(Reprinted from BBC)
From a height of 8,000ft (2,500m), the mighty Amazon can be seen giving way to swathes of grassland, as the Rupununi savannah opens up.
Spanning thousands of acres of virtually untouched plains, rain-forested mountains, Amerindian villages and rare wildlife, it’s one of the brightest jewels in Guyana’s tourism crown.
Venezuela wants all of this – and more. It has long maintained it has a legitimate claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s current territory.
That encompasses 250,000 people in 700 villages and communities, the formidable Kaieteur Falls – the world’s highest single-drop waterfall – and most of Guyana’s precious mineral resources to boot.
The decades-old dispute could now be a step closer to being resolved, after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon promised to deliver an assessment before he leaves office at the end of December. He was responding to renewed calls to intervene from Guyanese President David Granger at September’s UN General Assembly in New York.
The bitter dispute has its roots in border lines drawn up by former colonial powers. While Guyana accepts a 1899 tribunal ruling, Venezuela insists the process was flawed by political collusion, staking a claim over the entire Essequibo county – “Cinderella county” to Guyanese – everything west of the Essequibo river.
Guyana’s gifts to the world
Vast amounts of offshore oil discovered in the Stabroek Block, 120 miles (200km) out into the Atlantic, by Guyanese subsidiaries of ExxonMobil reignited and widened the spat in May 2015.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro promptly issued a decree of sovereignty over waters off the Essequibo region and demanded a stop to oil exploration. A subsequent find in June this year was also estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars. ExxonMobil told the BBC it would not comment on “proprietary commercial” issues.
Guyana says the ongoing feud is hindering the country’s development as it wrestles with a crippling housing crisis and high youth unemployment, despite being recently recognised by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income nation.
Around the Rupununi’s dusty laterite roads, linking tiny indigenous settlements and the commercial centre of Lethem, the sun assaults the bleached savannah grasses. The Kanuku mountains turn violet in the haze.
This is south-western Guyana, far away from the capital, Georgetown, and people here laugh off the claims of what they consider their truculent, acquisitive neighbour.
“It’s only the politicians we ever hear talk about it,” says Linda Khan, owner of the Savannah Inn hotel and store. “I have been here since 1976 and nobody has ever come from Venezuela and said they’re going to take this land. The only Venezuelans we see are the ones who come searching for food because of shortages back home.”
Thomas George, from the nearby Amerindian village of Mocu Mocu, agrees. “We hear about it in the news; it rises and it dies again. But it doesn’t make us feel vulnerable – we ain’t giving up the mountains.”
Back in Georgetown, national sentiment is rather more vitriolic. The ubiquitous slogan “Essequibo is we own” clamours for attention from banners and bumper stickers alike.
The 117th anniversary of the 1899 ruling on 3 October sparked another war of words between the two countries. The Kaieteur News quoted Venezuela’s government as lambasting Guyana for using “lies and subterfuge” to ramp up hostility.
Guyana’s foreign ministry immediately issued a statement decrying a “frenzied display of ill temper” from Venezuela – which it dubs the “new conquistadors” with a “greed for territory”.
“As far as we’re concerned, the border was settled in 1899,” Guyana’s Vice-President Sydney Allicock tells the BBC. “Every time Venezuela has economic problems, they work up their people to get support for the border issue. Now we have found oil they’re doing it again.”
He says that revenue generated from the oil could dramatically improve Guyana’s essential infrastructure and food security.
“Venezuela is already big; they are blocking us from developing,” he says, adding: “This has been going on far too long. We need to settle it – and we won’t give up.”
During last month’s address to the UN, President Granger reiterated pleas for the dispute to be referred to the International Court of Justice for a final settlement.
Venezuela has often said it prefers the route of the UN’s Good Offices process – diplomatic discussions involving a third party acceptable to both sides.
Only time can predict the fate of Cinderella county, the pearl of the nation. (G