The abundance of oil, gas, and minerals in Guyana and Suriname puts the Amazon on the route of pharaonic works such as the construction of a mega network of gas pipelines and roads that may bring more deforestation.
In January 2022, President Bolsonaro made his first visit to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. During the meeting with the President of Suriname, Chandrikapersad Santokh, they discussed socio-economic development cooperation. Negotiations were made mainly in the areas of oil and gas exploration, but also to establish rail and road connections. Both governments as well as several multi-national companies are eyeing the enormous riches hidden in the Guyanese Shield that until today have been relatively little explored. There is no doubt that this discovery of an abundance of essential natural resources will have a tremendous impact on the economic, political and social dynamics of this region. Could it be that an exploration of these riches leads to greater socio-economic development in the region? Or is it yet another example of the natural resource curse and ecocide?
Not only Petrobras, but ExxonMobil, TotalEnergies, Shell, Chevron Apache Corporation, and several road builders have their eyes on Suriname and Guyana because of recent major hydrocarbon discoveries. Guyana’s estimated total recoverable reserves are nine billion barrels of oil equivalent. The discoveries made in Suriname put its recoverable oil equivalent reserves well above six billion barrels. Estimates put the combined gas reserves of Guyana and Suriname above 10 trillion cubic feet. Adding that is more than half of the new discoveries worldwide last year.
Petrobras has shown great interest in looking for oil on the equatorial margin and is projecting to spend around $2 billion to explore this region. Fourteen wells in four offshore basins – Foz do Amazonas, Barreirinhas, Potiguar and Pará-Maranhão – would be linked to Suriname and Guyana. Petrobras expects to receive authorization from the environmental inspection body Ibama to drill in Foz do Amazonas in 2022.
The so-called Arco Norte Energy Corridor Plan, prepared with feasibility studies by the Inter-American Development Bank, would also have a huge network of gas pipelines linked to industrial and petrochemical projects, such as bauxite ore. It is also part of an electricity exchange plan and a road network connected to a planned deep-water port in Guyana, giving access to the Atlantic to parts of northern Brazil. The paving of the road that connects Boa Vista, in Roraima, to the Port of Georgetown, in Guyana, would supposedly help in the flow of agricultural and industrial production from northern Brazil.
Business opportunities arise not only offshore, but also inland along the borders of all four countries. So far, the Northern Arc countries are barely integrated with each other. The area is close to the northern boundary of the largest continuous area of undisturbed forests in the world. Suriname and Brazil are currently the only two countries in South America that are not directly connected by land. At the current moment in time, the countries are only connected by land via Guyana in the west (Boa Vista-Lethem – Georgetown – Nieuw Nickerie) and via French Guiana in the east (Oiapoque – Cayenne – Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni – Albina).
Interests in opening up roads are known. A road connection would open up a vast area to commerce and other economic activities. The Precambrian rocks of the Guiana Shield have proven to hold immense deposits of diamonds, gold, silver and platinum. In addition, it holds large reserves of industrial minerals such as bauxite, copper, iron ore, manganese, tin and zinc. Its greatest reward, however, may lie in lesser-known minerals such as beryllium, kaolin, niobium, tantalum, titanium and zirconium, which are essential for use in modern aircraft, automobiles, computers, and oil and gas drilling equipment. It is no coincidence that the World Bank recently ranked Suriname among the potential 17 richest countries in the world.
According to the aforementioned feasibility study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, “the Arco Norte Interconnection is technically and economically viable” and in order to advance the project, it is necessary “to seek political support from government authorities and institutions in all four countries.”
But even though it is supposed to be “viable”, this does not automatically mean that it is also desirable. In a world of climate emergency, is there a need to promote project which such a high environmental footprint? Would that be the vocation of a development bank?
The reality today in the territory is very worrying. Tens of thousands of Brazilians live in Suriname, many working in illegal mining. The paving of a direct link between Suriname and Brazil is likely to dramatically increase illegal trafficking between the two countries, both of which are known for a lack of law enforcement.
Suriname is often accused of facilitating drug trafficking and providing shipments for the exchange of arms and drugs, both to the United States and the European Union. The country has also been increasingly used as a link between South America and Europe for human trafficking. In many cases, Brazil is the main (drug) intermediary, (weapons) manufacturer and (prostitution) supplier for these commodities or illicit trades.
Also from the point of view of investments, it is necessary to question the feasibility of an Arco Norte. At a time when total global investments in clean and renewable energy already exceed those in dirty fossil fuels, countries could end up with a lot of stranded assets. Civil society organizations in both Guyana and Suriname fear that investment will make them the next Venezuela. Non-governmental organizations like Sophia Point in Guyana and the Pater Ahlbrinck Stichting in Suriname have already raised the alarm bells, warning that the exploitation of natural resources will lead to environmental disasters.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the main Surinamese newspaper, De Ware Tijd, was highly skeptical of the visit of the Brazilian president. In an editorial, the newspaper pointed out that “he does not take the pandemic seriously, he grossly ignores the rights of indigenous peoples in his own country, he subsidizes the large-scale polluting coal industry until 2040 and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has increased rather than decreased under his leadership.”
A deeper assessment makes the North Arc less obvious and less viable. Connecting the Arco Norte would have immense repercussions for the north-eastern part of the Amazon basin and the Guiana Shield, not only from an ecological point of view, but also from a political and social point of view. There are legitimate concerns that short-term economic advantages do not outweigh a multitude of negative long-term consequences.
The region stands at a critical moment in its history: it must choose between becoming a global powerhouse in natural capital, properly valuing its biodiversity, capitalizing on its forest carbon and cultural diversity, or instead joining the long list of countries seeking oil, gold and timber.
As stressed by Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre: “The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we. Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.” Unless investment flows related to energy and infrastructure become “net zero” and “nature positive”, we will continue to finance ourselves towards extinction. No more white elephants in the Amazon basin.
The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own.