May 17, 2020 News
By Kemol King
Year after year, seasons come when Guyana experiences severe flooding along many coastal communities. Depending on the level of erosion in a certain area, the nature and strength of its sea defenses, the ground level in relation to the sea, and other factors, it may be much more predisposed to flooding than others.
Coast Land, a mini-documentary on the natural phenomena of erosion and climate change, explores the causes of these things and their implications for the lives of those coastal communities.
Shot and produced by REEL Guyana, its founder Alex Arjoon hopes to start a national conversation about the vulnerability of Guyana’s low-lying coastal region, particularly among the younger generation.
In the production, REEL Guyana talks about how “when we think about ecosystems, we imagine pristine places deep within the hinterland region far away from our urban cities”.
It is indeed common for people to think of nature as something separate from and untouched by civilization. But as Arjoon explains, there are ecosystems existing everywhere, including right along the coastline. In fact, our understanding of the dynamic ecosystems on the coastline and the cycles and what they have gone through over thousands of years, will be pivotal to the discourse on climate change.
Arjoon explains that Guyana’s coastline is part of the much bigger ecosystem of the continental coastline, from the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil to the Orinoco in Venezuela; and it faces this constant cycle of erosion and accretion.
REEL Guyana says that the abundance or scarcity of mud deposits on the coast is “subject to an ebb and flow cycle lasting approximately 30 years.”
Unfortunately, Guyana’s natural sea defenses are placed at risk by the erosion of the coastline, and that could only redound to the detriment of these communities. A mangrove forest is an ecosystem in itself, Arjoon explains in the production.
While efforts have been made to grow and maintain the mangroves on Guyana’s coastline, there is only so much that can hold when erosion takes its toll.
“Over the years, we have seen a significant decrease in mangrove forests, leaving our coasts directly exposed to wave impact,” Arjoon explains as the camera pans over a mangrove forest.
Then, in conjunction with erosion of the coast’s mud deposits, there is the added issue of the constant and unprecedented melting of ice and snow in colder regions, caused by a frightening gradual rise in global temperatures.
“This melted water is discharged into our oceans. Global sea levels are predicted to rise between one and four feet by the end of this century. And with every millimeter, Guyana’s border wall approaches a point of irreversible collapse.”
A scary prospect, but a sobering one, it is.
What REEL Guyana is keen to point out is that public discourse about climate change tends to kick up at times when the floods are devastating our backyards.
“What about when high tides aren’t washing away our coastal plains?” Arjoon asks.
That is why REEL Guyana has seen it necessary to use this documentary to advocate for a collaborative effort of civil society and public institutions. Together, “we can combat the issue of rising sea levels and overtopping and become the guardians of our coastal communities,” he says.
In the production, Arjoon talks to a gathering at Moray House Trust about the surreal feeling he got when he came face to face with the thunderous waves crashing against the Buxton foreshore. “You actually hear those waves crashing into the wall. It’s a very surreal feeling of vulnerability which I think that a lot of people aren’t very aware of.”
Shell Beach Protected Area
An area of particular significance that received focus in this documentary is the Shell Beach Protected Area in Region One. That area is 120km of beaches and mudflats which encompasses Guyana’s largest and most intact mangrove forests. It is well known for the four species of endangered sea turtles that live there.
“The area gets its name from the presence of a beach composed of fragmented shells. It is unique and is representative of Guyana’s diverse ecosystems, containing both terrestrial and marine components,” Arjoon narrates.
He explained that the area, sitting between one and 25 meters above sea level, has experienced dramatic changes. Unfortunately, its Protected Area status doesn’t protect it from the natural elements, Arjoon said. The area has been victim to a regression of the coastline, with seawater seeping into parts of the community.
To discuss this area in particular, REEL Guyana approached Environmental Activist, Annette Arjoon-Martins. She once lived there, and explained that in 2012, the community started to observe “the waves getting stronger, the wind also getting stronger, and the waves becoming higher and higher where they were overtopping the beach and slowly but surely eroding the strands of coconut plants that were there.”
The environmentalist describes how the sea slowly creeped up, stripping away the coconut trees on the beaches and approaching buildings. Some of the people living there, as the years went by, were forced to pick up and move. Arjoon-Martins said “In a sense, these would have been my earliest experience with what were in fact climate refugees.”
Those families, who had lived there for decades, were uprooted by the elements, a fate that threatens many coastal communities today.
REEL Guyana says it best.
“It’s easy to look at places like Shell Beach and imagine a different ocean compared to the calm and placid sea right here at our doorsteps. However, we cannot afford to be complacent about overtopping any longer. Our richest agricultural lands and main urban centres are virtually unprotected from the inevitable. And when we mix rising sea levels with periodic erosion, the scale of disaster is hard to imagine.”
The intrusion of sea water into large swathes of East Coastlands does not paint a good picture for farmers. Their agricultural crops have gotten destroyed due to the presence of salt in the soil. Arjoon explains that the salt causes moisture to be drawn down from the plants, shrivelling up and destroying them. This has caused the farmers to lose significant value and suffer setbacks from their hard work.
Millions of taxpayer dollars of infrastructure would be needed to build and fortify the sea defenses in areas like Dantzig. “Their giant, mechanical arms moving with precision, excavators are the first on the scene,” Arjoon explains in the film, as the camera pans over the drones hard at work.
“They rearrange tons of earth and rip-rap in order to reinforce the crumbling sea defenses.”
But he then explains that, as the tide is still rising, it becomes apparent that the construction of those defenses last year would soon become apparent.
More work became necessary, as the spring tide approached. The workers operating machinery in the film to bring materials onshore were shown to be working under very serious conditions as, while they worked, the waves grow higher and higher. They work quickly to get the materials from a barge used to transport the materials, before the tide catches them.
Arjoon interviews a series of people who have been affected by the overtopping.
In the production, one woman says “And I just deh lookin’ at this water all the time. Ah seh ‘Father God, only you we could call on now’,” as she hopes the flooding doesn’t kill all of her livestock.
Then, a man, a farmer, says “Me lost about 10 acre rice and everything duck up with water. So ah don’t got nothing.”
“We can’t stay here,” another woman is heard saying.
With many farmers losing acres upon acres of land, and many livestock, their families are not just crippled, but the food security of the many communities they provide for are crippled as well.
REEL Guyana said that the breach in the Mahaicony area has not yet been rectified and the foreshore continues to erode.
“It is hard not to be moved by the stories of Guyanese who’ve lost everything to climate change in recent times. And my experience filming the vulnerability of our coastland has left me looking for answers.”
So he reached out to a renowned Geochemist and Paleoclimatologist, Andrea Dutton.
In the film, she said that people who hear about the erosion of the coast and learn what it can do to their livelihoods may still be reluctant to pick up and move, or take some other action to take care of themselves.
“But that’s unreasonable because we know the coastline’s gonna change and it will retreat overtime… So, if we can reach an acceptance of that information, we can think about how we want that to play out,” Dutton tells Arjoon.
In a recent interview on Kaieteur Radio’s Room 592 with Yog Mahadeo and Leonard Gildarie, Arjoon discussed some of what inspired his love for the environment and to produce this documentary.
“From the inception, when I started doing this work, my mom, she used to force me to go on these trips. Every time there’s an overtopping, she’s like ‘Let’s go on this. Let’s go get this overtopping. We gotta get this for our archives’.”
Though Arjoon saw the trips as more of a chore, the gravity of the issue set in, eventually.
“You really get a different perspective when you’re there at the front of the overtopping, on the front lines… There was this one time where we went and there was like a super blue blood moon, and the overtopping was tremendous. We were filming in the back of a pick-up and the waves just crashed over. It nearly flooded the whole back near the pick-up, and nearly knocked us out. I lost all my equipment. It was like a tragic day, but as discouraging as it could have been, it just started to continue documenting that.”
The moment he decided to work on Coast Land was during an overtopping at Dantzig, Mahaicony last year.
He said that, in the moment, he had thought “Wow, like, this is the perfect climax to what I’ve been doing for the past four years. And if we can tell such a powerful story that Guyanese essentially need to know. This is climate change at its best, or worse. And it’s something we don’t think about at all in the grander scheme of things. It’s definitely something that should be part of the national discussion.”
The stunning content delivered in this documentary has a powerful message. Dutton gives Guyana a simple choice – “Do we want to sit here and wait until the catastrophic things happen? Or do we want to make a choice about managing that retreat in some action?”
Arjoon ends the documentary with an urgent calling: “Working together, we still have the power to live in harmony with our beautiful coastal ecosystems, but not, if we fail to act. To keep our heads above the waves, the conversation must start now.”
PNC demanding answers for smuggled chicken early Sunday morning after church!
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