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The Guiana Shield, the ‘greenhouse of the world’

Auyna Tepui in Parque Nacional Canaima, part of the Guiana Shield. Photo by Christoph Kühnhanss via Wikimedia Commons.

Auyna Tepui in Parque Nacional Canaima, part of the Guiana Shield. Photo by Christoph Kühnhanss via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Covering 270 million hectares, the Guiana Shield encompasses Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela and small parts of Colombia and northern Brazil
  • Some experts are warning against ‘commoditizing nature’ in the case of the Shield
  • Indigenous populations could play a key role in the Shield’s future health

GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Along the northern coast of South America the small nation of Guyana sits nestled roughly south of Venezuela and north of Brazil. Referred to as the “Lost Land of the Jaguar” in a 2008 BBC TV documentary, Guyana is one of six countries that comprise the much-revered Guiana Shield.

The Shield is an eco-region that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes as being of “regional and global significance,”and is home to a variety of ecosystems and “keystone species of biodiversity.”

Covering 270 million hectares, the Shield encompasses Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela and small parts of Colombia and northern Brazil. The more than two billion year-old geological formation represents 18 percent of the world’s tropical forest carbon and 20 percent of the world’s fresh water allowing it to capture large quantities of carbon dioxide.

Guyana’s president, David Granger, has described the Guiana Shield as not only essential to enriching and replenishing the world’s biodiversity but as consequently essential to the planet’s survival.

With an economy heavily dependent upon extractive industries and recently discovered oil reserves however, the Shield may be at risk due to the inability of environmental agencies to effectively monitor operations within its area.

Map of the Guiana Shield. Wikimedia Commons


Guyana’s Minister of Governance, Raphael Trotman, credits illegal mining operations in the gold industry as being one of the main drivers of forest degradation in the Shield, given their large numbers spread out across the area. According to Trotman, this is due to the operations usage of mercury in trying to obtain the natural resource, which leaves the land bare and unable to sustain life.

While agreeing that illegal mining operations contribute heavily to the damage sustained to the Shield, there are other dangers.

Vanessa Benn, director of resource management and training at Iwokrama International Centre and vice president of the Guyana Society for Biodiversity and Ecosystems said more needs to be done. For Benn, even with all of the country’s combined extractive industries such as logging and mining, the risks to the Shield are not major but monitoring should be improved.

“One significant thing we need to remember is that in the mining sector, the historical methods have been changed over time with supposed advanced technology from countries such as Brazil who have more invasive techniques,” said Benn. “An example of this is river mining – Guyana was never involved in this. Still, even this is not to an extent which should cause alarm.”

Despite the small amount of contamination, extractive industries have impacted not only the Shield’s large expanses of fresh water and soil but also indigenous tribes who often rely on it for a living in relation to fishing, hunting and planting.

According to Benn, there is an inability to properly monitor small and large-scale extractive industries due to the industries’ continuous movements and a lack of funding for monitoring.  She believes that with proper monitoring, there will be a drastic decline in the damage to the Shield caused by pollutants such as mercury and cyanide and the ability to curb illegal operations and impose sanctions upon legal ones not following environmental laws.

We need to have in place proper systems in which persons are fined for breaching certain regulations put in place,” she said. “The consequences should be prohibitive enough for them to not even think about breaking the rules.”

Indigenous populations

Realizing the role of indigenous people in not only the pursuit of a green economy through the Shield but also its protection, countries under its cover are currently pursuing relevant policies.

Some of those policies are aimed at “establishing biodiversity corridors,” as well as the protection of the rights of “Indigenous Amerindians to their territories and of access to their natural resources, in order to preserve their livelihoods and cultures,” according to the UN-REDD program.

Some inroads have already been made through the 2009 Low Carbon Development Strategy, which made water more accessible to persons residing in hinterland areas through the Guyana National Water Safety Initiative.

Guyana’s Minister of Governance, Trotman, notes that the processes, benefits and expected outcomes of Guyana’s green economy are still being examined. The UNDP has agreed to partner with Guyana to develop a plan and methodology for its implementation and integration. That should help to mitigate some of the negative effects that contamination of the Shield has had on Guyana’s indigenous population.

Trotman added that indigenous communities would benefit in both direct and indirect ways. Research and the payments from carbon sequestration should also help to create what Trotman calls “sustainable wealth.”

“Indigenous peoples have been living on this shield from time immemorial and have been its stewards,” said Trotman. “The renewed focus on greening the economy will bring respect, appreciation and interest for and in the shield. Undoubtedly, those who know it best and are a part of it, will gain direct economic benefits through tours, and as beneficiaries of the income that will come from its preservation.”

Others see a different approach.

Jay Mistry, a professor of environmental geography at Royal Holloway University of London and an expert on the Guiana Shield, is one of them. While she believes that interest in the Shield would benefit indigenous peoples greatly, she also sees a major problem in trying to use it in pursuit of a green economy. According to Mistry, that means most of the plans put forward are too focused on commoditizing nature.

This ideology can possibly lead to contamination of the Shield on a larger scale, she says.

According to Mistry, there needs to be greater support for land-based economies where values and prices are set within a local, social context. That would create an exchange of goods and services outside of corporate-controlled markets, as this would have more socially just and equitable outcomes for indigenous people.

“We can also learn from them as many of their own community-owned solutions have a lot to offer Guyana and the world in the way resources can be sustainably managed,” said Mistry.

Mistry stressed that there is a great need for alternative visions and approaches to development, instead of feeding the idea that economic growth can be infinite.

“While the Guiana Shield is hugely ecologically and socially diverse, there are common environmental and social challenges and associated solutions across the region,” said Mistry. “People can learn from each other across the region on the kind of solutions that can create sustainable economies.”

Mistry points to a recent research project she was involved in called Project Cobra. The project identified community-owned solutions from Guyana and then took these to other indigenous communities of the Guiana Shield. According to Mistry, the results were overwhelmingly positive.

“We found that focusing on sustainable local solutions and sharing these amongst communities inspired people to act and consider ways of doing things differently,” she said. “This kind of sharing of best practices can be done at any level of governance, from the village to a government, and more of this horizontal knowledge exchange across the Guiana Shield is necessary.”

Main image: Auyna Tepui in Parque Nacional Canaima, part of the Guiana Shield. Photo by Christoph Kühnhanss via Wikimedia Commons.



“Guyana | The Guyana REDD Investment Fund and Norway Partnership.” The REDD Desk. March 8, 2016.

“Low Carbon Development Strategy Transforming Guyana’s Economy While Combating Climate Change.” Low Carbon Development Strategy- Government of Guyana.

REDD for the Guiana Shield.

The Guyana Shield

Granger, David A. The Green State: Environmental security and biodiversity in Guyana. Ministry of the Presidency. 2016.