By flying drones and chasing 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 this South American country, where 90% of the population lives below sea level.

Armed with drones, the women are investigating illegal logging in mangrove forests and expect to soon begin collecting soil samples and mangrove litter to measure the carbon content of remote coastal ecosystems that have long been inaccessible to scientists. Such data can encourage the government to develop policies and programs to protect critical areas.

“We are bringing together traditional knowledge and scientific research to get all the information we need but have never been able to or afford before,” said Annette Arjoon-Martins, head of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society.

Women’s work is seen as crucial for Guyana, a small nation about the size of Great Britain with a coastline 285 miles (459 kilometers) long and coastal plains lying an average of 2 meters below sea level. The coastline depends on a century-old system of sea defenses established by the Dutch during the colonial era. It includes a 280-mile (450-kilometer) seawall and relies on dozens of workers who set off alarms around the clock to manually open and close sluices called “kokers” that prevent the Atlantic Ocean from flooding Guyana.

By the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank had already advised Guyana to relocate communities inland, as most of its 791,000 people live along the coast and much of its economic activity and agriculture are located there. But people were reluctant to leave.

A World Bank report warns that “the impacts of rising sea levels and intensifying storm surges in Guyana are among the greatest in the world, exposing 100% of the country’s coastal agriculture and 66.4% of its coastal urban areas to flooding and coastal erosion would put out. “

The community of Almond Beach in northern Guyana was forced to move several years ago after the ocean swallowed palm trees one by one and began to batter the school and other infrastructure, Arjoon-Martins said. About 280 people once lived there; barely three dozen remained after a slice slipped under the water, he said.

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

By the end of the year, the women hope to begin collecting data on how much carbon is stored in the coastal ecosystems around their villages.

“We have never done a blue carbon baseline in Guyana before,” said Arjoon-Martins. “We want to quantify how much carbon is stored in the entire landscape, not just the trees.”

Knowing the baseline would help protect the area and possibly lead to similar programs, such as the Low Carbon Development Strategy launched in 2009 to protect Guyana’s forests, which cover nearly 90% of the country. That year, Norway signed an agreement for $250 million in funding to ensure that 18 million hectares of Guyana’s forests remain intact. In December, the Hess Corporation agreed to buy $750 million worth of carbon credits to protect forests.

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

The ExxonMobil consortium, which includes Hess Corporation and China’s CNOOC, produces about 380,000 barrels of oil per day, a number expected to jump to 1.2 million by 2027.

Guyana’s Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, who during his presidency helped launch the 2009 Low Carbon Development Strategy and has long led the fight to protect the country’s forests and mangroves, dismissed environmental concerns about oil production and greenhouse gas emissions. He called oil production a “small operation” and the criticism of environmentalists as “nonsense.”

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

Earlier this month, a court in Guyana ordered ExxonMobil to set aside enough money in case of such an event and threatened to suspend the country’s Environmental Protection Agency if the oil company did not take out unlimited liability insurance within 30 days. In its ruling, the court accused the EPA of being “abandoned, compliant and condescending” 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 were able to meet their financial obligations and already had insurance.

The concerns add to existing concerns, including illegal logging of mangroves, fires, illegal construction and fuel pollution in rivers, which the American women are investigating in the Barima-Mora passage in northern Guyana.

They fly their drones every three months to survey an area of ​​approximately 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) with 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) of mangroves – Guyana’s largest mangrove forest ecosystem. Mangroves act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels and help protect against coastal erosion. The soil in which they grow also absorbs large amounts of carbon, which would otherwise contribute to global warming.

“I’m giving back to the environment,” said Shakira Yipsam, 19, who leads the drone team and lives in the American village of Aruka Mouth, near a river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

The female mentor is 22-year-old Sarah Singh, who studied marine biology and currently works with the conservation society. He trained the women for eight months in a program that pays them roughly $700 a month. The program targets young women in rural America because “they’re usually the ones who leave school and start families early and don’t really have job opportunities,” Singh said.

Their work builds on previous conservation efforts that included replanting seven miles (11 kilometers) worth of mangroves in Guyana as part of a partnership with the European Union about a decade ago. The replanting has led to another nearly 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) of natural regeneration, Arjoon-Martins said.

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Protecting and planting natural buffers such as mangroves is key as rising sea levels and coastal flooding are major concerns in Guyana, whose name means “land of many waters”. According to Steve Nerem, a sea level rise expert at the University of Colorado, sea level rise here over the past 30 years has matched the global average of 4 millimeters per year.

According to a study published by professors at the University of Western Ontario, the narrow coastal strip where most people live and farm makes up only 5% of Guyana’s land area and is intersected by three major rivers.

The area has been hit by altered rainfall, and Guyana’s rice industry has been particularly hard hit, said Ulric Trotz, former deputy director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center in Belize.

“This leads to floods, landslides and crop destruction,” he said.

Significant flooding, which Trotz attributed to climate change, has been reported in Guyana in recent years, including in Mahaicony, southeast of the capital Georgetown, where saltwater inundated farmland nearly two years ago, rendering it unusable.

The magnitude of the floods, combined with high tides, are overwhelming the locks and the colonial-era seawall, but Arjune Lilmohan, 32, said he is not giving up the fight. Like dozens of other workers, he said he sets the alarm in the middle of the night to open and close the box in his community because it is his responsibility to protect Guyana from the Atlantic Ocean.

“If you sleep on the job, you’ll be swamped,” he said.


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