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Is Guyana’s Oil a Blessing or a Curse?

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The timing of the closures, a year after the oil discovery, raised hopes that the petroleum industry might somehow fill the void. Seven years after the closures, however, most sugar workers haven’t found new jobs. Certainly, very few are employed by the petroleum industry.

Their struggle raises a crucial question for Guyana as it wrestles with the transition from the old economy to the new: How can Guyanese without the skills or education for petroleum jobs benefit? Nested within that quandary ticks another: What if the new economy isn’t so new? What if its petroleum-driven vision of progress is actually already outdated?

Thomas Singh, a behavioral economist who founded the University of Guyana’s Green Institute, has argued for transforming the still-active sugar industry’s waste into cellulosic ethanol, a cutting-edge biofuel. But Mr. Sharma, the energy agency head, says the industry is too small for its cane husks to power very much. Some of the jackpot from Norway for carbon offsets has been earmarked for eight small solar farms, but Mr. Sharma, who drives an electric car and has solar panels at his house, maintains that solar energy is too expensive to be a primary power source, despite arguments to the contrary. The giant hydroelectric project the Norway deal was supposed to fund, powered by a waterfall, has long been stalled.

What dominates the local imagination now is oil and gas. During my stay in Guyana, I kept hearing the calypso song “Not a Blade of Grass” on the radio. Written in the 1970s as a patriotic rallying cry and a stand against Venezuela, which threatened to annex two-thirds of Guyana, it has made a comeback with a new cover version. (So, too, have Venezuela’s threats.) The lyrics, to an outsider’s ear, sound like an anthem against Exxon Mobil: “When outside faces from foreign places talk about takin’ over, we ain’t backin’ down.” But in Guyana, it has been invoked recently to assert the nation’s right to pump its own oil. The voices against drilling, however outspoken, remain isolated; the more passionate debate is over whether Guyana should renegotiate its contract to get a bigger take of the oil proceeds.

Oil is seen as such a boon that even questioning how it’s regulated can be branded unpatriotic. Journalists, academics, lawyers, workers at nongovernmental organizations and even former E.P.A. employees confided their fear of being ostracized if they spoke against petroleum.

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