In Guyana: The oil ‘baccoo’

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Stabroek News recently published “The oil ‘baccoo’” by Indranie Deolall—an abridged, updated article from “Oil Dorado,” a collection of contributions published last month by Bite-Sized Books (UK). Here are excerpts. [Many thanks to Dale Battistoli for bringing this item to our attention.] Deolall writes:

As a child I loved accompanying my stout father, Mr Big, to the city sea wall for his regular swim after a brisk walk atop the crumbling Fort Groyne. Built near the strategic site of a former British garrison that watched over the coveted sliver of low-lying coastline and the adjoining mouth of the Demerara River, the concrete erosion barrier jutted out into the ocean like a fat index finger, at the far end of breezy Kingston.

It was here, in 1781, British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kingston decided to establish the little settlement that would become the capital Georgetown, after capturing the Dutch colony of Demerara-Essequibo and moving the administrative centre from Borselen Island far up the murky waterway.

While Dad waded out past the squelchy flats, to exercise in the deeper waters discoloured grey-brown by Amazonian mud, I danced barefoot on the warm beach, and screamed and squinted at him, a mere dot, bouncing up and down in the waves. Racing in the surf, hair streaming, the sharp taste of salt in my mouth, I would search for signs of that history, specimens and sea glass gems smoothened by the swollen Atlantic that has witnessed centuries of conflict and ships ferrying foreign explorers forever fixed on finding fame and fortune.

One evening, intrigued by the Portuguese man-o-war that drifted in with the currents, I bent to pick up the purple and blue blob, when my family, who had accompanied us, screamed at me in a chorus to drop it. So, I collected the tiny coloured bottles scattered among the detritus, as the light faded. But these were all hurled away by my strangely angry mother. I learnt, to my chagrin and shock, that like ‘the floating terror,’ no corked glass container, regardless of how pretty the hue, was to be even touched, and God forbid, retained and opened.

Our cautionary folktales, such as those she related that night, warn of the temperamental forces that supposedly lie trapped in fragile receptacles waiting to be freed by the unsuspecting, their size concealing dangerous abilities and unquenchable appetites. Of West African origin, according to the late Guyanese linguist and lexicographer, Dr Richard Allsopp, the word ‘baccoo’ stems from ‘ba-ku’ meaning death/corpse and led to the Saramaccan ‘bakulu,’ a dwarf-spirit. The ‘baccoo’ is “an active, wicked spirit believed to take the form of some small, living, partly human being that must be kept in a bottle and may be commanded either to bring its owner great wealth or to do harm to other persons,” explained the Creole expert in his “Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage.”

With an unexplained lust for the plump bacuba or red-skinned bananas belonging to the Cavendish group, and fresh milk, the creature often misbehaves by abruptly moving items, pelting homes with rocks and causing general mayhem. Suspicious displays of excess gold and sudden riches are put down to a well-fed ‘baccoo’ but since they tend to be mischievous, intelligent and deceitful, the infernal beings shapeshift, tormenting and destroying their owners when the mood, madness and hunger strike. These days, besides the usual prawns and fish, local seas are finally revealing deep-down troves of treasures tens of millions of years old that could bring unimagined wealth to an unprepared nation, one of the most impoverished in the hemisphere.

The oil ‘baccoo’ is out. Mr Big, in this case, is the savvy pack leader, the Texas based giant ExxonMobil (XOM), among the world’s largest publicly traded international energy companies, which is pinning its hopes on Guyana for a revival. The firm’s astonishing exploration success in just the last few years has made the Guyana basin an exciting ‘Oil Dorado’ drawing the industry’s most prominent firms to snap up coveted acreage. In May 2015, the XOM-led consortium announced its first ‘significant’ find after a decades-long search with the Liza-1 well in the lucrative and huge 6.6M acre Stabroek Block yielding high-quality oil-bearing sandstone reservoirs, about 120 miles offshore.

Since then, the discoveries keep coming. A week ago, Government announced ExxonMobil’s 13th find offshore at the Yellowtail-1 well in the Turbot area, following two others this year, Tilapia-1 and Haimara-1, bearing the common names of local fishes, and taking the estimated recoverable resources to more than five billion (B) barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). Exxon’s Senior Vice President Neil Chapman, a management-board member, compared the earlier riches to the magic of a ‘fairy tale’ at the company’s analysts’ day, back in March 2018.

With the country’s first oil well expected to provide up to 120,000 barrels per day by early 2020, and another dozen or so likely, some analysts predict production could exceed a million (M) barrels daily over the next decade, rocketing this small country from a nobody to a newfound star shining in non-OPEC’s (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) top ten. [. . .]

[. . .] Even with the low two per cent royalty on gross earnings and 50 per cent of oil proceeds, at the current average market price of US$50 per barrel, Guyana can expect to earn US$1M a day.

Chairman and Chief Analyst of respected Scotland-based global resources research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, Simon Flowers spoke of his “sense of wonder” over Guyana, in an online piece last September. Rephrasing the famous lines of Romantic poet John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” he posted, “I felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.” Incidentally, the poem starts with the phrase, “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold…”

[. . .] As the ‘baccoos’ remind us, it is painfully ironic that the very resources slated to bring Guyana unexpected wealth will contribute to increasing vulnerability. Most experts agree the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels such as oil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making the Earth warmer. This could mean a rather grim future for low-lying countries such as ours, with the bulk of the population and industries confined to a fragile and narrow strip of coastland. Residents already struggle with flooding, rising sea levels, deteriorating infrastructure, and weather shifts. The worst-case context would mean eventually relocating the entire belt to higher zones further inland.

Declining to hear oil giant ExxonMobil’s appeal in its suit with the state of Massachusetts, the United States Supreme Court in January issued an important ruling for ongoing legal battles around climate change. In the appeal XOM tried to block the release of incriminating records that it knew burning fossil fuels alters the climate. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/features/first-person-singular/04/25/the-oil-baccoo/

[Photo above from https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Is-Guyana-Prepared-For-An-Oil-Boom.html.]

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