By Elsa Cromarty, Coordinator of Mercy Associates in Guyana
This story is fifth in a series highlighting how the Sisters of Mercy are addressing the seven goals of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ Action Platform.
The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together….In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet….The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor.
(Laudato Si’, paragraph 48)
This quote from Laudato Si’ reminds us that we and Earth are one. We are indispensably connected, and human actions, good or bad, decisively affect our relationship with the environment.
There is an ancient chant that I was taught many years ago by a British Jesuit novice who visited the parish youth group that I belonged to in Georgetown, Guyana: “Oh, Great Spirit, Earth and sea and sky, you are inside and all around me.’’ Sung repeatedly, it was a chant that reminded us of our connection as humankind, environment and Spirit that holds and binds us together. It was a chant that brought me considerable peace, as I recognized my connection with Earth, and remembered the wisdom of our ancient peoples.
Recently, a retreat series with the Sisters of Mercy on extractivism—the unearthing of oil, gas, and minerals from our wounded planet with little regard for people made poor—made me realize how far we humans have drifted from the wisdom of our ancient peoples. This realization has filled me with urgency. I must find ways to respond to the cries of the Guyanese people who are most affected by this destruction, including Indigenous communities in my country’s rural areas and young families in the urban ones.
Living in the city, comfortably, I find it easy to compartmentalize my life or “mind my own business.” Church, work, home each occupy my time, and I occasionally advocate for a cause or throw myself into caring for people who are poor and needy. But as a Mercy associate, I feel increasingly called to integrate my life around caring for Earth and its most vulnerable people in Guyana and beyond. For without a healthy planet where everyone thrives, we all will eventually be lost.
Guyana’s oil reserves and minerals, including gold, diamonds, titanium and bauxite, draw many people from outside the country. About six years ago, one of the world’s largest oil deposits was discovered in Guyana. This oil is of high quality, but the agreement struck between ExxonMobil Oil and the government of Guyana gave the country a small fraction of the profits. What preoccupies many Guyanese is the notion that we have been cheated (U.S. President Joe Biden recently noted that ExxonMobil Oil “made more money than God” last year). There is less concern about exposure to carbons, which is deadly to all of us.
Mining processes used to extract Guyana’s gold and other minerals have polluted the water in the Indigenous villages. Amerindian people can no longer use the water the way they used to. They are a minority, and their cries to continue their traditions and practices without interference of their ancestral environment go unheeded as governments negotiate bigger and better deals…alas, for only a few. Their cries remain unheeded.
Corruption is evident as government officials “make things happen” for foreign companies and generally not for the benefit of the people who are quickly becoming second-class citizens in their own country. Guyanese workers and migrant workers do not enjoy some of the same privileges as expatriate workers, who are mostly Americans, Europeans and Venezuelans. I recently heard a story about expat workers at a company eating before other local workers; the story may have been exaggerated but reflects the challenges of social difference.
Expats live in exclusive or gated communities and other wealthy neighborhoods; their presence in Guyana in recent years has led to the building of expensive apartments whose high rents are beyond the reach of young local couples starting out in life. If local people are seen in such neighborhoods, they are viewed with suspicion. A story shared by a young Guyanese woman of color who is a journalist is illustrative; she was in such a neighborhood and was questioned as to whether she lived there, as if she did not have to right to be in the neighborhood.
Conversations about how the extractive industry has disrupted the balance of our people and environment is a challenge. As I listen to the cries of people in my country made poor by the impact of such industries, I turn to the Sisters of Mercy and my fellow Mercy Associates. With them I find the courage to act to bring about holistic, nonviolent change.
Let us all join efforts to ensure that Jesus’s promise of “abundant life” become a reality for all of Earth’s people and all of Earth’s creatures, and for Earth itself! Let our chant be, ‘‘Oh, Great Spirit, Earth and sea and sky, you are inside and all around me.’’