Flying drones and digging for data, indigenous women in Guyana join the fight against climate change

RUBY VILLAGE, Guyana — A small group of indigenous women from northern Guyana are the latest weapon in the fight against climate change in the South American country where 90% of the population lives below sea level.

Armed with drones, the women are scanning mangrove forests for illegal logging and expect to soon begin collecting soil and mangrove litter samples to measure carbon in remote coastal ecosystems that have long been out of reach. within reach of scientists. Such data could prompt the government to create policies and programs to protect critical areas.

“We are fusing traditional knowledge and scientific research to get all this information that we need but never had before and couldn’t afford to get,” said Annette Arjoon-Martins, director of the Marine Conservation Society of Guyana.

Women’s work is seen as essential for Guyana, a small nation the size of Britain that has a 285-mile (459-kilometre) coastline whose coastal plains average 6 feet (2 meters) below sea ​​level. The coastline depends on a centuries-old maritime defense system created by the Dutch during colonial times. It includes a 280-mile (450-kilometre) seawall and relies on dozens of workers who set off alarms night and day to manually open and close sluice gates called “kokers” that prevent the Atlantic Ocean from flooding Guyana.

In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank was already advising Guyana to relocate communities inland since most of its 791,000 people live along the coast and much of its economic activity and agriculture is based there. But people were reluctant to leave.

A World Bank report warned that “the impact of rising sea levels and intensified storm surges in Guyana would be among the largest in the world, exposing 100% of the country’s coastal agriculture. country and 66.4% of coastal urban areas to flooding and coastal erosion.”

The community of Almond Beach in northern Guyana was forced to relocate years ago after the ocean engulfed line after line of palm trees and began to overlap the school and other infrastructure, said Arjoon-Martins. Some 280 people once lived there; just three dozen remain after a strip of land slipped underwater, she said.

Environmentalists say the work of young Native American women will help them understand the challenges Guyana faces and what it can do to fight climate change as it prepares to become one of the biggest producers of offshore oil in the world.

By the end of the year, the women hope to start collecting data on the amount of carbon stored by coastal ecosystems around their villages.

“We’ve never done a blue carbon benchmark in Guyana before,” Arjoon-Martins said. “We want to quantify how much carbon this whole landscape is storing, not just the trees.”

Knowing the baseline would help strengthen the protection of this area and could lead to similar programs like the low-carbon development strategy launched in 2009 to protect Guyana’s forests, which cover almost 90% of the country. That year, Norway signed an agreement providing $250 million in funding to ensure that Guyana’s 18 million hectares of forest remain intact. In December, Hess Corporation agreed to purchase $750 million in carbon credits to protect these forests.

Indigenous women are collecting data and images at a crucial time: Guyana is in the midst of an oil boom that is expected to make it the world’s fourth largest offshore oil producer, raising concerns about potential oil spills and the oil’s contribution to the same climate change. which threatens its existence.

An ExxonMobil consortium that includes Hess Corporation and China’s CNOOC is producing some 380,000 barrels of oil a day, a figure that is expected to rise to 1.2 million by 2027.

Guyanese Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, who helped launch the low-carbon development strategy in 2009 when he was president and has long led the fight to protect the country’s forests and mangroves, dismissed environmental concerns related to oil production and greenhouse gas emissions. He called oil production a “small operation” and criticism from environmentalists “nonsense”.

But environmentalists say they are very concerned about potential threats, including oil spills.

Earlier this month, a Guyanese court ordered ExxonMobil to set aside sufficient funds in the event of such an event and threatened to suspend the country’s Environmental Protection Agency if the oil company did not agree. not unlimited liability insurance within 30 days. In its ruling, the court accused the EPA of being “abandoned, docile and submissive” in its alleged omissions. The agency appealed and lost.

ExxonMobil filed its own appeal, saying the court “failed to recognize” that it and its partners had the ability to meet their financial obligations and that it already had insurance in place.

These concerns add to existing ones, including illegal cutting of mangroves, fires, illegal construction and fuel pollution of the rivers that Native American women scrutinize in the Barima-Mora Passage in northern Guyana.

Every three months, they fly their drones to inspect an area of ​​approximately 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) which includes 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) of mangroves – the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in Guyana. Mangroves act as a natural buffer against sea level rise and help protect against coastal erosion. The soil they grow in also absorbs large amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to the warming of the Earth.

“It’s me giving back to the environment,” said Shakira Yipsam, 19, who leads the drone team and lives in the Native American village of Aruka Mouth, located near a river that flows into the ‘Atlantic.

The women’s mentor is Sarah Singh, 22, who majored in marine biology and now works with the conservation society. She trained the women for up to eight months under a program that pays them around $700 a month. The program targets young women in Native American villages because “they are usually the ones who leave school and start families at an early age and don’t really have job opportunities,” Singh said.

Their work builds on previous conservation efforts that included the replanting of seven miles (11 kilometers) of mangroves across Guyana as part of a partnership with the European Union about a decade ago. This replanting has led to nearly 1,000 additional hectares (2,400 acres) of mangroves that have regenerated naturally, Arjoon-Martins said.

Protecting and planting natural buffer zones like mangroves is essential, as rising sea levels and coastal flooding are a big concern in Guyana, whose name means “land of many waters”. Sea level rise here has been consistent with the global average of 4 millimeters per year for the past 30 years, according to University of Colorado sea level rise expert Steve Nerem.

The narrow coastal strip where most people live and farm is only 5% of Guyana’s territory and is crossed by three major rivers, according to a study published by professors at the University of Western Ontario.

The region has been affected by changing rainfall patterns that have particularly affected Guyana’s rice industry, said Ulric Trotz, former deputy director of Belize’s Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.

“This leads to floods, landslides and the destruction of crops,” he said.

Major flooding that Trotz attributes to climate change has been reported in Guyana in recent years, including in Mahaicony, southeast of the capital Georgetown, where salt water inundated swaths of farmland nearly two years ago. years, rendering them useless.

The scale of the floods, coupled with high tides, overwhelms the colonial-era floodgates and seawall, but Arjune Lilmohan, 32, said he was not giving up the fight. Like dozens of other workers, he said he sets his alarm in the middle of the night to open and close his community’s koker, as it is his responsibility to protect Guyana from the Atlantic Ocean.

“If you’re sleeping at work, you’re inundated,” he said.


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