The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb
In late June, inside a squat concrete building in Georgetown, Guyana, on a noisy street flanked by telephone repair shops and beauty supply stores, two lawyers were waging one of the most significant legal battles in the global fight against climate change. Melinda Janki and Ronald Burch-Smith sat in a ground-floor office staring intently at a computer screen, ignoring the sounds of macaws, monkeys, tree frogs, and traffic packing the streets, waiting to connect to the country’s Supreme Court via Zoom. The internet is unreliable at best in Guyana’s capital city, and the fear that it would choose today to conk out was palpable.
The two lawyers were a bit of an odd couple. Burch-Smith is tall and meticulous. Ask him if he knows the time and he’s likely to answer “yes” rather than divulge the hour. Janki is a petite woman with warm eyes and a sharp wit, quickly moved to rigorous denouncements of injustice, from the war in Ukraine to the plight of the planet to the litter on the street. Burch-Smith has a framed Phantom of the Opera playbill above his desk. The art in Janki’s office is a little more confrontational: a life-size painting of a fierce yellow jaguar that appears poised to step out of a blackened forest and straight through the picture frame. Together, the two attorneys have mounted a novel and audacious attack on Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest corporations with the legal muscle to match.
In 2015, Exxon, which is known in Guyana as Esso, struck oil off the coast, the first significant find in the country’s history. The scale of the discovery, 11 billion barrels so far, landed Guyana on the list of the world’s top “carbon bombs”— fossil fuel projects capable of releasing more than a gigaton of carbon dioxide. Exxon ultimately plans to produce more than 1 million barrels of oil a day. That would transform Guyana—currently a carbon sink thanks to its dense blanket of rain forests and minimal emissions—into one of the world’s top 20 oil producers by 2030. An Exxon Mobil spokesperson says that during the world’s transition to cleaner energy, “we need two things at the same time: reduced emissions and a reliable source of energy. Exxon Mobil has a role to play in both.” By 2027, Exxon expects its Guyana operations to have “about 30 percent lower greenhouse gas intensity” than its average oil or gas production. Climate experts estimate that 2030 is also the year by which much of Georgetown and coastal Guyana will be underwater as a result of unchecked global warming. Those living in the interior of the country will face the devastating impacts of worsening droughts and floods, from intensifying food insecurity to loss of land and homes. In 2021, Janki and Burch-Smith sued the Guyanese government for giving Exxon the green light. Exxon later joined the government as a codefendant in the case.
Georgetown’s lush beauty—its neighborhoods teem with tropical flowers in scarlet reds, peacock blues, sun-kissed yellows, and turquoise greens—is made possible by its abundant sources of water: Rivers and canals carve paths through the streets, carrying water from the Amazon to the Atlantic, along whose coast most of the city—and 90 percent of the nation’s population—resides. Viewed differently, though, the abundance of water is a sign of Georgetown’s particular vulnerability to climate change. All around is the evidence of an impoverished city that is rapidly industrializing. Newly traffic-clogged streets strain to make room for horse-drawn carts; cows graze on street corners near Popeye’s and KFC. Many homes and buildings have that beaten-down look common to places of either war or extreme weather.
To call the Exxon lawsuit a David-versus-Goliath endeavor would be an understatement. When several US state attorneys general sued Exxon about five years ago for misleading investors and the public about the risks of climate change, a judge joked about the oil company, “Y’all have 300 lawyers on your side.” Exxon then submitted more than 2 million pages of records to just one New York court. By contrast, Janki and Burch-Smith had one legal assistant. Janki has been known to stand in long lines at the court to file pleadings. She has also carted around enormous files filled with thousands of pages of material, which she reads without the assistance of a litigation team.
In the June hearing, Exxon was attempting to throw out virtually the entire testimony of one of Janki and Burch-Smith’s clients on the grounds that he was not a climate scientist. When the judge appeared on the screen, he gave the pair more time to present their argument to keep the affidavit, which rests on key facts regarding fossil fuels and climate change, before the court.
Halting the project would deal Exxon a crippling blow; within eight years, Guyana is on track to become the company’s single largest site of daily oil production. But it could also have implications for the global industry. Whereas climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies have typically attempted to hold those corporations accountable for the harms of past operations, this one in Guyana seeks to force the company and the government to accept responsibility for the damage they will cause in the future. The case argues that oil development is fundamentally incompatible with human health and a sustainable environment. If successful, it could set an example for climate activists in other countries.
Kneecapping a global energy giant might sound like an impossible feat for two attorneys in a Global South nation with a population of less than 780,000 people. But they are wielding some powerful tools. Guyana happens to have some of the most robust environmental protections in the world. Its constitution contains provisions that explicitly protect the rights of citizens—present and future—to a healthy environment. “Virtually every aspect of this operation is in violation of Guyana’s constitution, and the right to a healthy environment, and the right of sustainable development, and the rights of future generations,” explains Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “And from that arise serious consequences in terms of how the government must respond.”
“The provisions are groundbreaking,” Janki says. She should know—30 years ago, she helped author them. Plus, Janki’s knowledge on the matter has still another layer: Early in her career she spent four years working for the oil giant British Petroleum, now known as BP.
Janki grew up in Georgetown, in a house close enough to the Atlantic Ocean for the sounds of waves to lull her to sleep each night. Much of her childhood was spent outdoors, where she developed an affinity for the water and the forest. When she was 5, a small brown dog appeared on the front porch in the bright rays of the early morning sun. Janki was reading a book of Christian fables at the time, so she named her first beloved pet Lucifer, Son of the Morning. “The story ends very badly,” she recalled. “He must have gotten out and been on the road outside the house, and someone knocked him down and killed him.” Janki was crushed—and furious. “It taught me the lesson that life is tenuous,” she says, and also “to fight for the little underdogs.” She would go on to care for dozens of stray animals, including dogs, donkeys, cats, horses, wild birds, and a baby giant otter.
Janki’s family left Guyana in the 1970s, when she was 12 years old and the country was in a period of intense political instability. After living in Zambia and Trinidad, Janki eventually settled in London. She studied law at Oxford and University College London, focusing on human rights, environmental and economic law, and intellectual property. She began her career at one of Britain’s premier corporate law firms, Lovell, White, & King—“otherwise known as ‘Lovely, White, and Clean,’” Janki quips—where she recalled being one of the first non-white trainees. She left the firm in 1989 to become an in-house lawyer at BP’s world headquarters. Janki doesn’t speak negatively about her experiences working there, but over time her growing condemnation of the industry has come to dominate both her life and work.
It didn’t take long for the shine of London to wear off. On the 30th floor of a skyscraper, Janki felt entirely cut off from nature. Her life started to seem all too comfortable. “You know, comfort is a form of suicide,” she says. After four years absorbing the inner workings of the oil industry, she decided to leave. Janki returned to Georgetown in 1994, a time when her homeland seemed brimming with promise. “Your heart tells you what you should be doing, and it just tugged me back to Guyana,” she says.
Guyana’s name is said to derive from an Indigenous word for “land of many waters.” The largest of the country’s rivers, the Essequibo, begins at the Acarai Mountains near the Brazilian border and flows north through forest and savanna, cutting a straight line for 630 miles across the length of the country. As the Essequibo makes its way to the coast, it’s joined by tributaries of the Amazon, Rupununi, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni rivers, all carrying a rich bounty of sediment filled with nutrients. Guyana’s ocean contains some of the highest recorded levels of chlorophyll biomass in the world. In turn, the waters are home to more than 900 species of fish, essential to both local subsistence and the Guyanese economy. There are also dolphins, manta rays, sperm whales, and six kinds of marine turtles, some of which are endangered.
In the interior, nestled between forests, picturesque mountains, tributaries of the Amazon, and the headwaters of the Rupununi river, rests the virtually untouched savanna that the Wapishana and Macushi call home. They are among the nine tribes collectively referred to as Amerindians, who have lived in and around present-day Guyana for millennia. Most live subsistence lifestyles based on hunting, fishing, and farming, not all that different from those of their ancestors.
For centuries, a rotating list of foreign powers extracted Guyana’s natural resources and returned the products and profits to their home ports. In 1667, to secure their claim on Guyana, the Dutch traded parts of modern-day New York and New Jersey to the British. The Dutch enslaved Africans to work the sugarcane fields and pushed many Indigenous peoples into the interior to give themselves easy access to the sea. Almost two centuries later, Britain took Guyana by force. It became one of the empire’s most lucrative colonies, powered first by slavery and then the indentured servitude of people from India, China, and Portugal. An 1823 rebellion led by enslaved people in Guyana is credited with contributing to the eventual abolition of slavery across the entire British Empire; in 1917, people in indentured servitude in Guyana successfully organized to force an end to that practice as well. In the 20th century, American corporations came to Guyana, mining for bauxite and gold. By the 1950s, they also hunted for oil, but decades of effort proved largely futile.
In 1992, Guyana held its first free and fair democratic election in decades. The new government, led by the leftist People’s Progressive Party, was eager to protect the country’s natural resources after centuries of colonial exploitation, and it saw environmental protection as part of a broader mission to secure social justice. At the time, Janki had just returned and been admitted to the national bar. She had no party affiliation or political connections. She was, she says, a “nobody.” But, in 1995, when Janki learned that the nation’s first-ever environmental laws were going to be drafted at an invitation-only conference, she knew she had to be there. A partner at the law firm where she worked was also the owner of one of Guyana’s two national newspapers, and he helped Janki finagle a press pass.
The conference was held at the Pegasus Hotel, a seven-story cylinder of blue glass and white steel that towers above Georgetown. No press accounts of the event can be found, and many of the participants have since died, but Janki recalls that there were about 100 attendees, most of them men, who droned through a series of forgettable presentations. What did catch her attention was the draft Environmental Protection Act. “When I got a look at what they were writing, I was absolutely horrified,” she says. In her view, the legislation was far too weak.
During a coffee break, Janki spied a special adviser to the president, Lakeram Chatarpaul, standing alone outside of the conference room. Janki was a lot shier then, she says, but in her recollection she “lobbied like mad and made quite a nuisance of myself.” Chatarpaul invited her to write to him. What she wrote worked: After he read her ideas, Janki was hired by the Inter-American Development Bank to draft the new law for the government.
Over many months, Janki adapted what she felt were the most robust environmental laws from around the world and “put in a raft of new provisions,” she says. She included the “polluter pays” and “precautionary” principles, which hold companies liable for the costs of cleaning up pollution and the government responsible for implementing measures to prevent environmental harm, even in the absence of “full scientific certainty.” Importantly, Janki defined the “environment” to include, among other things, the atmosphere and climate. “This was in 1995, when people were relatively unconcerned about greenhouse gas pollution, and the carbon majors were misleading people,” she says. She imbued the Environmental Protection Agency with significant authority, including the requirement that any proposed project, from mining to construction, had to include a detailed environmental impact assessment. If the assessments were found to be lacking, the EPA would have the power to reject projects outright, as well as the ability to put conditions into permits to ensure that the company’s operations did not conflict with Guyana’s international human-rights and environmental obligations. She also included far-reaching provisions for public access to information, participation, oversight, and compensation for harm, plus some other “visionary stuff in the act that nobody noticed.”
One striking example of “visionary stuff” was the introduction of the concept of natural capital into Guyanese law. Each year, the EPA is required to take a full accounting of the nation’s ecosystem—from wildlife to vegetation—and make it publicly available. This creates a baseline from which to measure both ecosystem value and potential harm. Natural capital is a direct challenge to gross domestic product, or how much a country produces, consumes, and exports—the prevailing measure for assessing a nation’s economic health. A rising GDP is often considered inherently positive, regardless of the human or environmental costs. When a forest is clear-cut, for instance, GDP increases due to the labor and machinery used and the timber sold. Natural capital, by contrast, considers the value of the trees to the climate, the animal species, and the people who call the forest home. Under this model, the forest’s destruction is a cost and its protection a benefit. While Janki’s law doesn’t require this entire calculation, simply introducing the concept was a significant step, which several other nations, including Botswana, Colombia, and Egypt, have since embraced.
In 1995, cyanide-filled mining waste spilled into the Essequibo River, killing fish and other animals and polluting the cropland on which Amerindian communities relied. The spill and others like it were attributed to a lack of meaningful environmental regulation, and they galvanized the nation to support the Environmental Protection Act, which was signed into law on June 5, 1996.
Two years later, the government turned to rewriting its constitution and solicited public submissions. Seizing the opportunity to embed strong environmental protections within the constitution itself, Janki wrote what she has described as “a statement of the obvious” that was ultimately included in the preamble: “The well-being for the nation depends upon preserving clean air, fertile soils, pure water, and the rich diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems.”
But it was the provisions that Janki lobbied to be included in the text of the constitution that were the most significant. Drawn largely from South Africa’s new postapartheid constitution, they conferred upon every Guyanese citizen “the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or well-being” and would hold the state responsible for protecting the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. They also required the courts to “pay due regard to international law, international conventions, covenants, and charters bearing on human rights.” These include human-rights obligations to clean air and water, life, and livelihoods. Taken together, these constitutional provisions are far stronger than the environmental protections found in most northern nations, including the US. “I don’t want to sound as if I am showing off,” says Janki, “but, really, it is all there.”
A few years later, an Arecuna tribal leader from the Upper Mazaruni area came to Janki’s law office seeking help to confront continued abuse from the mining industry. Janki turned her attention to building and securing the rights of these communities. She also worked as a consultant in drafting the 2006 Amerindian Act, providing for collective rights to land, natural resources, and self-determination. In academic and legal journals, she made the case that failing to fulfill human-rights obligations to life, health, water, food, nondiscrimination, and self-determination, including the rights of local communities to consent to policies and programs that directly affect them, “can be a trigger for environmental destruction.” She also contributed to the drafting of the Escazu Agreement, the first regional environmental treaty of Latin America and the Caribbean (ratified by 14 nations but open to all 33), “contributing to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development.”
Janki had expected that when the time came, Guyana’s government and citizenry would make use of the strong legal foundation she had helped build. She would soon learn that, at least when it came to oil, she was wrong.
READ THE FULL 6000 WORD FEATURE ARTICLE ON WIRED’S WEBSITE
This article appears in the February 2023 issue. Subscribe now.
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Antonia Juhasz is an award-winning investigative journalist and author who reports from the front lines of fossil fuels, conflict, and the climate crisis.