Much of Guyana’s Almond Beach has been washed away, but a few residents stay behind to protect the turtles also losing their home

A Hawksbill hatchling on Almond Beach, September 9, 2023. Photo by News Room Inc., courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

By Vishani Ragobeer

This story was originally published by NewsRoom and recently won the award for Best Climate Justice Story in Climate Tracker's inaugural Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Awards. A version of the story is published below with permission.

The Indigenous community of Almond Beach is one of 10 beaches along the 75-mile-long Shell Beach Protected Area in Barima-Waini, located in Guyana's Region One. Every year, you can find four endangered species of sea turtles nesting there: the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas).

Conservation stakeholders, such as Guyana’s Protected Areas Commission (PAC) and residents of Almond Beach, are among those who help protect the turtles and their hatchlings during the annual nesting season from February to August. Over the past few years, however, the coastline along Almond Beach and other parts of the Shell Beach Protected Area has been eroding at an increasingly fast rate, posing challenges for both the residents and the turtles that have grown accustomed to nesting there.

“Over the years, Almond Beach was one of the best places. People across the globe know about [the beach] because of the sea turtle nesting,” said Almond Beach Community Development Council Chairman Arnold Benjamin, adding that the erosion has significantly affected life at Almond Beach.

Between 1991 and 1997, he explained, about 150 people lived on the beach. Because of population growth, several facilities were constructed, including a school, a church, and a recreational area. By 2005, the school was dismantled and moved further inland because the coastline had receded. “It was really rapid,” Benjamin said. “It forced people to move. We lost about two miles [of land], farms, [and] coconut trees.”

Almond Beach Community Development Council Chairman Arnold Benjamin, September 9, 2023. Photo by News Room Inc., courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

Over the next decade, the erosion continued and residents moved further inland. Eventually, Benjamin said, they asked the government not to bother with dismantling and reconstructing the school, calling it a “waste of money” as families started leaving the beach. Benjamin is among those who believe Almond Beach residents are climate migrants since erosion, either as a result of or worsened by climatic changes, forced them to migrate.

What is causing the erosion?

Based on data collected and analysed between 2019 and 2023, the PAC, which oversees Guyana's protected areas, found that parts of the coastline had been washed away by the Atlantic Ocean. In 2019, the Shell Beach coastline had a mass area of about 1.3 miles (2 kilometres); by 2022, it was reduced to a mass area of about 0.7 miles (1.1 km).

Changes to the shoreline at the Shell Beach Protected Area between 2019 and 2022. Photo by the Protected Areas Commission, courtesy Climate Tracker and News Room Inc., used with permission.

The beach is eroding from the eastern end, while accretion, which is the dumping of the materials washed away, is happening at the western end. These coastal changes are part of a seemingly natural 30-year cycle, but the PAC also noted that they “are believed to be a result of climatic changes which have resulted in stronger ocean currents and intense wave action.”

PAC’s data also revealed that 70 people lived there in 2014; at the beginning of 2023, only three families remained.

Residents help save the turtles

The Thornhills are among those who stayed behind. Leonard Thornhill moved from Moruca, a Region One inland community, to Almond Beach about 35 years ago.

“Over the years,” he said, “[the erosion] wasn’t affecting us like how it is [now]. Back then, he remembered the rate of erosion as being slow. Over the past two years, however, he says residents have “experienced it moving very fast.”

Leonard Thornhill near his Almond Beach home on September 9, 2023. Photo by News Room Inc. courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

Thornhill said life as he knows it is on Almond Beach, so moving would be very difficult: “Most of my children, they born and grow on Shell Beach, so it’s kinda hard to take them from here to somewhere strange.” Seine nets are scattered around his wooden house, indications of how he makes a living on the beach; his farms are located further inland.

“We got our ‘lil farmlands, but you can see the erosion taking place,” he said. “We will still remain until whenever.” As long as he is on the beach, Thornhill also wants to help monitor and protect the turtles that nest there — and he has been doing just that.

In mid-September, when most of the PAC rangers left the beach, Thornhill found a few hawksbill hatchlings. He instinctively collected them and kept them safe in his yellow bucket at his house until nightfall, when they could be left to safely venture into the ocean. If he hadn’t picked them up, intense sunlight or stray dogs might have harmed them.

Thornhill, like all Almond Beach residents, understands the importance of protecting these endangered species. Seeta Augustus, for example, grew up at the beach with her family. She relocated to attend a secondary school in Mabaruma, a town about 30 miles inland, but recently returned as a ranger on the beach, helping to protect the turtles.

Almond Beach resident Seeta Augustus. Photo by News Room Inc, courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

Augustus can tell you many facts about the turtles, and also knows about the changes the community has grappled with because of the erosion — changes that make her emotional. “It’s very sad to know because it’s my hometown. I born and grow up here, and now everything is washing away, and it’s very hard to see, like, everybody moving away. It’s really hurting,” she said, trying to laugh away tears.

Coastal changes in Guyana

The Shell Beach Protected Area which hugs the Atlantic Ocean is part of Guyana’s low coastal plain, one of the country’s four natural regions. The fact that the plain is itself below sea level makes it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Along other parts of the coast, especially near more populated, urban areas, there are sea defences like mangroves and sea walls, which are necessary to help protect the coastline and its residents. Even so, the 2021 World Bank report “360° Resilience: A Guide to Prepare the Caribbean for a New Generation of Shocks” found that Guyana could well be facing the Caribbean’s second-highest level of shoreline retreat if high climate change impacts persist. The country risks losing 65 metres (0.040 miles) of its shoreline by 2050; only neighbouring Suriname, with an estimated retreat of 71 metres (0.044 miles) risks losing more.

Local scientist and engineer Dr. Kofi Dalrymple has been studying the impact of climate change and sea level rise on coastal erosion for years and says that although the shoreline naturally evolves through a process of erosion and accretion, climate change is exacerbating that. In the case of Guyana’s coastal plain, much of the area was formerly marshland where the Atlantic Ocean would have naturally covered and receded over time.

Scientist Dr. Kofi Dalrymple (left) and journalist Vishani Ragobeer, October 23, 2023. Photo by News Room Inc., courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

With land development on the coast, however, Dalrymple said the ocean has been kept “at bay” instead of allowing it to flow in and out naturally. “What climate change does to that natural process is, as the sea rises, its ability to go further inland increases. So there is a direct link between rising sea levels and, sort of, coastline recession.” He added that more research specific to Shell Beach would prove insightful. A study of wave intensity and coastline changes, for instance, would help stakeholders grasp just how climate change is impacting the Protected Area.

The PAC says that erosion has already “drastically” decreased the Almond Beach coastline and forced residents to migrate, though it still believes that Almond Beach (and the wider Shell Beach) still serves as a “viable ground for nesting sea turtles.”

Is inland migration a must?

The situation is a bit more complicated for those who still live there. Liston Augustus, Seeta’s father, recently retired after decades of being a teacher. He knows he should probably move more inland, but fishing and farming on the beach are his main sources of income: “I have to try because I don’t really have any other alternative to where we can go. When the water reach[es] 10 metres, we normally break down our house and move away. This is the third time now we move away. It happens like every three years or so depending on how fast the water comes in.”

Liston Augustus (right) with journalist Vishani Ragobeer, September 9, 2023. Photo by News Room Inc., courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

As long as the turtles continue nesting along Shell Beach, there will be efforts to monitor and protect them, but for the remaining residents who face losing their homes and livelihoods, inland migration may be their best bet. According to Arnold Benjamin, an area at Khan’s Hill, another Indigenous community found much closer to Mabaruma, is being prepared for the families at Almond Beach — it remains to be seen who will move and who will stay.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.