-life Wakanda in the making or another cautionary tale. Guyana is a good story these days.

It was back in 2017 that I wrote a piece for Mongabay called “Guyana seeks offshore oil wealth in a green economy.” Not to suck up to the hand that feeds me, but Mongabay has been watching and reporting on Guyana long before the oil discoveries were first announced in 2015.

There’s never a shortage of environmental stories to tell in Guyana. Approximately 85% of the country is covered in forest, more than 61% of that primary forest. It’s home to the jaguar, giant anteater, harpy eagle, giant river otter, among others.

I’ll never forget the sight of flying over the country in a small plane, looking down at the vast broccoli-like forest below; the feeling of floating in cool black creek water; the constant “kis-ke-dee” call of the yellow-bellied kiskadee birds on the electric wire; and the thick grunt of a fat crapo (toad) at night.

Living in a house on stilts isn’t that unusual in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, which is prone to flooding as the coast is below sea-level. Unfortunately leaving an open compost bucket on your back veranda can attract some local wandering lifestock – even when the gate is shut. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

Yet this biodiversity, including Guyana’s vast lands and many bodies of water, is threatened by a multitude of extractive sectors: mining, logging and, now, offshore oil drilling.

Since moving to Guyana from the U.K. in February 2016, I’ve written about sustainable forestry, sea defenses, sexual harassment in the conservation field, to name just a few. I quickly learned that nothing is as simple as it first appears.

It’s easy to disappear down a rabbit warren of reports, projects, feasibility studies and press releases that don’t necessarily speak to what’s happening on the ground. Much of the environmental agenda and news is shaped by governmental bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Protected Areas Commission, and the Guyana Forestry Commission. Despite its oft-cited Green State Development Strategy, there is no actual Ministry of Environment (the Department of Environment falls under the Ministry of the Presidency).

International NGOs, especially Conservation International (CI) and WWF Guianas, pop up in the media from time to time, as well as local bodies such as the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, and the Guyana Marine Conservation Society. Perhaps the most critical public voices on the environment come from human rights groups such as the Amerindian People’s Association and occasionally the Guyana Human Rights Association.

Insufficient government funding — the entire national budget for 2019 amounted to $1.4 billion — external funding and priorities often drive the environmental agenda. “That’s what donors are interested in at the moment,” is a sentiment I’ve heard on more than one occasion. A number of environmental organizations, including Iwokrama and CI, have even accepted ExxonMobil money to advance their work in science and conservation.

Operating as an objective environmental journalist in this context can be tricky. Most nuggets of news come to me from the same few sources. I also have to rely on them, at times, to help get me into remote locations. Traveling independently is expensive and logistically difficult in Guyana, particularly in the hinterland regions.

But going into the field is essential if I am to find out whether a project or initiative is genuinely working and sustainable, or if it’s “greenwashing,” like the many dead solar batteries and generators I saw on my travels: good for a photo opportunity, not so good when you can’t maintain them. Mongabay funds travel for certain stories, but I still often need assistance in finding food, board, an available vehicle and a driver who knows the roads (and seasons) well.

On a boat heading for Moruca, an indigenous community in Region 1 (Barima-Waini) in Guyana. Boat is often a quicker way to travel to hinterland areas – and sometimes the only way. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

On a visit to a fairly remote hinterland town called Annai in late 2018, I was lucky to score a ride from Lethem, about two hours away, close to the Brazilian border, with someone going to do a workshop at a nearby eco-lodge. I then got a lift from the son of the eco-lodge’s owner to the place I was actually visiting: the Bina Hill Institute’s Youth Learning Centre.

This is savanna country: wide open spaces, sparse trees, bumpy tracks, distant mountains and closer hills — and definitely no public transport. While at the Youth Learning Centre I stayed in a spare teacher’s room next to the in-house radio station, at night using my phone’s torch to navigate my way through the starry darkness to the toilets in the building opposite, while the generator slept.

With no services other than a small tuck shop, I relied on food cooked by the students in the main kitchen: puffy fried-dough “bakes,” eggs from their own chicken coop, stews of softened tasso (dried local beef). On the way back to Lethem, I managed to snag a ride with a visiting outreach worker from a government ministry.

Even if I had known how to drive (I never needed to learn back in London), these are not journeys you want to make on your own. Drivers here know the terrain like the back of their hand, which is just as well as there are few road signs outside of Lethem, and in the wet season the roads can become impassable.

Field reporting, obviously, takes time — and that doesn’t even include the planning process. Protocol is big in Guyana, as I learned too late. Rocking up to the Rupununi Rodeo one year doing a short radio piece for BBC World Service, I spoke to one of the organizers of the event, some food vendors and a few visitors. Later I heard I’d caused a bit of disgruntlement by not going through official channels. If I had done the same in an indigenous community, I would have been turned away: permission must be sought from the village leader or toshao before you visit.

Sometimes making contact before a deadline is just not possible, which can mean missing vital input. Following the publication of a biodiversity assessment survey, which had reported more than 30 species likely to be new to science, I tried to get in touch with some of the community field assistants from Chenapau, an indigenous village located near to the research site — but I was told there was no phone connection and I’d have to wait for someone coming back to the capital, Georgetown.

Getting the full picture of an environmental program or issue requires speaking to many different groups. For example, I heard about a project that has done some important work tracking and protecting arapaima fish from hunting. It champions catch-and-release sports fishing as a sustainable alternative and source of income for local communities.

View from a private bus leaving Hosororo in North West Guyana, heading for Whitewater – a community on the border with Venezuela that in recent years has seen many Venezuelans crossing over to build a new life, including many indigenous Warrau people. The journey there from Moruca involved a car, a minibus, and a quad bike, driven by a local doctor. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

So far so good, but then someone else tells me that the arapaima still sometimes drown or are injured during the process. In the tightly woven ecosystem of Guyana, every action has an impact somewhere.

I also have to be careful not to fall into the trap of generalizing. Guyana’s indigenous people have protected the rainforests of the country for thousands of years through sustainable forestry and management. But that’s not to say all indigenous people are protectors of the Earth. Many are also involved in small-scale gold mining, which is known to be particularly damaging due to the use of mercury in the refining process, which has made its way into waterways where we swim and the fish we eat.

Geography and connectivity mean it’s not always easy to tell their stories or those of the indigenous people who do seek to protect the environment and perhaps traditional ways of life too.

Mongabay has a special reporting project, Indigenous Peoples & Conservation, that highlights successful, long-running indigenous-led conservation projects. Finding people to feature, though, isn’t as simple as you may think. Indigenous environmental defenders do not necessarily go around registering as NGOs or civil society organizations, launching websites stating their mission, issuing press releases, or even calling their work “conservation.”

For those indigenous conservation groups that do exist, they’re often reliant on funding from outside of Guyana. Does mean they’re not indigenous-led anymore? The realities are complex and hard to unpick.

Other times it’s difficult to chart the work of Guyana’s environmental champions because their work is seasonal, in flux (depending on when they have the funds and time) or is not data driven.

There are efforts to introduce new technologies to hinterland communities: drones to monitor illegal mining, GPS to map forest loss, solar power to run an internet hub. These are valuable in terms of raising public awareness of environmental destruction and launching legal challenges against harmful practices, though should not be seen as more important than oral knowledge systems.

There are other difficulties too. Writing the article on the Youth Learning Centre I had to explain why three of the people I spoke to had the same surname (with a national population of less than one million, degrees of separation are small in Guyana). Compiling quotes on sexual harassment in the world of conservation, I had to be careful that they did not identify the people I spoke to — a real risk given the size of the field in Guyana.

Some individuals or organizations are reluctant to speak on record for fear of being aligned to the current or past government. While for others it’s a case of, as Guyana’s late national poet Martin Carter once put it, “a mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live.”

A rare selfie taken in a wooden outdoor structure close to Moruca, which I was visiting with a local journalist friend in time for Moruca Expo, an annual celebration involving games, a pageant and competitions such as eating a tocuma worm, catching a bagful of loose crabs, and lighting a fire. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

Nevertheless, in my reporting, I try to speak to local experts where possible, instead of relying only on international organizations and overseas researchers who may be easier to contact, have more readily available data and resources, and be more media savvy but who may not be aware of the complexities or realities at the grassroots. I’m aware of the wealth of knowhow that exists right here.

I’ve met a scientist researching cactus mucilage as a potential antidote to oil spills; I’ve met a biologist carrying out marine bird surveys so that the impact of offshore drilling can be noted; I’ve seen a woman spin cotton from her tree into thread to make a sling for a baby; I’ve walked through forests with rangers, hearing about the use of different plants in medicine or survival; I’ve heard of indigenous techniques of farming that are permaculture in all but name.

While working as a freelance journalist in Guyana, I teach communications studies part-time at the University of Guyana. One of my classes is a third-year course, “Specialized Writing: Science, Environment, Climate Change and Health.”

It is a recognition that, as Guyana enters the league of “big oil” while still seeking to build a low-carbon, green state, it will take sharp environmental journalists to keep the government, oil and gas companies, NGOs and citizens on their toes; to foresee problems before they arise; and to find positive examples to emulate and solutions to incorporate. We need to ensure these journalists are given the platforms, resources and time to do so.

Banner image: A wood-burning coal pit, located not too far from Guyana’s main airport, Cheddi Jagan International (or Timehri Airport as it’s more commonly known). A friend took me here on the way to visiting their relative’s farm. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

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