Almost 90 percent of Guyana’s roughly 750,000 residents live in coastal areas outside of the forests, which contributes to the preservation of the country’s intact forest landscape.
Over the past two decades, deforestation rates in Guyana have ranged from between 0.02 percent to 0.079 percent – far less than many other tropical countries.
Gold mining appears to be the biggest threat to Guyana’s forests, driving approximately 85 percent of the country’s deforestation in 2014.
Old and omnipresent, Guyana’s forests earn money for the country just by remaining standing. Boasting an intact forest landscape percentage that’s among the highest in the world, the country’s forests dominate the landscape, housing a world of table-topped mountains, rare creatures, valuable wood and precious minerals.
Perched on part of the ancient Guiana Shield on the northeastern coast of South America, trees cover Guyana like a blanket with 85 percent of the country shrouded by forests, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Almost 90 percent of Guyana’s population of about 750,000 lives on a narrow coastal strip. Thus trees covering an area bigger than England have stood largely undisturbed by human activity for centuries.
Guyana’s richly forested landscape means it holds a massive store of carbon, important to keep sequestered in the fight against climate change. In light of that, Norway agreed to pay Guyana to keep deforestation low as an early adopter of REDD+, the United Nations-supported scheme to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and manage forests sustainably.
With or without REDD+, the country’s deforestation rates have remained low over the past 22 years, ranging from 0.02 percent to 0.079 percent according to the latest figures in the Guyana REDD+ Monitoring Reporting & Verification System (MRVS) Interim Measures Report. Between 1990 and 2009, the total area converted from forest to non-forest amounted to 74,917 hectares and Guyana’s forests now amount to 18.47 million hectares, according to Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) figures.
The figures from the MRVS report were produced jointly with the GFC and consulting firm Indufor Asia Pacific. They were independently verified by international certification body Det Norske Veritas. Over the five years of reports on the Guyana-Norway partnership, this was the most recent.
Despite all the stable aspects of its forest management, Guyana’s forests also face various challenges. They are home to many of the country’s indigenous peoples, which brings its own set of sensitive issues and opportunities. Various logging, tourism, and mining enterprises also operate in the jungle.
According to a recently published study in Science Advances, in 2000 Guyana had the third highest proportion of intact forest landscape (IFL) in the world, surpassed only by Suriname and French Guiana. However, by 2013, the IFL area had reduced by 11.3 percent from 69.6 percent in 2000. Worldwide, the study cited industrial logging, agricultural expansion, fire, and mining/resource extraction as the primary causes of IFL area reduction.
Though Guyana has become known for its strict laws and guidelines in natural resources management – particularly since a longtime government regime change last year – and notably in regards to forestry, industry partners don’t always adhere to laws and regulations. A prime example is the controversial logging enterprise Baishanlin, which was booted from Guyana in 2016 after failing to effectively manage over 627,000 hectares of logging concessions for years. Operators of smaller logging concessions and the government have also expressed alarm at the potential economic impact of tightened restrictions of Guyanese greenheart to the UK.
Digging for gold
Overall, gold mining has been Guyana’s main driver of deforestation. Much of the country’s gold lies under thick jungle cover, and as mining exploded following the 2008 financial crisis, deforestation rose and peaked in 2012 with a loss of 14,655 hectares of forest during that one year. It has since dropped: the deforestation rate for 2014, the last available year, was 0.065 percent. That’s equivalent to a loss of 11,975 hectares of forest according to the MRVS report.
Mining accounted for approximately 85 percent of deforestation for that year, according to independently verified GFC figures. Now, in some sections of the forest, mining sites scar the landscape like burns in a blanket.
“Mining is a necessary activity but continuing efforts are needed to ensure that mining procedures in Guyana becomes environmentally sound,” Raquel Thomas-Caesar, one of the program directors at Guyana’s Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, told Mongabay. The Iwokrama Centre sits on a 371,000-hectare reserve and was established in 1989 for conservation and research on how forests can be used sustainably. Thomas-Caesar pointed out that the rehabilitation of mining sites is part of mining regulations established by the government, but is often not undertaken by the companies.
Unregulated mining also spawns other environmental problems such as river pollution, and while regulatory agencies are trying to curb this, the sprawling and often inaccessible terrain makes it a challenge, according to Thomas-Caesar.
Johann Earle, a spokesman for Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources, said work is being done in several areas to improve mining practices, including increasing the efficiency of mining recovery methods.
Norway is also providing financial support to an American nonprofit, Conservation International (CI), to address deforestation drivers in Guyana. This includes enhancing the awareness and capacity of local miners and improving mining policies, services and practices.
“The level of threat varies a lot based on commodity prices; higher gold price would mean more mining, and encouragement for less experienced mining that will cause more negative impact per unit of gold produced,” David Singh, the director of CI in Guyana, told Mongabay.
Aside from deforestation, extractive industries impact the forest and the biodiversity it supports in other ways. Singh pointed out that infrastructure developed to support logging and mining opened up areas for activities such as wildlife hunting, which is becoming an increasing concern to conservationists.
The practice of “high-grading” – a selective type of timber harvesting that removes the highest grade of timber in an area of forest –means that the area cannot be closed off for regeneration before it is accessed again for another round of timber, Singh said.
Despite all this, there is little indication that Guyana’s forests will suffer the large-scale deforestation experienced by so many other countries around the world. There is no large-scale farming in forested areas, the use of biomass for fuel is limited, timber harvesting operates under strict regulations and Guyana boasts an internationally-recognized monitoring system.
“Guyana is recognized as one of six tropical countries that [have] very good forest management systems,” Iwokrama’s Thomas-Caesar said. Iwokrama was recently awarded an important certification to export the country’s prized greenheart timber to the UK.
Entrepreneurs have long seen opportunities in Guyana for ecotourism and, more recently, the importance of forests in efforts to combat climate change has also been recognized.
REDD+ is supported by Guyanese leaders who see it as a chance to help fight global warming by protecting the forest, but also as a means of gaining economic resources for development. This resulted in Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy, which formed the basis of a five-year agreement with Norway whereby Guyana would be paid to keep deforestation low and improve governance in the forestry sector through REDD+.
Since the signing of the agreement in 2009, Guyana earned $150 million for its efforts between 2010 to 2015, with a final payment still to be made. They could have earned up to $250 million.
“Guyana has delivered results in terms of keeping its deforestation rates well below 0.1 percent, and continues to have one of the lowest deforestation rates in the tropics,” Per Fredrik Pharo, director of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) which oversees the partnership, told Mongabay. NICFI operates under the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).*
The money earned from the partnership is reinvested in low-carbon projects and forest management. Pharo said the GFC has shown an impressive increase in its forest monitoring capabilities.
“GFC stands out as a front-runner of what a forest country can do in order to raise its own competence on measurement, reporting and verification of forest based emissions (MRV) and broader forest monitoring efforts,” he said. He pointed out that Guyana has shown a continuous interest in improving and updating its MRV system, and is now operating with high accuracy.
“This dedication to transparency in forest monitoring and robust methods is further emphasized in their willingness to undergo a stringent independent verification process that takes place on an annual basis,” Pharo said.
Both Norway and Guyana have expressed an interest in continuing the partnership, though Guyana is still to fulfill some conditions of the initial agreement. Those conditions would include following through on a commitment to sign on to the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade initiative (FLEGT).
Work is also being done to build the capacity of the indigenous communities who own 14 percent of Guyana’s land. The aim is to help them sustainably manage their territories and eventually be able to earn payments for protecting forests.
Guyana’s commitment to protecting its forests goes beyond financial incentives associated with conservation, CI’s Singh said. He pointed to current President David Granger’s pledge to expand the protected areas system and place an additional two million hectares of forest under conservation.
Guyana formalized its commitments to protect its forest in its Nationally Determined Contributions submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
However, Singh emphasized support from other countries remains necessary if their REDD+ participation is to continue.
“Successive governments have demonstrated willingness to develop a low-carbon, green economy. The government has also made it clear that such a state will necessarily focus on conservation of which the expanded protected areas system is expected to play a significant role,” he said. “In the absence of a REDD+ scheme, it becomes more difficult for government to meet its commitment.”
Banner image: A bird in Iwokrama Rainforest. Photo by M M from Switzerland/Wikimedia Commons
Gaulbert Sutherland is a Guyanese journalist currently based in the UK where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Climate Change, Development and Policy.
*Disclaimer: Mongabay receives funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). However, NORAD has no editorial influence over Mongabay content.
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Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 Country Report Guyana, 2014. Food and Agriculture Organization http://www.fao.org/3/a-az232e.pdf
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The Reference Level for Guyana’s REDD+ Program, 2015. Government of Guyana, http://www.forestry.gov.gy/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Guyanas-Proposal-for-Reference-Level-for-REDD-Final-Sept-20151.pdf
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Norway-Guyana Agreement on Limiting Deforestation
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