Will Guyana's record economic growth benefit the people of remote Essequibo?

  • By Stephen Chacour
  • Hardock, Smith Creek, Guyana

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Despite new oil discoveries in the country, Smith Creek hasn't changed much

About 300 people live in Smith Creek, Venezuela, on Guyana's northwestern border.

Small children, some naked, play on the muddy banks of a salty, muddy creek.

Traditional boats – carved from single tree trunks – carried families and their belongings. The nearest source of fresh, potable water is almost two hours of constant paddling away.

At Smith Creek it is hard to believe that Guyana can lay claim to being the fastest growing economy in the world.

There is no sign here that the country has become a Premier League petrostate. Eleven billion barrels of oil lie in the Stabroek Block subsea reserve off the coast of Guyana, but fossil fuel resources have yet to flow to the people of Smith Creek.

Instead they make a living as best they can. Dependent on money from family members who go to work in fishing, farming, and gold mines in the south.

Look closely, Smith Creek has the first signs of change.

The settlement's largest structure is a newly constructed concrete shed with solar panels on its roof and specialized food processing equipment in its clean interior.

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A shed with solar panels stands out amidst the green chilli fields

Here a group of locals, all of them Aboriginal Warraw women, gather to tend and pick the beds around the pepper bushes – the special Wiri Wiri peppers: small, red and highly prized in Guyanese cooking.

The women run their own business enterprise – growing, drying and selling their crops, earning economic independence for the first time in their lives.

Working with a row of bushes, head grower Evonedy Wells picks up a small ball of pepper and places it on a metal tray. She told me how important this project is to the community.

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One of the women working as a pepper picker is Evannedy Wells

„Women can buy things for their children and family,” she said. „Before, there were no jobs in Smith Creek. We were struggling. Now we have jobs.”

Annette Arjun is the co-ordinator of the Pepper Project and Indigenous Heritage Co-ordinator.

„Women have fewer opportunities, so it's more challenging,” she tells me. „This project has made a real difference. It is a source of income for them, which is supplemented by their own farming and crabbing.”

Remote it may be, but the patchwork of rivers, mangroves and dense forest surrounding Smith Creek has taken on new-found strategic importance in the past year.

Because this is where the part of Guyana territory known as Essequibo – two-thirds of Guyana lies west of the Essequibo River – meets the Venezuelan border.

For the past year, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro has been loudly touting his country's long-standing claim to Essequibo.

Down from Smith Creek, the border between Guyana and Venezuela runs along the Parima River. Both countries have floating border forts on the river that are 100 m (330 ft) apart.

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A Venezuelan flag can be seen flying at the border

Intelligence reports suggest the Maduro government is building a new military base further inland, and Venezuelan army and naval units are said to have been reinforced near Essequibo. But all is quiet in this border.

The majority of the local population are indigenous Warrao. They live in the forest on both sides of the border and cross with impunity.

Whatever the tensions between Caracas and Georgetown, locals seem unconcerned. Black market trade continues unabated across the border. Venezuelan boats docked on the banks of the Parima River near the Guyanese town of Mabaruma.

They barter cheap Venezuelan diesel to take the fish home.

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Fish is a local food

They hide the names of their ships, but one captain was happy to sell a bag of ice to this passing reporter.

So what's behind Venezuela's decision to raise the temperature on the historic dispute over Essequibo?

Their grievances date back to the delimitation of 1899, which they claim was rigged against them). The world woke up to the problem last December when President Maduro held a referendum on the issue that showed overwhelming popular support for Venezuela's sovereignty.

President Maduro sees political gain in making the Essequibo claim. It stokes nationalist sentiment and diverts attention from socialist Venezuela's failing economy — a win-win in presidential elections later this year.

But there is also a whiff of economic opportunism in the air. Essequibo has long been known to be rich.

In Mahdia, in central Guyana (within Essequibo), gold mining is the primary industry.

I visited Red Hole mine owner Bernard Christopher Alfonso and his team of tribal workers at work.

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Bernard Christopher Alfonso and his crew operate the Red Hole mine

Bernard, who hails from the coast of Guyana, tells me he visited the area many years ago. „El Dorado – we went inland to mine gold, that's why we're here,” he says.

His family owns a dozen concessions around Mahdia.

Crews spent a week washing, sifting and sorting dirt from an open pit. I watched them take the lumps and powders they extracted and melt it all down into a glittering golden nugget.

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Bernard's family has several gold concessions in the area

„Six ounces,” announced Bernard Alfonso with a smile. „That's US $12,000 (£9,500) in today's prices.”

The forest surrounding the town bears the scars of current and past mining operations. Environmental concerns about deforestation and mercury poisoning local soil and water have not diminished gold's appeal.

Essequibo may be sparsely populated, densely forested and often inaccessible by road, but it provides long-term resource wealth for its rulers.

And that's without considering the biggest potential prize of all. It didn't come with control of the Essequibo's landmass – the size of Greece – but with maritime rights that came with it.

Venezuela is eyeing a partnership with Guyanese oil major ExxonMobil to exploit the vast oil and gas reserves in the Stabroek Block, about 150 km off the coast of Guyana. .

What happens next in the dispute over Essequibo?

President Maduro has toned down his bellicose rhetoric. He and Guyana President Irfan Ali have vowed to resolve their differences peacefully.

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President Maduro and President Ali looked more relaxed as they exchanged gifts at a regional summit last month

But Venezuela's parliament has not stopped short of passing legislation declaring a federal state in the disputed territory. Guyana's government condemned this as a „flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.

When I spoke to President Ali in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, he told me that his country has the support of the international community: „If anyone takes steps to destabilize our country and invade it in any way, shape or form, we will call on every power to help us and work with us to protect our territorial integrity.” and on every friend.”

For now armed conflicts and Venezuela's vastly larger army make taking Essequibo by force impossible. And it's not even a pressing concern for many who live there.

On the far north coast of Guyana, near Venezuela, Annette Arjun took me to Shell Beach, a precious breeding ground for several species of giant turtle.

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Annette Arjun says the project has helped local people, especially women

„In terms of the government going after the oil and gas industry, I think that's a good thing, the revenue coming back to these vulnerable and impoverished communities,” he says.

„But it's something to do with environmental responsibility.”

Guyana is determined to fight Venezuela's claim to its land and resources. The country's new resource will not only deepen existing inequality and environmental damage, but will benefit all of the country's people, even in the remotest corners of Essequibo, a difficult challenge.

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