Guyana’s oil boom: An opportunity for bold environmental activism

Tyrone Hall

By Tyrone Hall

Tyrone Hall is a Caribbean national with nearly a decade of experience managing some of the region’s leading environmental initiatives. He is currently a Vanier and Ontario Trillium Scholar and PhD Candidate at York University. His research seeks to optimize environmental communication across indigenous and traditional communities in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.  

Guyana’s global brand recognition has been skyrocketing since May 2015 when ExxonMobil confirmed its lucrative and readily tapped offshore oil assets. Eight discoveries later, with the potential to generate annual revenues more than five times current national economic activity by 2030, Guyana’s placement in global mainstream media has finally surpassed levels not seen since the 1970s, when an American cult committed gut-wrenching murderous excesses on its territory. It would be fascinating to see credible quantification of the value of this level of exposure, and tangible returns, at least for the travel and leisure sector. The world is rightly fixated on the socio-economic, cultural, environmental and political prospects of the meteoric petro-economic reorientation underway in this sparsely populated nation, and long-time economic laggard, even by largely unimpressive Caribbean standards. Researchers and policy-makers point to a panoply of intractable challenges that regularly bedevil resource-rich developing countries. The challenges range from resource-exhaustibility and the volatility of boom-bust cycles, to the Dutch disease and the much too familiar, given its mutability, ‘paradox of plenty’ or resource curse. These woes, particularly the latter, are well-understood by many in Guyana, a long-standing resource-intensive economic context with a poor economic record. So, it is inevitable that much of the current discourse across sectors, including civil society, surrounds the latter. But I must admit to being somewhat befuddled by the nature of the conversation, particularly from the environmental sector.

Like so much of what occurs across the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the rhetoric, strategies and proposals have been inspired by distant and atypical societies on nearly every measure, rather than taking note of developments closer to home. Specifically, the response has been decidedly focused on economistic proposals, such as Gulf or Norwegian styled sovereign wealth funds, and the staid and binary ‘nature versus progress’ rhetoric that largely emanates from northern conservation movements and have little resonance with most Guyanese. Worse, where there is an effort to bridge these extremes, the outcome is trending toward an unfortunate vassal like, aid-recipient mentality that belies the incredible opportunities available to Guyanese civil society, particularly its environmental movement, given the power shift accorded by the meteoric petro-economic societal reorientation underway. This unfortunate scenario is exemplified by the glee with which many in the environmental community, the University of Guyana, ExxonMobil and the press welcomed ExxonMobil Foundation’s announcement of a paltry US$10 million grant over half a decade (i.e. an average of US$2 million per year!) for research on sustainable job opportunities and the expansion of community level conservation. One does not need much economic competence to credibly underscore just how incommensurate this pittance is with the task of meaningful, if not comprehensive, assessment of worthwhile and sustainable employment opportunities, and the yeoman conservation work necessitated by the extraction of half a million barrels of oil per day in proximity to a population largely settled along a narrow coastal strip. With even marginal insight into the machinations of not-for-profit research and development initiatives, it hardly need be said that this is hardly sufficient to cover overheads for a robust collaborative multi-year undertaking by both the University of Guyana and Conservation International Guyana. 

The risks and opportunities associated with this rapid petro-reorientation of the economy, which will invariably reshape Guyanese society, means the bar must be elevated.  In much the same way the European Union made a bold trek to the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to study its successful single-currency to inform the design of the Euro in the 1990s, I urge those involved in Guyanese civil society, especially its environmental sector, to repose a similar level of confidence in, and assess the exemplary efforts underway in Belize to challenge attempts at meteoric petro-economic societal reorientation, and to move beyond conventional tactics.

Belize recently found itself at the center of rare positive environmental news of global importance. Its portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, arguably the world’s longest living barrier reef and certainly this region’s most iconic marine asset, was removed from the World Heritage Sites’ endangered category after nearly a decade (mid-2009 to June 2018, according to UNESCO World Heritage Centre). The decision was taken after Belize ditched plans to rapidly expand its nascent oil industry, a move made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it occurred at a time when the small CARICOM country was facing two debt defaults in the last decade (2007 and 2017) and faltering development prospects. So fervent was the petro-economic impetus that the state proposed the near totality of its territory (95%) for oil prospecting under 18 contracts that were awarded without transparency (Government of Belize – Oil Concession Map, 2011). For the first time, a third of these contracts included prospecting rights for offshore drilling in a context where nature, and the marine environment in particular, are so highly valued and central to how people define themselves that I have termed it biospheric nationalism. Despite their economic aspirations and limited pathways to realize them, the Belizean population, across ethnic, linguistic and political lines, stoutly rejected the state’s oil policy through a defiant referendum, legislative agitation and even typically carnivalesque Caribbean mode, such as a Rock the Reef Concert organized on the eve of the enactment of legislation. While mainstream media reports have framed the halting of offshore oil in Belize by way of a legislated moratorium on offshore oil activity as a progressive state response, the reality is that telling the story in this way borders on fiction. It completely discounts what is in fact a highly instructive, broad-based and strategic civil society action led by dynamic environmental activists who confronted a state deeply, and at times deceptively, committed to its predetermined petro-objectives.

Over a seven-year period (April 2010 to January 2017), the environmental community, particularly Oceana Belize, sought to protect an iconic and identity affirming natural asset for Belizeans, and to safeguard the broader marine environment that is of critical importance for efforts to combat the multidimensional challenges associated with climate change, as detailed in CARICOM’s Regional Framework that guides climate action. The “No Offshore Oil in Belize” campaign pooled multi-sectoral expertise (law, business, tourism, energy, environmentalists, economists, among others) and institutionalized itself under the Oceana-led Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage. The campaign articulated a single tripartite goal: to secure a ban on oil exploration in Belize’s offshore and protected areas; to strengthen the legislative framework for the equitable distribution of oil revenues; and to promote strong environmental safeguards for the oil industry. It subsequently pursued a wide-range of complementary actions: legal and legislative agitation; deliberative informal civic actions; strategic use of music and art; new communication tools; nuanced advocacy; and tailored public education initiatives. In the process, Oceana Belize built the Wavemakers, the country’s largest network of volunteers. So comprehensive was the environmental movement’s response that it even sought to tackle seemingly intractable systemic challenges, such as the lack of an active policy and research community with competence in petroleum and broader economic reorientation of the scale proposed, and gaps in journalism competence, training and accreditation. In the latter instance, the coalition was so mindful of the agenda setting potential of even a floundering fourth estate that it partnered with the Department of the Environment, the United States Embassy and the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute to offer a free, year-long journalism course aimed at practising journalists. The highly practical course, “Safeguarding the future: The environmental and economic connection in Belize,” demonstrated the link between the environment and the Belizean economy. Considering the paucity of competence building institutions available to Belizean journalists, this was a great opportunity for them to hone and exercise their news gathering skills and develop subject-matter expertise of national importance.

Certainly, the Belizean experience is distinguished by contextual factors, such as the unusually high appreciation for and responsiveness to messages and actions aimed at protecting the environment across the population, which accords the environment and the Barrier Reef a similar role as conventional unifying national symbol (flags, s/heroes, among others). There is also the direct link between the barrier reef and the country’s current economic base (tourism, fishing and agriculture at various scales), which invariably makes it easier to unify disparate forces across racial, linguistic, economic and political lines, even in the face of lucrative and tempting petro-opportunities. However, it is misguided to cite the absence of these factors as evidence of the immutable conventional petro prospects many believe await Guyana. Rather, there are lessons we can draw from the Belizean experience for raising the bar and boldly re-imagining environmental responses in the face of a petro-economic reorientation.

In other words, while oil exploration is unlikely to be halted in Guyana at this point, the environmental community, and broader civil society must not settle into a vassal like, aid-recipient disposition. It should raise its expectations, and also challenge, contextualize and transcend the singularly economistic conventions being drawn from distant places (conventional sovereign wealth funds). The pre-emptive legislative, broad consultative, systemic, and strategic communication (e.g harnessing values) approaches used in Belize suggests there is much room for the environmental community in Guyana to identify and harness the values most resonant with the Guyanese population, and use those to galvanize support for an array of novel and comprehensive actions that will at least ensure a moderately better, and likely more sustainable future. Broadly, this would include articulating progressive positions on not just the construction of a sovereign wealth fund, but leading national consultations and pre-emptively proposing the legislative framework for the equitable distribution of oil revenues to tackle existing challenges, boost skills and economic activity suitable for the inevitable post-oil era; promoting strong environmental safeguards for the oil industry; reimagining, proposing and building public support for new sector specific forms of corporate social responsibility that compel the emergent high risk sector to fund discrete activities (e.g. education, research in conservation, green tech, and a special catastrophic fund – especially necessary given the proximity of the majority of the population to the coast) at a rate linked to revenues. It is the level of thinking, range and nature of action, including mobilization efforts, and where we look for lessons that will be decisive!

To continue the dialogue, Tyrone Hall can be contacted on Twitter @Tyrone876 or via email at thall@yorku.ca

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