Day 1: Alarm

Friday, 6th March 2020

Guyana, for me a hitherto unknown country in South America next to Venezuela, is getting closer. We – colleague Denis Schimmelpfennig and I – are travelling for urgewald to the tropics in connection with the gigantic oil discoveries off the coast. Our goal: to analyze the situation on site, establish contacts and collect material for our campaign to stop the oil production. Today’s day of arrival will wear on to 2 a.m. our time. That will, at long last, give me the chance to read the travel guide in depth.

The previous days were filled with planning, exchanging information and intensive e-mail communication between our contact person Melinda Janki in Guyana and Heike Mainhardt in Washington. We’ve all been focusing over the last few weeks on examining the ecological sins that are presently being committed off Guyana’s coast. Interns Christian Siebert and Judith Fisches have also done a lot of research, providing us with know-how about the situation in the region.

The high-risk deep sea drilling by ExxonMobil, Hess and the Chinese company CNOOC, as well as 6 further oil companies, including from England, France and Spain, will not only increase earth warming, but will also intensify social and political conflicts in Guyana. In the case of an oil spill, Caribbean islands would also be affected, not to mention the toxic drill water and mud from a depth of 2700 metres that is already being released into the water without consideration for animal life and the environment.

We’re leaving (let’s hope so) Coronavirus behind us for the next fortnight. In front of us lies a country in a critical politic situation. Elections were held on 2nd March in Guyana with its 780 000 inhabitants and apparently the present government led by President David Granger has been voted out of office. But the pressure is on. Announcing the results from the decisive Region 4 is being delayed, the potential for escalation remains in the air. Understandably, the opposition (PPP) does not accept the fact that the total count of votes favours the government, although this cannot be correct when individual constituencies are counted. Official election observers from the Commonwealth, the US, the European Union and the Carter Centre have pointed out this discrepancy and call for a transparent vote counting method.

And so, what urgewald predicted last year would happen, is now reality. The World Bank has played an ugly role. Together with the Guyana government, led by the coalition APNU-AFC (A Partnership for National Unity – Alliance for Change), which had been brought down in December 2018 by a no-confidence vote, it signed a further consultation agreement on 19th March. The World Bank has not insisted on the legally required new elections (90-day time limit) or even on a simple clarification after this vote against the government. All this speeded up the creation of new facts for the oil production, and I can imagine it made things particularly easy for the firms Exxon Mobil (US), Hess (US) and CNOOC (China) to ship the first oil to the US, three months before the originally planned production date.

Heike Meinhardt, our World Bank data banks expert, had collected information on the World Bank consultations and raised the alarm. At least, Germany abstained from voting when this World Bank project was put forward in March 2019. But this alarm is the reason we are now flying to Guyana.

A tiny wall to stop the rise in sea levels

Arrival in Georgetown about 10 p.m. Melinda greets us warmly and together with Luke Johnson, our ecotourist guide, we make a late-evening visit to the “Seawall”, which is supposed to protect the capital from the Atlantic Ocean. The wall is hip-high (I’m 1.79 m tall) and so I suppose I ought to call it the “Hipster-Wall”!

Where we are standing, this low barrier is just 1,50m deep and also crumbling, the rusting iron braces often already visible within the concrete. Direction ocean, lie a few wave-breaking rocks, but otherwise the dam looks neglected and above all inadequate, because the water is only a few metres away and at high tide in particular, rises two metres above the city behind it.