El Dorado, City of Black Gold

Aliyah Khan

I. Destiny Come: Oil

On August 29, 2019, the prophetically named Liza Destiny ship and its two heraldic maritime vessels arrived off the Atlantic coast of Guyana in triangular formation, looking like nothing more or less than the next incarnation of Columbus own Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. 

The Liza Destiny is a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel that departed Singapore in late July, 2019 under the auspices of SBM Offshore, contracted by ExxonMobil, the major operator of Guyana’s nascent oil industry, to retrofit what was once a storage tanker into a ship itself capable of autonomous travel, drilling, and processing crude oceanic hydrocarbons. This was the whole colonial extractive process; unlike sugar, timber, and bauxite, potentially independent from Guyana and Guyanese labor from start to almost-finish. It only lef’ fuh Exxon get a rich country fuh buy.

Dem oil corporation people does send FPSO ‘round the Third World when there is no pipeline and no infrastructure, but dem really want start drill. This project name Liza Phase 1. 

The Liza Destiny, she can produce 120,000 barrels of oil a day. Then they say Liza Unity coming in 2022 fuh mek 220,000 barrels a day. Then Liza Prosperity coming in 2023 fuh mek one next 220,000. Nobody talking ‘bout pipeline. Dem white people know the futile prospects fuh dat kind of digging in Guyana mud. This is real oil frontier. Destiny coming fuh we first; den black, Indian, Amerindian, and everybody else really going Unity this time; and finally, Prosperity will come. Oil going to do what we postcolonial mimics and relics can’t do weself. Is rich we going be rich, and everybody know oil money cure all evils. We sure that in we Guyana, oil will mek post- and neocolonial foreign capital dependency evaporate overnight, not expand. Petrostate resource curse is fuh people who cyah plan ahead and outsmart dem white people. Oil ent wuk in Trinidad, freeing them out of every island in the Caribbean from the vagaries of hurricane tourism watch? Watch national wealth distribution success in Angola! Tings really looking good in Venezuela.  

Since Walter Raleigh, some ship always going and coming from Guyana looking for gold, Angelus Novus blowing into the future as he looking into the past. This is Progress. 

“First there was a ship,” said V.S. Naipaul of the Caribbean (104). This is a hauntological theme and trope echoed by Caribbean writers from Kamau Brathwaite to Édouard Glissant to Aimé Césaire to Derek Walcott— notwithstanding their differences on ancestral Africa’s position in the making of Caribbean identity. Paul Gilroy calls the sailing ship the chronotope, the time-space of the Black Atlantic of the Middle Passage and its aftermath. That ship was also the Amerindian canoe, and the moving body upon the kala pani (black water) that brought Indian indentured laborers to the Caribbean. Later, it was the refugee rafts, the cruise ships, the “drug boats,” the migrant vessels of no return of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even airplane does fly over wata. We always going and coming and going. “You people have wanderlust,” my aunty white English-Canadian husband, his family settled in First Nations’ people North since he tink God back bruk, tell she when he hear we family living in five-six different country now. Well is how Guyanese start knocking about from pillar to post looking fuh home? You tink is adventure people come fuh when Englishman put dem ‘pon boat from Africa and India and China?

The Ship of Destiny finally sail. It tek since 1492, but El Dorado get find. This gold is black gold. We have yellow gold too, Inca dreams, and Golden Star tailings dam that buss on August 19, 1995, and pour 300,000,000 gallons of cyanide and waste extracts from gold mining into the Omai River. From the Omai it travel in a great plume into the Essequibo, the largest river in Guyana, Land of Many Rivers. The Omai River itself dead now. This was the Omai Gold Mining Disaster. 

Wilson Harris write ‘bout gold-mining pork-knocker consciousness ascending to Omai. He predict the descent down into Omai, the open-pit corporate mining bowels of hell. Omai was one of the biggest gold mines in South America. When I see how the land deh blast out, it was brutal, it was red, angry, stripped, naked, every inch of green was dead. It ent look like a part of we Caribbean. It ent look like a City of Gold.

Golden Star and Cambior, partners at Omai, were Canadian companies. This project was to be the star of the World Bank and IMF’s Economic Recovery Programme for Guyana, even though Guyana government get a laughable 5% of de profits. Canada ent clean up Omai yet. You think Canada more benevolent than the United States abroad? Is stchupid yuh stchupid. 

Anybody ask dem Patamona and Wapishana people what dey tink ‘bout gold, yellow or black? It have 60,000 Amerindians in Guyana. Cacique crown and ting deh ‘pon we coat of arms. Is Amerindian and people from Bartica going dead from the cancers of Omai. Nuff-nuff fish and wild animal dead right away. I don’t know what going to happen.

Bauxite collapsing or collapsed already. Timber get sell off to China, Malaysia, Korea. By 1993, 80% of Guyana state forests, 7.1 million hectares, lease out to mostly foreign concessionaires. We greenheart, purpleheart, moraballi, silverballi, how these names rolled off the tongues of Guyanese primary school children. The great trees of the living Earth’s Amazon lungs will fall to legal and illegal logging ‘til all gone. But logging in Guyana is not a new thing. No kind of exploitation of land is new here. The Great Gates of the lock of Liverpool, its wharves, piers, and jetties, are built of Guyana greenheart. 

King Sugar dreams long gone since slavery and indentureship. Production drop mightily, the European Union ent want Caribbean sugar no more, and Guyana facilities backward and rightly cripple by labor strikes. In 2017, only 140,000 metric tons of sugar were produced, the lowest in 27 years. So from 2017 to 2018, President David Granger government close up four of the last major producing estates: Skeldon, Rose Hall, Enmore, and Wales. Only Albion, Blairmont, and Uitvlugt left. 

The last generational Indian canecutters out of work and drinking rum day and night ‘pon de backdam. Government seh estate closure is fuh restructure and modernize and privatize GuySuCo, the Guyana Sugar Corporation. One time GuySuCo used to name Bookers own slave-owning British self before it nationalize in 1976—yuh ent know? Now government desperate for buyer. All poor people know is dem na got job. 

Is 2018 me cousin Imran, a guard on Skeldon Estate in Berbice that get close down, dead of the curse of rum. Four years ago when I meet Imran again for the first time when we were adults, he was already dying but had a pregnant new woman. He had the same color eyes as me and there was a strange, unerring sense we were blood-related. We barely knew each other. His family choose to stay or went back when the rest ah we move to Georgetown or emigrate. Imran spend most of his life as a worker on de rural Guyana sugar estate our great-grandparents were indentured on, and he dead of the same diseases: rum and sugar. “Yuh got sugar?” the myriads of Guyanese diabetics does ask. The sugar come inside we bodies like poison. Caribbean people life is an unending haunting.

Nuff Exxon ceremony get hold. Guyanese proper love pomp and circumstance and dress-up. Guyana Department of Energy and Department of Social Cohesion, Culture, Youth and Sport (is how much tings one Ministry could cover, eh?) have opening ceremony at the National Museum this January. De Museum get a new First National Oil Exhibit. It have a small black bottle of Liza Destiny first sweet crude oil under a glass. With that red plastic cap I want fuh know if is sweet cassareep bottle they use. Guyanese always saving bottle and plastic bag. What kind of Christmas pepperpot that little bottle could mek, eh? 

Dey could put de cassareep bottle next to the international piece of moon rock #321 Guyana get from America when Apollo 17 land, and Richard Nixon send Goodwill Moon Rock in 1973 to all de nation of de world except de USSR. De funny part is when Guyana other moon rock from Apollo 11 find in a shoe box. Boy is ready we ready fuh we time in de international spotlight! Ah tell yuh between the animal fetuses in glass bottles and taxidermy sloths, that National Museum ent update since England pull out. Exxon have its social projects cut out for it; every inch of Guyana need a social project. For now, the sweet cassareep oil going have to live next to couple big silver piranha.

II. Night Mar(e): Water

When I was a child living in Kitty— an outlying region of Georgetown they say name after some long-dead white Englishwoman, Miss Kitty Something-or-other— I had one recurring nightmare. Every year during the flood and rain I used to see that brown muddy water come over the Sea Wall, over jetty and boulder breaker and shattered shell. Every year we house floor did wash away. So I used to dream I drown. Even small I know: which wall could stop the Atlantic Ocean?

Georgetown and the fertile coastlands of Guyana, where most Guyanese live, are mostly about six feet below sea level. This is colonial (re)claimed land, still dependent on a drainage system of kokers (sluices), dams, and sea walls built by the Dutch, in the same way they drained their own Netherlands, to stem the normal coastal cycle of flooding and erosion. Dem koker does close to keep the mighty Atlantic from the drainage canals, and open to drain the canals into it at high tide. But despite Dutchman koker, uncontrolled flooding continued into the nineteenth century in the British period, and now. Was Dutch and English design, but was enslaved African and indentured Indian that dig de canal dem by hand. Walter Rodney tell we, same way he tell we so much of we history Englishman didn’t. 

The imperialist project of Guiana had always been subject to what Rodney call an unending “cycle of flood and drought” that ent wait for wet and dry year, but gave nobody peace even within one year (4). But what Rodney also tell we was how one time at Plantation Providence in East Bank Demerara in 1882, dem planter seh was the villagers cut de sideline dam fuh protest with flood. A circumspect Rodney only assess the incident with: “This specific charge may or may not have been justified, but it would be correct to acknowledge that this was a technique available to, and used by, some sections of the population who were oppressed by the planter class. The use of fire against growing crops had been common throughout the plantation zones of the Americas since slavery, and the use of the flood was a peculiarity appropriate to the coastlands of British Guiana” (18). Mistah Rodney judicious historian’s words mek me laugh, because Rodney and every student of the Caribbean know well and good that dem villagers was revolutionary and they cut that dam and flood up de estate. But even as an act of resistance, if human beings unleash the Atlantic, can they call it back? When estate fail, was often drown they drown. This global warming drowning we now.

Kitty is next to the Georgetown Sea Wall. A Sea Wall is a Wall that keeps out the Sea, with the presumption of the Tower of Babel itself. It have 280 miles of Sea Wall in Guyana. My Sea Wall, the piece stretching from Camp Street to Kitty, was completed in 1882, in the British colonial time. Georgetown, at the mouth of the muddy Demerara River, used to be called the “Garden City of the Caribbean,” with all dem pretty-pretty louvre window and wooden Berbice planter chair. Garden ent need irrigation?

The Sea Wall and its Bandstand shell, with the almighty Pegasus Hotel benevolently looking down on the scene, were the places to promenade and be seen from the 1940s onwards. Romance, music, cricket, government negotiations, Easter Monday kite flying, all kind of Georgetown socialization happen there. By the 80s and 90s it was not so nice, not so safe. And plenty people lock up their house and leave Georgetown and gone, scatter to London, Toronto, New York, and every island in between. But yuh ent hear how Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan stay in Pegasus? Guyana Sea Wall must be famous in Bollywood since then.

But I seh is Dutchman start this koker ting. Jumbie and koker and funny-funny name is what the Dutch lef’ in Guyana now: their haunted Dutch jumbie silk cotton tree ‘pon Mahaicony East Coast Highway, and strange villages name Vreed-en-Hoop and Uitvlugt, pronounce Eye-Flock. People frighten that silk cotton tree so bad the highway split around it! Dey seh it kill three-four engineer. Dutchman was known for treasure and cruelty. But was the British mek convicts from the notorious Mazaruni Prison maintain the Sea Wall. 

The whole plantation history of Guyana is one of regulating Mami Wata: using she but keeping she fury at bay. Plantations facing the ocean and backed by creeks and backdam, bounded and criss-crossed by even more drainage canals, gravity-reliant drainage that never worked well enough to prevent the accumulation of massive amounts of silt, big kokers, small kokers, working pumps, brukdown pumps, Lamaha conservancy, ballots find with ink running and drowning in Lamaha canal during Burnham days, water, water everywhere, and nuff drops to drink in every politricks. 

Big flooding happen recent in 2005, 2006, every other year, and 2019. But before, 1855 was the year of the Kingston Great Flood that wash away the Governor own Camp House and every plantation from Thomas Lands to Ogle. 1886 and 1887 was plenty bad too. In 1934 rain fall for 11 hours and drown Georgetown residents like rats in the wards. And don’t talk when rain come with high tide. Don’t talk when dem rich country mek ocean level rise.

If ocean saltwater flood arable land, is four years til enough salt leach out so anything can grow, yuh hear? In the Old Testament, the land of the conquered are salted to curse earth and people. NDIA, the underfunded Guyana National Drainage and Irrigation Authority that suppose to keep Guyana from drowning, outmatch by floods of biblical proportions.

I does laugh when people hear Guyana in the Caribbean (so we say) and ask me how de beach stay. Which beach? The two piece of white sand Marriott bring from overseas to ring their hotel by de Sea Wall? Boy that ting look proper funny. If yuh take narrow-angle picture and blue up the tint lil bit, it almost look like yuh deh in Barbados. 

Guyana is mud. 

Yuh tink is Dutch jumbie technology, but is only mangrove and courida tree root keeping the whole country from washing away. 

Sometimes I does feel that nightmare of drowning coming back.

III. El Dorado: Black Gold

The average income in Guyana is $385 USD a month. The population remains a mere 0.785 million, in a land of 83,000 square miles. The IMF predicts that Guyana’s projected real GDP will grow by the staggeringamount of 85.6% in 2020.

In the corporate social responsibility video on its Guyana website, ExxonMobil tells the Guyanese public that in the interests of its Corporate Environment Policy, “Protect Tomorrow. Today.” That “While there is inherent risk to any large industrial undertaking, ExxonMobil’s comprehensive and disciplined approach helps us maintain an unwavering focus on incident prevention, preparedness, and emergency response,” including oil spill response. Exxon coastal sensitivity mapping and environmental assessments, we learn, have resulted in the discovery of five new species and one new plant. Shell Beach will be protected. One would think that hydrocarbon extraction from the ocean floor carries only positive risks for the environment. Like is oil does mek coral reef grow.

Guyana have oil now and every man jack want piece. Over six billion oil barrels are recoverable, Exxon seh. Is every country involve and trading oil block, from France to Qatar to Israel. Bloomberg and Forbes and New York stock market get notify. 

Guyana petroleum laws write in the 1980s. For years we struggling to find oil to save we from sugar. Under the terms of an old and desperate 1999 deal, Exxon give Guyana government a paltry $18 million signing bonus after de oil find in 2015. Guyana being Guyana, the money disappear ‘til story get leak and public outcry locate it in 2017. Now, it look like Guyana tekking 60% of the profits. The rest going to Exxon as major operator, Hess of New York, and Cnooc. Yuh know who backing Cnooc and tekking 25%? The Chinese state. 

China deh in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, in some places more welcome than others. Which capitalist neocolonizer we want, is the question for postcolonials. In most of the English-speaking Caribbean, if yuh ask taxi man ‘pon de street, he going have plenty to say ‘bout Chinese buying up waterfront property and treating local employee bad and ting. I get one real earful in Nassau. In Guyana, China already have plenty timber business. Chinese laborers deh building up Cheddi Jagan International Airport. At New Thriving Chinese food restaurant and similar establishments in Georgetown, distinction even start blurring lil bit between who is recent arrivals and who is Guyanese Chinese.

Christopher Cozier. Gas Men study. “Night and Day…out there,”. Mixed media 2015

Plenty-plenty business going on in Guyana. The government set up a $5 billion anticipated sovereign wealth fund. The anticorruption State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) already looking into what happening. Suriname find oil next to Liza too. Venezuela still want Essequibo. And Granger government done lose a no-confidence vote by one ballot and trigger election, and everybody know what does happen in Guyana at election time. Campaign done start. Black and Indian frighten what coming. Oil money going mek dat race story change?

De oil deh in water. Dey going have to mix. 

The names of Guyana major oil blocks include Liza; Stabroek, which the whole Georgetown was called by the Dutch before 1812; and Kaieteur, the Great Spirit Makonaima own single-drop waterfall. More water. Other wells name Payara, Snoek, Pacora, Longtail, Hammerhead, Pluma, Tilapia, Haimara, Yellowtail, Tripletail, Maco, all ah we Amazon fish dem and couple non-local shark. Eh heh. Must be no coincidence most of these fish are predators, barracudas, and vampires. When Exxon drill to the bottom of each well, must be a nest of dem tings. 

IV. Coda: Pestilence

Is January 2020, when Exxon start drill, that I start say and write this. Now, in April 2020, everything changing up so bad every day, we truly ent know what coming. Guyana simultaneously mire in three thing: same old racialized election fraud and international condemnation of it, bad-bad oil market crash, plus God help we, this next planetary scourge of COVID-19. People seh Granger government tiefing the election, declaring itself winner before vote done count. At least one protestor get shoot by police. Carter Center, superciliously observing “democracy” and ting, fed up and leave. 

In mid-March, the New York Times deh reading tamarind leaf and writing article calling Guyana and Exxon “the odd couple of the global oil patch,” warning of the effect of the contested election, oil market slump, and Russian, Saudi, and U.S. OPEC conflict on Exxon Guyana dealings (Kurmanaev and Krauss). It looking like oil money won’t change one thing racially in Guyana. Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warn Guyana ‘bout how “individuals who…form illegitimate government regimes—will be subject to a variety of serious consequences from the United States (“U.S. Warns of ‘Serious Consequences’”). Guyanese ent bother with he, and why should we? But people frighten bad. At first, was the usual election frighten.

By late March, the novel coronavirus reach the Caribbean. We hearing ‘bout how U.S. Customs and Border patrol impounding ventilators paid for and on their way to be shipped to Barbados, Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. Trump seh ventilator ships have drugs (Charles and Harris). Them colonizers ent have no mercy. Yuh know who Guyana, a country with little medical infrastructure to speak of, getting 30,000 masks and couple ventilator from now? We beg China. China giving we. Now we even more beholden. 

Guyana close its borders to international air traffic. All dem transnational New York and Toronto Guyanese cyah go home. Ship nuh sail. Even before Guyana government declare a month-long lockdown and curfew from 6AM to 6PM, Exxon, which had already been watching the election story and weighing its own global oil futures, react. It notify contractors and vendors that there would be significant cuts in capital and operating expenses, and that Exxon Ogle headquarters construction would be halted. Nobody ent know yet how much cuts. But I ent hear Exxon seh they giving ventilator.

It look like Guyanese ent plan right after all. The Guyana Department of Energy projected in April that yes, 120,000 barrels a day maximum production will indeed be reached, but will sell for “far less than the US $55M for the first lift given the current market conditions” (Thomas). Why? Well is not just that oil market crash. In a failed early 2020 gamble on rising oil prices, Guyana tek risk and decide to not do a ting on the global energy market call “hedging,” locking in prices on the commodity futures market. Now we lef’ high and (ironically) dry when prices fall. What IMF going predict ‘bout 2020 GDP now?

Is how much worry the persevering people of Guyana and the Caribbean could tek? It have one more ting to add to we headache. Amidst all the combined biological and technological disarray, unholy manmade and natural crisis, hurricane still coming. The coming 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season is predicted to have “above-normal activity,” with the probability of at least one major hurricane (Category 3-5) in the Caribbean holding at 58% (average 42%), and off the entire continental U.S. coastline at 69% (average 52%). The number of “named storms” is predicted to be 16, hurricanes 8, and major hurricanes 4 (Klotzbach, et al, 1, 2). Every single one of these numbers is above the average for the last century. 

Hurricane season lasts from June 1 to the end of November. The storms do not usually make full landfall in Guyana, though Wild Gilbert lash we in 1988. But we does flood and rain even more than usual, and the fortunes of Guyana are not divorced from the fortunes of we CARICOM brethren. Oil, water, flood, drought, disease, foreign capital dependency, and we still have the same old racial election story—I don’t know what Rodney would say is the future of the Guyanese working class now. Dem church lady seh all the Horsemen of the Apocalypse come and bring friend.

But I telling you one ting. No ship ent coming fuh save Guyana and bring we destiny. This time, like every other time we failed to do so, we going have to wuk together fuh save weself.

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 “U.S. Warns of ‘Serious Consequences’ if Gov’t is Formed from Electoral Fraud.” News Room, March 17, 2020. https://newsroom.gy/2020/03/17/u-s-warns-of-serious-consequences-if-govt-is-formed-from-electoral-fraud/.

Anchor image by Hew Locke. “Boat G, The Wine Dark Sea”.  Photo by Charles Littlewood, courtesy Hales Gallery London, 2016. The Suzie Wong Collection. 

 Aliyah R. Khan is a professor of literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, but her navel string is buried where she was born and spent her childhood in Georgetown, Guyana. She is the author of the book Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean (Rutgers University Press, 2020), on the history, literature, music, and politics of Islam in the Caribbean. Aliyah holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa CruzShe is always thinking of yesterday’s night sky above the Caribbean, and today’s Atlantic politricks, in hopes of a better tomorrow.

One thought on “El Dorado, City of Black Gold

  1. The story of a particular country, which is the story of all countries where the worth of its minerals is deemed more important than that of the population. Professor Khan has provided a detailed and well researched account of the players and the played in her beloved country – Guyana.

    The eco-crime of unbridled extraction of primary resources does have its consequences, Professor Khan unveils each effect on the people and community, She names the key players, and in telling the tale unveils the arrogance, and ignorance of profiteers who see absolutely no connection to destroying the natural ecosystem of a place and how it will come back to bite them. In the section on – Pestilence, we see how Exxon and other extractors have been humbled by Covid-19. A lesson for all of us. And like Pharaoh in the Bible, we must wonder how many plagues will it take before they let the people go.

    Like

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