A small English-speaking nation located on the northern coast of the continent of South America, Guyana is said to be on the cusp of wealth based on the discovery of oil and natural gas in the country’s seabed where experts estimate 1.4 billion barrels of oil reside. Experts also predict that the oil discovery and subsequent production, earmarked to begin in 2020, will create unprecedented external investment interests and opportunities. But opportunities for whom? Perhaps the broader question we should ponder too is how might oil wealth present an opportunity for the country to confront and rewrite the grand narrative that the international community is all too familiar with? I daresay that narrative is only one side of the nation’s story-Poverty, historical ethnic political tensions and the infamous Jim Jones mass suicide tragedy.
Interestingly, these three pillars are not diametrically opposed, but represent fruits from the seed of resource exploitation initiated by European colonists whose resort to enslaved and indentured laborers from the African continent and India respectively, facilitated the development of a massive haven called Guyana. Poverty is somewhat situated in the socioeconomic and political model adapted by leaders within a post-colonial context in which racial tensions are implicated. The Jim Jones saga bears both geopolitical and economic contours which I shall leave for my learned colleagues to explicate.
Like many Guyanese both at home and in the Diaspora, I’ve asked myself repeatedly how can a country measuring merely 83,000 square miles with a population of less than a million people possess such wealth yet be classified as poor. By whose standards? Moreover, why have we been hearing about the country’s potential for years without realizing the fulfilment of such potential? My questions are premised on the fact that Guyana’s economy is built upon agricultural production and natural resource extraction that have yielded significant revenue based on export earnings over the decades. Rice and sugar production have served as the nation’s mainstay for years, along with other crops that have combined to earn the country the coveted title of breadbasket of the Caribbean some decades ago. Yet we are classified as poor!
While bauxite, gold and diamond also formed part of the country’s extractive wealth for years, the country has experienced shifting fortunes based on global price setting and demands. However, gold production has remained constant for the country’s mineral and mining industry, despite the bitter sweet trials the sugar industry has suffered based on the institution of austere trade arrangements by Britain that once guaranteed its former colony preferential treatment. Nonetheless, there has been a resurgence of foreign interests in the exploitation of bauxite primarily by Russian and Chinese mining establishments. A tsunami is also fast approaching to sweep up every possible opportunity to conduct business in Guyana based on the oil sector. There is already a flood of investors, from various continents, who have made it their business to explore investments in shares within the oil sector while others are eyeing the potential for trade with Guyana. But what are we doing as Guyanese? Should we remain on the sidelines?
This is not the time for any enterprising Guyanese to sit by and contemplate wealth while investors move beyond contemplation to action. Guyana’s black gold signals the awakening of hope for the country to arise from the ashes and label of poverty and underdevelopment. Moreover, rescripting Guyana’s story need not have plot twists situated in the African experience where oil wealth has not redounded to economic prosperity for citizens as seen specifically in Nigeria, West Africa, where poverty is pervasive in the most populous West African country. Civil unrest and political complicity in corrupt practices also mar the country’s progress.
Even closer to home, Guyana’s story does not have to reflect Trinidad and Tobago’s reality. Ours can evolve for the world to marvel based on prudent political and economic stewardship of the country’s newly discovered wealth for the people of Guyana. Such stewardship can benefit from the expertise of Guyanese at home and the Diaspora, including those who fled for economic and other reasons and are willing, ready and committed to co-laboring with citizens in defining the business opportunities resonant across both traditional and non-traditional sectors and new business frontiers.
It is time for everyone to be apprised of the prospects, implications and national economic trajectory that will translate to human development and an improved standard of living for all Guyanese. The business of national development must also include the establishment of economic and marketing training initiatives to create sustainable business literacy among citizens beyond oil. At the same time, it is incumbent upon the state to discern and protect itself from prospects of external reframing of our new narrative in a manner that presents the world with a paradoxical outlook-Poor Oil Nation. My optimistic outlook tells me that we can only get better as a nation, and as a people, with the caveat that we seize every conceivable opportunity for home grown wealth in a future with oil.