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‘Black gold’ a blessing or curse?

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,Poverty-striken: A general view of the Staatsolie refinery owned by Suriname State Oil Company. South American neighbours Guyana and Suriname say they have no choice but to cash in as potential oil powers while they can. — AFP

PARAMARIBO (SURINAME): Emerging as potential oil powers while the world seeks to wean itself off planet-warming fossil fuels, poverty-stricken South American neighbours Guyana and Suriname say they have to cash in while they can.

The former Dutch colonies are among the world’s most tree-covered countries, hosts to the so-called forest “lungs” that sequester massive amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide.Their economies and populations small, the countries have traditionally emitted little CO2 or other greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel use – in fact Suriname is one of only three carbon-negative countries in the world and Guyana claims carbon neutrality.

But some fear this could change with the recent discovery of rich offshore oil deposits in an area known as the Guyana-Suriname Basin.

Guyana, a country of 800,000 people, was recently found to have proven reserves of at least 10 billion barrels of oil, likely much more according to experts.

This makes it the country with the highest reserves per capita in the world - which consumes 99.4 million barrels of oil per day.

Early assessments suggest the reserves of Suriname, a country of 600,000 people, may not be far behind.

“It will be hard to remain carbon neutral as a country (involved in the) petroleum sector,” economist Steven Debipersad of the Anton de Kom University in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo, told AFP.

The projected US$10bil (RM47.16bil) Suriname stands to make in the next 10 to 20 years, will likely bring economic growth at the cost of the environment, he said.

The country’s gross domestic product today is about US$3bil (RM14.15bil).

Their presidents insist Guyana and Suriname cannot be expected to turn their backs on a chance to fill their countries’ coffers and raise the quality of life for their people.

The countries are among the poorest in South America, with vast swathes of their populations living without electricity, clean water or access to adequate health services.

In a Paramaribo ghetto named Texas, dirty sewer water flows among dilapidated wooden homes.

Resident Edison Poekitie, a 23-year-old musician, scrapes by on no more than US$50 (RM236) a week. Does he go hungry?

“Every day!” he told AFP. “It’s hard out here, really hard.”

The community, he added, needs “water pipes, cables, new roads without potholes, schools, better houses, playgrounds.”

Poekitie said he hoped the government would spend the oil money “wisely,” a sentiment echoed by 45-year-old food truck owner Brian Braithwaite in a poor neighbourhood of the Guyanese capital Georgetown.

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