John Christian looked up at the huge tree we sat beneath, scanning its canopy, put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a smartphone. He flicked the screen a few times and glanced back up into the tree. To my mind, this was neither the time nor the place to be making phone calls. I was surprised he even had a signal. But it wasn’t and he didn’t.
An owl-like whooping sound emanated loudly and clearly from the bright blue amplifier attached to his belt. I had idly wondered about the small round gadget when we met up that morning but it was 5.30 and the potential question had disappeared with the first smell of coffee.
The recorded birdsong from John’s belt came again, perhaps more a hoot than a whoop, but definitely doubled up, like an immediate echo. Far off, above the constant circular-saw-like sound of the cicadas, the same rapid-fire hollow sound was returned. ‘Amazonian motmot,’ murmured Christian, his eyes now sweeping more distant treetops. ‘We usually see them round here.’
Before sun-up, we had followed a trail through the murky forest, trudged up a small hillside, and emerged from the sub-marine gloom to clamber out along the canopy walkway, where the clouds were tinged with the first sunlight. At the viewing platform, firmly braced by struts and cables round the solid trunk of a Brazilian cedar, we took our perches on folding wooden chairs to enjoy the dawn chorus.
We were 33 metres above the forest floor in the Iwokrama Reserve, nearly a million acres of tropical wilderness deep in the heart of Guyana. On the walk over, John had told me several guests had seen a harpy eagle that nests nearby and I was hoping to get a sighting. The largest eagle in South America, it is billed as one of ‘Guyana’s giants’.
I was gathering a small collection of this country’s outsized wildlife. The previous day, idling down the Burro Burro River, a giant river otter had popped its head above water-level to inspect our canoe, and the day before that, driving towards the forest from the airfield at Lethem, I’d spotted a giant anteater lumbering across the open savannah. Earlier in my trip, elsewhere in Guyana’s luxuriant forest, I’d spent a morning peering into the foliage of giant tank bromeliads. These enormous splays of greenery stand over three metres in height and provide a homestead to the golden rocket frog which, at no more than a centimetre across, is one of Guyana’s smallest inhabitants. The tank bromeliads and their vivid yellow amphibian tenants are a support act to Guyana’s main natural world attraction: the 226m single-drop waterfall at Kaieteur, one of the highest and most spectacular falls in the world.
I did not add a harpy eagle to my list. Three toucans, a couple of very loud parrots and a screaming piha later, we made our way back to the open-air dining room for breakfast. In John’s opinion it had been a disappointing outing, not helped by the low cloud and sporadic drizzle. But as if in compensation, two black curassows – large birds, like jet-black swans with Teddy Boy quiffs – waddled nonchalantly into view and proceeded to graze the lawn right in front of us.
The Atta Rainforest Lodge and canopy walkway are part of an indigenous community tourism project jointly operated by a local Amerindian village, a conservation organization and a tour operator that markets the scheme to foreign visitors. Most of the staff are, like John Christian, from the Macushi tribe, and have grown up in the forest. Food at the lodge is supplied by local farmers and fishermen; even the peanut butter I enjoyed at breakfast is made by a nearby co-operative. It’s a model which, in many ways, symbolises the future of tourism in this small South American state.
Guyana identifies tourism as a sector that can contribute to the country’s sustainable development, by earning foreign exchange and providing job opportunities, while conserving the natural environment and the diverse culture of the country. Employment is particularly important in the remote and isolated forest settlements. There’s only so much subsistence farming and fishing to keep people occupied and traditionally adult males have left the Amerindian villages to find paid work in Guyana’s diamond, gold or bauxite mines.
Distances are great and transport difficult in a country with more than 80 per cent forest cover, so mining workers seldom get back home to see their families. Many children grow up without a father figure. Leading visitors on birdwatching trips, nature trails and river outings enables more menfolk to live at home.
Guyana is unusual for several reasons, not least because it is a so-called high-forest/low-deforestation country. Granted, the jungle is pock-marked here and there by mining activity, but compared to other countries in the region Guyana has made a conscious effort not to cash in its forests through logging and other industries that result in large-scale destruction.
The Guyanese government’s alternative path to economic development involves profiting from its forests without their wholesale clearance. It has a deal with Norway whereby payments are made for low deforestation rates. Guyana spends the money on projects to realise its low-carbon development strategy. The government has pledged that Guyana will become a green state and is developing a Green State Development Strategy accordingly.
But this near-pristine story has one significant hitch. Guyana’s eco-credentials come with one big proviso. The country is on the brink of becoming the Western Hemisphere’s next big oil producer. ExxonMobil is poised to start production in 2020.
Guyana’s president, David Granger, doesn’t see any contradiction. As he told the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2017, the green state will demonstrate how the country’s extractive industries – bauxite, diamonds, gold and oil – can be aligned with environmental protection and the generation of energy from renewable sources. In one sense, having maintained most of its carbon-rich forest cover, Guyana has credit in the bank.
Work has started on converting almost the entire energy sector to renewables. Many villages in the interior have been fitted out with arrays of solar panels. Demerara Distillers, a major employer and sole producer of perhaps Guyana’s best-known export – rum – is planning a solar farm to help power its distilling and bottling operations. The company already uses biogas made from the fibrous residue remaining after sugarcane is crushed to extract its juice.
The country’s green development strategy is not entirely altruistic. Guyana is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The capital city, Georgetown, lies just below sea-level with the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Demerara River to the west. Despite being home to a third of the country’s population and most of its industry, Georgetown has a friendly, small-town ambience, structured around a grid system of drainage canals. The older wooden houses are raised on stilts and potential flooding is still controlled by a sea wall and system of sluice gates originally installed to drain sugarcane plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The big positive in what some see as an impossible ecological balancing act is the location of Guyana’s oil fields. They are off-shore. The oil will be pumped into tankers direct from the rigs and carried away to refineries in Trinidad and the US Virgin Islands. Concerns of a possible oil spill remain, Deepwater Horizon style. Guyana’s coastal ecology has much to lose. Its beaches host important nesting sites for four species of endangered sea turtles: hawksbill, green, leatherback and olive ridley turtles. In the worst case scenario, conservationists are assured that there will be enough time to prevent oil reaching these sites, should the worst come to pass.
If all goes to plan, Guyana will never see the oil, only the money it brings. The government has emphasised that its idea of the green state will put people before profits, suggesting the money will benefit all. But what happens to the cash was the greatest concern among those Guyanese I spoke with.
A chatty taxi-driver in Georgetown paused for thought when I enquired about the oil money. ‘We could become South America’s Dubai,’ he said finally. ‘But we see lots of countries with oil wealth in a mess, just look at Venezuela.’ He glanced at me meaningfully in the rear-view mirror. ‘So it all depends on good government.’
Down at the Iwokrama Reserve, in what Georgetown residents still refer to as ‘the bush’, the concern was more prosaic. People were worried the money would penetrate no further than the coast. And the wish-list was the same no matter who I asked: improvements to education, health and the roads. The country has just one major highway to speak of, stretching the length of the country, 550km from Georgetown to the Brazilian border at Lethem. Mostly unpaved, the drive between the two takes some 12 hours in the dry season. When the rains begin, and dirt turns to mud, it’s a two- or three-day trip.
Paving the road to Lethem would ease the movement of goods and people in a country where travel is frequently subject to the whims of nature. Critics caution that improved access would endanger the ambience of Iwokrama and other reserves like it. But, as my Georgetown taxi-driving friend noted, much depends on good government. In Guyana, I got the feeling they might just get that right.
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