Guyana: green and troubled land

The very name provokes head-scratching and blank looks: Guyana? The most common reaction, after the initial puzzlement, is to ask which bit of Africa it is in (Guinea? Ghana?). Further bewilderment follows the revelation that not only is Guyana on the South American mainland, sandwiched between Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, but that it is also, historically, culturally, politically and economically, part of the English-speaking Caribbean. The confusion is fitting: Guyana is a confusing country.

Two countries, really. One is the narrow strip which runs along the Atlantic coastline for 430km. This is where the vast majority of the population resides, squeezed between encroaching jungle on one side and wild ocean on the other. Farmland—rice and sugar, mainly—hinders the jungle’s desire to reclaim its territory and a crumbling sea wall keeps the ocean at bay. The sea wall could be an allegory for the Guyanese themselves, seemingly fighting a losing battle against both the elements and other, man-made troubles. At the heart of this country is the capital, Georgetown, once the “garden city” of the Caribbean, now decaying.

The other country is a vast, largely uncharted wilderness, a country of infinite beauty, hardship and endless possibilities. It is the size of Great Britain but is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. It is a land of mighty rivers, stunning waterfalls and huge savannahs. It is inhabited by small numbers of Amerindians, whose way of life has been little changed by the upheaval from colonialism to independence, by hardy gold and diamond prospectors, and by species of wildlife, such as the jaguar and the harpy eagle, which are rare and endangered.

This is a country replete with minerals of all kinds, which should be thriving in our commodity-driven age. A Canadian exploration company believes that it has found an offshore oilfield—of which Guyana recently won control after a long legal battle with Suriname—that would dwarf the North Sea. And as water threatens to become one of the most valuable resources of the 21st century, nowhere should be better placed to exploit this than Guyana, whose very name means “the land of many waters”.

The contrast between the narrow coastal strip and the uncharted hinterland has been neatly expressed in the literature about Guyana. In 1960, as the independence movement was coursing through the region, Trinidad’s prime minister, Eric Williams, sent the novelist V.S. Naipaul on a year-long tour of the Caribbean colonies to record his impressions before the inevitable change. The result was Naipaul’s first work of non-fiction, “The Middle Passage” (1962), in which he wrote disparagingly about Guyana, “its size, its emptiness, the isolation of its communities”. For Naipaul, the landscape reflected the reality on the ground—a thin fringe of development dwarfed by a vast, uncultivated interior. “In the bush”, he wrote, “there are little irregular areas of timorous destruction—indicating attitudes you will learn to associate with British Guiana.”

For Wilson Harris, Guyana’s most famous and least understood novelist, the hinterland represented something very different. Before he dipped his quill, he had already charted large sections of the forest as a government surveyor and liked what he had seen. Before his exploration, “the map of the savannahs was a dream,” he wrote, “the names of Brazil and Guyana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood.” In his best-known novel, “The Palace of the Peacock” (1960), he celebrated what Naipaul was to disparage. Where Naipaul felt that Europe’s “civilising” mission had not gone far enough, Harris felt the bush was a natural corrective to the deformations of colonialism.

Fifty years after these two novelists brought their trained eyes to bear upon Guyana, both impressions still seem valid. The hinterland contains the largest pristine rainforest left on the planet but the impoverished, ethnically divided and under-developed country on its periphery is ranked 110th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, well below other Caribbean nations like Barbados and Trinidad, both of which, once upon a time, would have lagged well behind their South American neighbour.

It is time for a confession of bias. My wife is Guyanese, my children have Guyanese passports and I have spent many happy hours in downtown Georgetown drinking rum and discussing, in order of importance, the latest West Indian cricketing shambles and the uselessness of politicians. Rum, by the way, is one thing that the Guyanese do better than anybody. The Eldorado 15-year-old Special Reserve was voted the best rum in the world in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Even non-liquor drinkers cannot but appreciate its aromatic flavours. Just a little ice or water will do: on no account defile it with Coke.

It was in 1994, during a thunderstorm magnificent in its intensity, the kind that only the tropics can provide, that my future link with this strange land was forged. England were due to play Guyana in a four-day match at the Bourda ground as part of our preparations for the Test series, but local custom has it that cricket brings rain and within an hour of the heavens opening, it had flooded Georgetown (which lies below sea-level) to the extent that it was immediately clear that there would be no play the next day. The Sidewalk Café was one of the few places to go for a drink—these were the days when sportsmen were not so fussy about their pre-match preparation—and it was there that my future wife was. She was giving her brother a send-off drink before he was due to be charged and sentenced next day for contempt of court over an article written in the local newspaper.

It is amazing the lengths you will go when your heart misses a beat. I soon found myself, in between trying to captain England and score a few runs, coaching children in an orphanage just outside Georgetown, walking the sea wall at dusk, and generally finding any excuse to develop my new-found enthusiasm. The ensuing bond was fortunate in many ways, one of which was that without it I would surely have taken home an impression of Guyana, as many cricketers do, shaped only by the damp walls of the Pegasus hotel, the brown-stained ocean, a few angry mosquito bites and the dark, sullen clouds that kept emptying their load. Not the Caribbean of popular imagination, of golden sands and azure seas, that’s for sure.

My last visit to Georgetown, in November, was an altogether sadder occasion, returning as I was for the funeral of my father-in-law. David de Caires was a wonderful man who stayed put through the troubles of the disastrous Forbes Burnham years, when many of his contemporaries left the country. Burnham, who was Afro-Guyanese, formed a nominally socialist party and played on the cold-war fears of successive American administrations to get help in bringing down the Marxist, mostly Indian, government. After independence from Britain, he kept himself in power by rigging elections, nationalised key industries which led to economic collapse and silenced the free press. The legacy of that era is a bitter ethnic divide, and my father-in-law involved himself with anything that might help to heal it, principally through the Stabroek News, Guyana’s most respected independent newspaper which he founded following the death of Burnham, and then edited, but also through his other enthusiasms which included the restoration of the theatre guild and the Camp Street renovations.

On the kind of glorious, breezy Caribbean day that constantly reinforced his hopes for the potential of the region, he would have been gratified at the turnout for his memorial at Brickdam, the huge Catholic cathedral that dominates the heart of the old city. Every shade of colour and ethnic mix was there—blacks, Indians, Portuguese, Amerindians—and every level of society from cabinet ministers to a group of youngsters from the St John Bosco orphanage. And for once, the sentiments were shared by all.

Such moments of unity are all too rare. Since the 1950s, Georgetown and violence have gone together like rum and water. The forbidding atmosphere that often pervades Georgetown—especially at election time—was noted in 1974 by Jane Kramer in a prescient New Yorker piece entitled “A letter from Guyana”. “The restlessness here”, she wrote, “is not the noisy, nervy restlessness of, say, Trinidad or Jamaica but a kind of anxious energy with a sullen, still, expectant edge to it.” Ethnic crime between those of Indian descent—the majority—and those of African descent has been widespread, but more recently it has been ratcheted up, with appalling massacres in the Indian village of Lusignan and the frontier town of Bartica on the Essequibo river.

Today’s violence is a direct hangover from the Burnham years, during which Guyana fell behind its Caribbean neighbours in social and economic development. Sugar and bauxite were among the industries that were nationalised, the civil service and judiciary were subordinated to party interests, and exchange controls put in place so that a thriving black market in foreign currency developed. The education system collapsed, the middle classes fled and the skilled workforce disappeared. In 2007 the World Bank reported that the Caribbean contained seven countries with the world’s highest emigration rates for college students, of which Guyana, with an astonishing 89%, was the highest.

Although Georgetown today reflects this unhappy recent history, it is possible to glimpse, through the decay, the splendours of another past. The avenues are wide and tree-lined, and the old wooden buildings that survive are rather grand—raised on stilts to protect against flooding with beautiful Demerara shutters to keep out the rain and draw in the sea breeze. Several striking buildings remain by the Maltese-born, Italian-trained architect Cesar Castellani (Castellani House, once the prime minister’s residence, is now the National Art Gallery), and there are pleasant public areas such as the Promenade Gardens to shade you from the heat.

Across the road from the Promenade Gardens, however, the Parade Ground  has a darker history, one that suggests this garden city has always had its serpents. In 1823, after rumours that the king’s plans to free them were being ignored by the colonial authorities, 13,000 slaves turned on their overseers and owners in what came to be known as the Demerara Uprising. The rebellion was nipped in the bud in brutal fashion. Several of the slaves were publicly hanged where the Promenade Gardens stand today, a disturbing background to the now-tranquil site, noted by Guyana’s most celebrated poet, Martin Carter: “Old hanging ground is still playing field/ Smooth cemetery proud garden of tall flowers.”

Many of the old buildings have collapsed or been torn down or destroyed in one of the city’s many fires. Ugly concrete buildings have replaced them. Few avenues have been properly maintained, the drains are often clogged and stagnant and the kokers (sluices) work only intermittently. It doesn’t take much for the city to become flooded. Given a combination of factors—principally a more stable political landscape that would help arrest emigration—it could be returned to its previous glory. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, though. The decline has been too steep, the inbuilt ethnic prejudices are too strong and the violence, now boosted by a sharp increase in money-laundering and drug and gun crime, is endemic.

There are many ways to leave the troubles of Georgetown behind. The easiest is to hop on a small plane at the Ogle airfield, just outside the capital. This is cheating a little, since getting to the bush should involve some sense of hardship, but from above the sight is astonishing: dense broccoli-like vegetation that stretches as far as the eye can see, interspersed only by the silver veins, glinting in the sun, of the Demerara and Essequibo rivers as they wind their way into the heart of darkness. Guyana has 600 miles of navigable waterways and it is on one of its rivers, the Potaro, that Guyana’s greatest natural wonder can be found. Kaieteur Falls is five times higher than Niagara and twice the height of Victoria and every day 60m tonnes of tea-coloured water tumble over its edge into the abyss below. If you have lemming-like tendencies, there is nothing to stop you. And it is totally unspoilt; if you want to avoid the six-day overland trek, then you can find yourself right by the falls after just an hour in the plane.

Otherwise, set off north-west of Georgetown, over the Demerara bridge, through villages that could be transported to any state in India without being lost in translation, and through the market town of Parika, until you reach the banks of the Essequibo, which at 1,000km long and 20km wide at its mouth is Guyana’s mightiest river. Here you can take a water-taxi, sighting howler monkeys on the way, to one of the many eco-lodges that border its banks, or visit Kyk-over-Al, the tiny island where Dutch settlers made their first headquarters. The name means “see-over-all” and the view of the Essequibo and Mazaruni rivers from this settlement is indeed stunning. If your experience of rivers is something like the Thames, or maybe a gentle trout stream, then the sheer scale of the Essequibo will blow your mind.

This is about as far as most visitors get, but there is much more on offer for those both able to afford the cost of transport into the interior and prepared to suffer its hardships. It is easy to be romantic about the bush, but on my own trips up the Essequibo I have had to come to terms with a tarantula nesting above my bed, piranha swimming below my feet and a jaguar’s footprints in the morning sand revealing its night-prowling proximity.

Near the geographical centre of Guyana, deep in the interior, lies the Iwokrama International Centre, a vast protected area of rainforest established to study how best the forest might be preserved. I am told that Iwokrama offers visitors the best chance of seeing a jaguar and it is from here that Guyana’s huge variety of wildlife can best be experienced. Beyond there, if the body and mind are willing, the dry grasslands of the Rupununi savannahs stretch away until, eventually, you reach Brazil. This is true cowboy (and malaria) country, with rodeos attracting cowboys from the Rupununi and Brazil at Easter.

If Guyana really is two countries that rarely intertwine, the question must be, “how can one help the other?” Can this pristine rainforest contribute in some way to the development of the impoverished land on its doorstep? Eco-tourism is one obvious way forward, following the examples of Costa Rica and Ecuador which have benefited enormously from such an approach.

Guyana’s president, Bharrat Jagdeo, believes that he has found another way and is enthusiastic about a scheme that ties in the preservation of the rainforest with economic aid. Last year he offered to give away control of Guyana’s entire rainforest (40m acres of it) to a British government agency in return for economic assistance. Everyone would be a winner: the world would benefit from the prevention of the kind of deforestation as a result of logging, mining and farming that accounts for a fifth of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Guyana would benefit, too, as it realises the value of its natural assets. In brutal terms, Jagdeo, a trained economist, has put a dollar rate on his country’s greatest asset, in the hope that the value of one part can help prevent the disintegration of the other. (This article first appeared in Intelligent Life, Spring edition, 2009)