Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Guyana has been bagging ecotourism awards the world over. But as the former British colony begins to exploit its vast oil reserves, are its unique tourism draws under threat? Sarah Reid heads to South America to find out.
Bouncing across the North Rupununi savannah in a beaten-up 4WD, dodging termite mounds glowing gold in the early morning sun, my groggy eyes rest on the form of a lone vaquero (Guyanese cowboy) ahead of us, gesturing to a nearby patch of shrubbery.
“He’s found one,” our guide Manuel ‘Manny’ Mandook beams, before hitting the breaks. Piling out of the vehicle and silently creeping closer, we take turns peering at the unusual creature dozing in the long grass. A giant anteater!
I’m already impressed, but then the huge mammal—also known as an ant bear—springs to its feet and begins snuffling around. Between its poor eyesight and the breeze masking our scent, we’re able to observe it lapping up unsuspecting ants with rapid-fire flicks of its sinuous pink tongue from just meters away. It’s next-level wildlife-watching, and there are no other tourists for miles.
Part of the biodiversity-rich Guiana Shield, a vast swathe of northeast South America, Guyana is one of the last wild places on Earth. Home to less than a million people, more than 80 per cent of its landmass remains blanketed by forests. These forests provide a haven for ‘giant’ wildlife species, spanning five-foot-long otters to the world’s largest freshwater fish, the arapaima, with new species being discovered all the time.
Until recently, a lack of tourism infrastructure kept all but the most determined travelers away. In some ways, it was a blessing for Guyana. The slow burn of tourism (Guyana’s annual visitor numbers peaked at 286,732 in 2018, yet local operators estimate fewer than 4,000 came for tourism) has allowed the Amerindian communities concentrated in the wildlife-rich jungles and savannahs of its interior to develop the tourism industry they wanted: A sustainable one.
“We’d like more tourists to come, but we don’t want to expand,” says Dickie Alvin, manager of Rewa Eco-Lodge, which can sleep 24 in its clutch of traditional thatched hut-style accommodations perched at the confluence of the Rewa and Rupunini rivers. “There would be too much boat traffic,” he explains. “It would scare the wildlife.”
Only accessible by river, Rewa is among a collective of indigenous communities and private enterprises that have helped to put the North Rupununi on the global sustainable travel map. Opened in 2005, the activities of Rewa Eco-Lodge now support roughly 85 per cent of the 320-strong community, providing employment opportunities for locals who would have otherwise been forced to leave to seek work in mining, ranching, or forestry.
“I’ve done it all, and it was all awful,” my guide Vivian Smith tells me as we scan the forest floor for nests of Goliath bird-eating spiders, the world’s biggest tarantulas. “Now I have a job I love and I can go home to my family every night.”
On December 20, 2019, US oil giant ExxonMobil began production of what is now estimated to be eight billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) first discovered off Guyana’s coast in 2015 … The question is: How will Guyana’s changing fortunes impact the tourism experience the region has worked so hard to create?
Crucially, tourism also provides an incentive for communities to protect the wildlife that tourists come to see, with lodges helping to facilitate junior wildlife programs in each indigenous community. “My son can already identify 20 bird calls,” says Smith proudly. Not bad for a six-year-old.
Upriver, Yupukari village is anchored by Caiman House, with tourist visits helping to fund its black caiman research program (visitors can join nightly data gathering patrols) as well as several libraries in the region. Nearby, family-run Karanambu Lodge, where I chalk up my giant anteater-spotting, is known for its pioneering work rehabilitating orphaned and rescued captive wildlife, particularly giant otters.
More comfortable than most would expect for the remote location (as long as you don’t mind the odd in-room tarantula), the region’s tourist lodges are also committed to operating mindfully when it comes to the environment. While traveling around Guyana can be an emissions-intensive endeavor, with numerous small plane and petrol-powered boat trips factored into most itineraries, minimizing your impact when you arrive in the interior is effortless, with lodges running on solar power, meals prepared with organic local produce wherever possible, and single-use plastics kept to an absolute minimum—if they can ditch plastic bottles all the way out here, any hotel on this planet can.
The question is: How will Guyana’s changing fortunes impact the tourism experience the region has worked so hard to create?
On December 20, 2019, US oil giant ExxonMobil began production of what is now estimated to be eight billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) first discovered off Guyana’s coast in 2015. It’s set to transform Guyana from one of South America’s poorest countries to its wealthiest, yet the Guyanese needn’t look further than neighboring Venezuela to see how the opportunity could be wasted.
“If there’s a spill, it could devastate the Shell Beach Protected Area,” says Salvador de Caires, a guide for Georgetown-based tour operator Wilderness Explorers, as we survey the watery horizon from the capital’s seawall. Encompassing a 120-kilometer stretch of beaches and mudflats along the Atlantic coast northwest of Georgetown, the Shell Beach area, isn’t only an emerging tourism destination, but also an important habitat for countless wildlife species. “Four species of endangered turtles nest there,” adds de Caires ruefully.
The reality seems like an odd fit with the ambitious ‘Green State Development Strategy: Vision 2040’ launched by Guyana’s government in 2017, which states that all aspects of the country’s development are to be guided by serious environmental considerations.
Oil operations aren’t the only threat to Guyana’s sustainable tourism industry. During the single-prop flight southwest of Georgetown to Kaieteur Falls, the world’s highest and perhaps most spectacular single-drop waterfall (four times higher than Niagara Falls), I lose count of the mining pits gouged out of the verdant jungle. It’s not so much the land-clearing that worries me—thanks in part to its participation in the Norway-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) climate change mitigation mechanism, Guyana still has one of the world’s lowest rates of deforestation—but the tailings pools (pools of ore waste) located perilously close to the rivers that form the lifeblood of the nation.
A 2018 study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund found that hundreds of people living in the South Rupununi—another emerging tourism hotspot known for its ancient petroglyphs and wildlife-rich savannahs—had high levels of mercury in their system as a result of mining activities near rivers they fish in. “I met a woman from a village where the fish had started dying,” Smith tells me. “It plays on my mind that something like that could happen here.”
The reality seems like an odd fit with the ambitious Green State Development Strategy: Vision 2040 launched by Guyana’s government in 2017, which states that all aspects of the country’s development are to be guided by serious environmental considerations.
With oil production set to reach full capacity at 120,000 barrels per day in the coming months, the consumption of that fuel alone equates to 18.8 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. That’s more than nine times Guyana’s entire annual carbon emissions, putting the nation in serious violation of the Paris Agreement.
But there is reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about the nation’s ability to use its windfall as a force for good, says Professor Anthony T. Bryan, Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., who has been writing about Caribbean oil and gas issues for two decades.
“Guyana has been working to provide the necessary legislation, institutional structures and management systems to protect against environmental degradation, and to combat corruption,” says Bryan, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean’s largest producer of oil and gas. “These steps are essential to avoiding the ‘resource curse’ where the destabilization of traditional economic sectors occurs as the country becomes overly dependent on exports of a single commodity.”
With few laws already in place to safeguard Guyana’s wilderness (less than nine per cent of which is officially protected), nor a dedicated Minster for Tourism to concentrate their focus on the development of one of its most promising green industries, there will no doubt be challenges ahead for Guyana’s award-winning sustainable tourism product as oil money spills into the country.
Large-scale hotel developments are already underway in Georgetown, and oil operations will no doubt play a role in the asphalting Guyana’s trans-national highway connecting Georgetown to Brazil.
While the upgrade will vastly improve access and reduce travel costs to the interior, not to mention reduce emissions if domestic flights are no longer essential, the impact of increased traffic cutting through the center of the Iwokrama Forest Reserve (one of the world’s last pristine rainforests) alone could have serious environmental consequences.
Sipping Guyanese rum in a longtail boat as we glide down the Rupununi River towards Rewa after an afternoon of wildlife-spotting (Macaws! Monkeys! Iguanas!), I revel in the wildness of this faraway place, making a silent wish to the universe that this corner of it, at least, will remain protected. Because of all the tourism experiences on the planet that need safeguarding, few deserve it more.
This article was also part of an award-winning portfolio for the writer, winning Specialist Travel Writer of the Year at the Travel Media Awards in January 2021 and Travel Writer of the Year in the Australian Society of Travel Writers (ASTW) Awards of Excellence. More on that here.