Guyana is the kind of place where anteaters and jaguars amble across the road, where Amerindians still follow the rhythms of the land, where you can sidle up to the very edge of a 740-foot waterfall and peer into the abyss. I’ve had countless wild encounters during my two trips to this country on South America’s Caribbean coastline several years ago: harpy eagles with mohawk feathers riffling; a piranha jumping into my boat; huge caiman hunting capybaras who came down to the river to drink. I had the good fortune to see these wonders, and many more, thanks to my Amerindian hosts who guided jungle hikes and river trips.
Guyana is so wild that it makes you realize the extent to which most other places have been extensively altered by industrial development. About 75 percent of the country is covered with primary forests, in part because 90 percent of its people live along the coastline and in the capital city, Georgetown. The country’s interior – accessible only by rivers, bush planes, and one main dirt road that connects it to Brazil – is covered by rainforests and savannahs. Numerous Amerindian groups call this land home, including the Makushi, Wapishana, Waiwai, and Patamona peoples.
Nature remains largely unmolested here due to extremely low population density – just three-quarters of a million people in an area the size of Idaho – and because the country has sought to keep its wilderness intact by adopting an alternative, sustainable development model that seeks to conserve the forest and eventually transition to using 100 percent renewable energy.
This model is funded largely by Norway, through a United Nations program known as redd+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus Conservation and Sustainable Management) that provides performance-based payments for forest preservation and restoration efforts. The idea behind redd+ is that putting an economic value on forests for the role they play in capturing and storing carbon dioxide allows standing forests to compete with other typically lucrative uses of forestlands, like agriculture or logging, which are the main drivers of deforestation.
Guyana was the first nation to adopt a countrywide redd+ initiative back in 2009. And while the effort has seen some successes – the country’s deforestation rate has remained low in the intervening years – the initiative’s seemingly simple promise of payments for forest conservation has been complicated by shifting internal politics, inadequate attention to Indigenous peoples’ rights, international aid bureaucracy, and global market forces hungry for Guyana’s gold, tropical hardwood, and recently discovered offshore oil reserves.
Squashed between Venezuela and Suriname, with Brazil to the south, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. The former British colony gained independence from the United Kingdom relatively late, in 1966, and has been struggling ever since to bolster its small economy. With a per capita annual income of around $4,000, it is one of South America’s poorest countries.
Guyana wants economic development, but so far it has been cautious of losing the forests and biodiversity that make it special. In 2009, then-president Bharrat Jagdeo, an economist by training, pushed for a radical idea that had been discussed at the 2007 climate talks in Bali: payments for conservation. Though the un redd program had so far been used to compensate countries such as Brazil and Indonesia for halting logging, he asked: Why should Guyana be excluded because it has been a good steward of its forests?
Jagdeo, with the help of the consultancy firm McKinsey, developed an “economically rational baseline” for international payments to Guyana: $580 million annually over 25 years. The premise: If Guyana followed the standard development path – logging its forests, then turning to agriculture – how much would it earn? If the global community wanted Guyana to maintain its forests as a critical carbon sink and treasure vault of biodiversity, then it should pay what the country could otherwise earn.
To reassure the world that money for Guyana would be well spent, Jagdeo’s plan centered on a “Low Carbon Development Strategy” that would see the country invest in organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, business outsourcing, ecotourism, and other relatively low-carbon forms of development. The plan also included building hydropower – which would require clearing some forested lands – to cut fossil fuel use. In 2009, Norway stepped up with a commitment to support forest conservation in Guyana, offering the country up to $250 million by 2015.
Some criticized Jagdeo for “blackmailing” the world. But, after much negotiation, in 2010 at the cop-16 climate negotiations in Cancun, the world agreed that developing countries should receive financial payments not just for reducing deforestation but also for conserving existing forests, managing them sustainably, and enhancing forest carbon stocks, a policy known as redd+. The Guyana-Norway agreement was folded into this program. Guyana began receiving funds through redd+ for projects aimed at conserving forests, building climate resilience and developing alternative employment opportunities, such as aquaculture and ecotourism, for forest-dependent communities.
Across the world, unsettled Indigenous land rights have been a critical stumbling block in implementing conservation programs. It’s been no different in Guyana, where Indigenous Amerindians make up 9 percent of the country’s ethnic mix. Nearly 90 percent of Guyana’s 50,000 Amerindians live in the country’s interior, where most of the forest lies. Many have title rights to their land – but often only to their villages, not to individual homesteads beyond the village border or to the wider customary lands they use for hunting and foraging.
The Amerindian-titled lands that are recognized make up about 14 percent of Guyana’s territory. But even titled lands are not always respected. A 2016 study by the Indigenous advocacy organization Amerindian Peoples Association Guyana (apa) found that the Guyanese government had granted mining and logging concessions on large swaths of the Amerindian’s titled lands as well as their customary hunting and foraging lands – often without free, prior, and informed consent from them, as is required by international law. The country’s Indigenous groups are now pushing the government to recognize those wider land rights and to comply with international human rights law.
Under the Guyana-Norway agreement, Indigenous villages were given the choice to “opt in” to the redd+ initiative if they wished to receive payments for their conservation efforts. Three of the villages I visited on my ecotourism jaunts – Surama, Rewa, and Annai – were among those keen to opt in, according to David Singh, executive director of Conservation International Guyana.
“Annai has measured their carbon,” Singh says. “They have calculated how much money they can get for their forest.” But the opt-in document was finalized only this summer. Such bureaucratic delays prevented Annai and other nearby communities from getting credit for several small enterprise projects they’ve already undertaken, says Mike Williams, vice chair of the North Rupununi District Development Board (nrddb), a nonprofit that represents 20 Indigenous communities.
Williams, who belongs to the Makushi community and is a former toshao (village leader) of Annai, also points out that the government is planning large-scale agriculture on North Rupununi’s savannah grasslands. The nrddb objects to this plan because the proposed land lies adjacent to their titled villages and in the headwaters of the Rupununi River, an area that floods during the wet season.
The discovery of oil, though at odds with Guyana’s green ambitions, isn’t likely
to scuttle its emissions targets.
“The farmers will use insecticides and pesticides, and it will affect the fishes, the mammals, the birds,” Williams says, “and of course, our livelihood depends on the water, fishes, mammals, birds.” Doing this kind of development in “the hinterlands” is ill conceived, Williams says. “Everyone knows the savannahs are not rich [soils].” A better place for agriculture, he says, would be along the coast, where land has proved its productivity over centuries of growing sugar. Instead, today, those areas are being developed for housing, he says. The new coastal homes are also at risk of flooding and inundation from sea level rise.
At a meeting a few months ago at the Annai benab, a traditional open-air structure made of local materials for community meetings and events, Williams told representatives from the International Development Bank, which has been funding such agriculture projects: “We want protection for the North Rupununi wetlands, and we do not want any more large-scale agricultural land to be given away.”
A national election in 2015 led to a change in the governing party. As priorities shifted, new President David Granger replaced the country’s Low Carbon Development Strategy with his own Green State Development Strategy.
The new strategy could be a positive development, says Hege Ragnhildstveit, senior adviser for Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, noting that it incorporates Guyana’s commitments in the Paris agreement on climate change and UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nevertheless, the political change has slowed momentum on development work as the new government decides how it wants to move forward.
One key difference in the two development approaches lies in how they envision transitioning to nearly 100 percent renewable energy by 2025, a goal that was part of the deal Guyana had signed with Norway in 2009, says Per Pharo, special envoy for Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. Former President Jagdeo’s People’s Progressive Party had proposed a hydropower project, Amaila Falls, at the confluence of the Amaila and Kuribrong rivers, about 155 miles southwest of Georgetown. But the new government is distancing itself from Amaila Falls, Pharo says. “They’re claiming it’s too expensive.”
The Granger government may also be put off by the dam’s environmental and social impacts. Amaila Falls has a much smaller footprint than earlier proposed dams in the region, but it would still flood nine square miles of forest and impact local Patamona Indigenous communities. According to the apa website, people who attended meetings held by the original project developer, Sithe Global, said that the company “focused solely on the alleged benefits of the dam and that they [the attendees] still feel unaware of how it can negatively affect them.” Sithe Global has since pulled out of the project, but feasibility studies continue. The new government is also considering alternative hydropower projects, as well as solar and wind. “They’re coming around to seeing that they can’t necessarily solve Guyana’s power problems with one or two dams,” Ragnhildstveit says.
Pharo isn’t quite as optimistic. The Granger government has “basically muddied the waters, so to speak, regarding their energy future,” he says. “Would it be low carbon or not? We are in a waiting mode.”
The waters have been further muddied by ExxonMobil’s recent discovery of more than 2 billion barrels of oil off Guyana’s coast. The company plans to install eight production wells that would produce 120,000 barrels daily and projects that it could start drilling in 2018. Guyana’s Environmental Assessment Board still needs to approve the project, but Calvin Bernard, dean of the biology department at the University of Guyana and member of the Transparency Institute of Guyana, says that is unlikely to be a roadblock given the intense political pressure to show some monetary benefit to the Guyanese people ahead of national elections in 2020.
If drilling does go ahead, Guyana will receive a 2 percent royalty on gross earnings and 50 percent of oil proceeds, which at current market rates adds up to $1 million a day in oil revenues. While this isn’t much by international standards, it will make this small country rich. However, because most of the oil would be destined for export, and country emissions are tallied based on what it emits on the ground, the oil find is unlikely to scuttle Guyana’s emissions reductions targets – even if it is at odds with the spirit of a low-carbon development strategy.
With a nod to Norway’s own oil production, Pharo acknowledges, “It would be bordering on the hypocritical if we told them not to develop their oil resources.”
Nevertheless, some Guyanese fear the resource curse. “Having a lot of revenue coming in from oil is not necessarily good for Guyana,” says Bernard, who is concerned not only about the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction and use, but also about how the money could exacerbate corruption. “Our ranking in the transparency index is quite low,” he says, citing the Corruption Perceptions Index of the institute’s parent organization, Transparency International. “We are [nearly] the worst in the English-speaking Caribbean.” Norway’s redd+ funds haven’t fallen into this trap in large part because they’ve been difficult to access, he says.
Difficulty in accessing funds has, in fact, been another roadblock for Guyana’s redd+ initiative. Though 2015 – the year in which Norway’s initial investment was meant to end – has come and gone, only two-thirds of the money promised has been dispersed. Norway has been releasing money for projects identified under the Low Carbon Development Strategy (and now the Green State Development Strategy) through the Guyana redd+ Investment Fund (grif). International institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank provide financial intermediary services to grif. These institutions “have stringent requirements that have proved difficult for [the] Guyanese to meet,” slowing the disbursal process, says Bernard. Furthermore, he says, the process has been much more complex than the Guyanese were led to believe. “Because if you’re paying me for a service I provide, then I [should be able to] determine how, when, and what I use my money for,” he says. “That’s clearly not the case. Someone else is determining that.”
Stakeholder meetings to discuss this problem resulted in the suggestion that Norway open its own overseas development office in Guyana. That way, funds would come directly from the Norwegian government to Guyanese organizations, rather than going through a middle entity like the World Bank. Despite these challenges, Norway remains committed to the project. “Our minister met with President Granger in Marrakech [in November 2016]. They looked at a longer-term partnership,” Ragnhildstveit says.
Flying over Guyana’s “broccoli forest” in a tiny propeller plane, one can see that the sea of green is broken by brash, red-dirt scars, where trees have been cleared by miners. Gold mining has been the main driver of deforestation in Guyana’s wilderness, and poorly monitored logging has also taken a toll.
Sustainable forestry, which allows some logging, is part of the current government’s Green State plan just as it was part of Jagdeo’s plan. It’s easy to understand why: Guyana’s forests have desirable hardwoods, such as greenheart, purpleheart, and wamara, a substitute for rosewood that has been overharvested elsewhere.
Though Guyana has stringent regulations on the use of forest resources, they are not always followed or enforced. Last year, for instance, the new Guyana Forestry Commission board revoked permits for Bai Shan Lin, a Chinese timber company that was logging “willy-nilly” for several years, says Conservation International’s Singh. The company was managing over 627,000 hectares of logging concessions in the country.
Williams of nrddb says that Indigenous people near the villages of Apoteri and Rewa in his region were affected by the Chinese logging concessions, which were contiguous with their titled land. “They began building a road without any consultation or any knowledge of the people,” in violation of the Amerindian Act, which protects Amerindian rights, he says. Bai Shan Lin was ultimately booted out of Guyana in part due to the nrddb’s lobbying power, he says. nrddb is currently pressing the government to extend Indigenous land rights around Apoteri and Rewa.
Unlike logging, much of the mining activity is illegal and small scale, done by people, including Amerindians, who lack other prospects and cannot or will not manage tailings (toxic materials left over from mining) or carry out restoration after extraction. Even legally-sanctioned mining can be problematic. The Amerindian People’s Association alleges that in many cases mining rights have been issued to third parties on Amerindian lands without Indigenous peoples’ informed consent.
Mining activity increased radically in the country when gold prices soared after the 2008 global recession. In 2012, when mining was at its peak, the country lost 14,655 hectares of forest cover. The numbers have dropped since, but unauthorized as well as legally sanctioned mining continues to impact Guyana’s forests. (Under Guyana’s agreement with Norway, some forest loss is permissible. redd+ payments are reduced only if deforestation levels rise above an agreed upon threshold.)
In an effort to improve mining standards, Conservation International is working with Guyana’s gold and diamond miners’ associations to outline strategies for “sustainable” gold mining. Despite reservations about a conservation nonprofit working with the very industries that destroy or disturb habitat, given that gold mining is a big employer in Guyana, some say it makes sense to play on organized miners’ interests in order to bring illegal mining under their umbrella.
“It’s an innovative partnership, one could say,” remarks Ragnhildstveit, who is hopeful that the effort will be able to address the “underlying economic factors” behind illegal mining. Bernard of the Transparency Institute calls these steps positive, but points out that Guyana has “fairly good environmental regulations in relation to the mining sector.” The problem, he says, is enforcement. The Guyana Geology and Mines Commission is so understaffed that it can’t effectively monitor mining activity.
Despite all these challenges, Guyana and Norway seem committed to continuing with their ambitious redd+ partnership. Stakeholders on both sides agree that while progress has been slow and bumpy, it is moving forward.
For some, a key marker of progress is statistical – as of 2015, the last year for which data has been collected and independently verified, the country’s deforestation rate had dropped below its peak of 0.079 during the 2012 mining boom to 0.065 percent. For others, the evidence is more experiential – tied to the fact that, in the dense jungles of this small nation, howler monkeys still whoop during predawn hours, hundreds of parrots fly in to “Parrot Island” in the Essequibo River to roost at dusk, brilliant turquoise Morpho butterflies waft in the dark, steamy understory throughout the day, and people continue to live and thrive among the trees.
Erica Gies writes about science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco.
A version of this article appeared in the online journal Re.think.
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