Shielding Guyana's Rainforest


The black caiman is just one of the endangered species that inhabits the Guiana Shield.

Back in November, the president of Guyana, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, offered the entirety of his country's rainforest to a British-led international body in return for help with development. Jagdeo was searching for alternatives to an obvious, but morally objectionable solution.

"Maybe we should just cut down the trees. Then someone would recognize the problem," said Mr Jagdeo. "But I want to think we can fulfill our people's aspirations without cutting down the trees."

British officials accepted the terms, and have been working out just how much the rainforest is worth in economic terms. Tomorrow the deal will be revealed.

Guyana is being compensated for one million acres of the Iwokrama ("place of refuge") rainforest, a crucial habitat for endangered plants and animals like the harpy eagle and the black caiman. Iwokrama is a portion of the international Guiana Shield, one of the world's four distinct rainforests, which also reaches into Surinam, Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia.

This is a move that has been discussed in detail by ecologists, environmentalists, economists and politicians in recent years, but it seems that this is the first real attempt to work out a monetary value for what's being called "ecosystem services", which I take to be the forest's use in processing carbon. President Jagdeo was very careful in framing his offer as a climate change issue, which, of course, affects the whole world. It's a smart move on his part. He's riding a moral responsibility wave, endearing himself and his country to the environmentally-concerned in the world instead of following in the destructive footsteps of countries like Brazil, where so much of the rainforest is still being plowed for development.

In a way, the climate change frame makes me a bit sad. Politically and socially it's a better tool to stimulate action since it potentially threatens us, but the view of the Iwokrama as a sink for our pollution is depressing and ideologically ignorant. It should be protected because it's still wild, because of its evolutionary and ecological importance, because further deforestation will limit territories and increase edge effects, leading to the further endangerment of dozens of species and cutting us off from a vital source of our natural history as well as scientific and medical research.

But I'm being naïve. Even if the forest's inherent value as a wilderness and a scientific resource aren't acknowledged, it is still being protected. That's what's important.

I'm curious to see what comes of this plan. Potentially, it could be a lamppost for other economically struggling countries to request assistance in such a manner, which might give the world a bit more control over what happens to environmental hot spots as well as assist countries that need aid (Guyana is still recovering from the flooding in 2005 which ruined crops and displaced residents). Money can be a great motivator.

On the other side of the coin, I could see how it could be sending the wrong message to the world. It doesn't exactly engender a sense of conservation/preservation responsibility for a country's unique natural areas.

As a nitpicky aside, the article claims that 80 percent of Guyana is covered in rainforest, which is not entirely true. Loosely defined, forest covers about 80 percent of the country, but this includes lowland evergreen forests and montane forests.

Photo by Jason Buberal.

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Yeah, everytime an officail is apid to do something in guyana, the money is siphoned off to their pwersonal back accounts somewhere else. guyana's rainforest is beautiful and authentic. we have the most species of birds in a single region that anywhere else. it so needs protecting.

Paying third world government officials for not destroying their rain forests. Sounds like this will end well. So how does it get enforced both at the international and local levels? What happens when Jagdeo and his cronies siphon off the payments, flee to the Caymans and another group takes over? Does the West give into environmental extortion or do we use a covert action to replace the government? How about a simple invasion?

Perhaps they should pay individual farmers for not destroying the forest, not the government.