Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo was once the posterboy for an international community eager to play up its dedication to climate change. The West was finally engaging with developing nations like his – tucked into a corner of the Amazon jungle between Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname – by handing over millions of dollars in exchange for the maintenance of vast tracts of primary rainforest. Jagdeo was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
As his presidency comes to end, however, so does his image as the forward-thinking saviour of rainforest-rich developing countries. His government offers nothing but a veneer of hope, according to analysts of Guyana’s groundbreaking deal with Norway signed exactly two years ago.
The deal stipulated that Norway would pay Guyana – based on results – up to $250m over five years to cut down deforestation and thus avoid carbon dioxide emissions.
In return, Norway would build up its carbon credit stockpiles and hopefully hit its self-imposed 2030 carbon neutral target while at the same time pumping its enormous gas and oil reserves, as well as continuing the use of cars, factories and power plants which release the carbon dioxide locked up in the oil and gas.
Guyana would use the funds for projects aimed at curbing deforestation and carbon dioxide emission, including solar panels for indigenous communities, sea defences and flood-resistant crops.
The $70m so far pledged by Norway has yet to materialise in the Latin American nation. The World Bank, awaiting the okay from Norwegian authorities, is holding onto it. Jagdeo puts the delay down to the lack of a simple mechanism for moving the money in a new and untested scheme – a bureaucratic glitch rather than any reflection on Guyana’s progress.
'That is absolute nonsense,' said John Palmer, a Senior Associate at the Forest Management Trust in Florida. 'The main reason is that [they] are utterly incapable of writing the simplest project proposal is because they've never had to do it. Jagdeo anticipated that the Norwegians would simply give him a bag of money.'
The money is being channelled through a REDD+ fund (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and Guyana is seen as a test case for the initiative. 'REDD as a model will continue to evolve in spite of the carbon cowboys in Guyana,' said Palmer. 'I think it has a great future.'
Palmer cites Norwegian money that has gone into a similar programme in Indonesia as more positive. Unlike Guyana, Indonesia has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world making it the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter after the United States and China. This makes it a perfect candidate for a REDD scheme and Norway has committed $1 billion to it over the next few years.
Deforestation rates on the rise
Speaking to The Ecologist in a restaurant in Guyana’s capital Georgetown, Jagdeo admitted there were problems: 'There’s a difficulty in being the first. We are trying to create a model built on replicability … so we can’t cut corners… This is still the most cost-effective abatement solution for climate change.'
Vemund Olsen is a Policy Adviser with Rainforest Foundation Norway, who became interested in Guyana when the Norwegian government began to negotiate their agreement with the Anglophone South American nation. 'We have a number of concerns about how the initiative is playing out – whether Guyana is taking the necessary steps to prevent the increase in deforestation,' he said.
The Norwegian government does not have a permanent base in Guyana and so is forced to rely on third parties. 'We're not convinced by the actual happenings on the ground and it seems that Norway is very dependent on the use of international consultants to verify what is actually happening because they don't have any eyes and ears on the ground that they can trust,' Olsen said.
To claim the funds, Guyana must demonstrate that it has cut deforestation from a baseline 0.45 per cent rate. However, a report carried out by New Zealand-based Pöyry earlier this year concluded that actual deforestation between 1990 and 2009 was in fact at 0.02 per cent. The same report claimed that deforestation over the first year of the Norway agreement had trebled to 0.06 per cent. Using such a high baseline allows Guyana to actually increase deforestation while still receiving the funds.
'In some ways the Norwegians have been a bit naïve,' said David Young of Global Witness. 'The system that Norway has come up with is predicated on a best-guess of what the deforestation rate might be,' he added. 'They could have been more on the ball and more prepared.'
Goldrush in Guyana
Guyana is around the size of the UK yet holds under a million people, many of whom live on its Caribbean coast. There are no white sandy beaches though as the Essequibo and Demerara Rivers pour silt from the country’s deep Amazon interior into coastal waters. Over 80 per cent of Guyana is covered by rainforest. No paved roads link its major towns to the capital, making it difficult to effectively govern.
Jagdeo claims this is to the government’s advantage. 'The terrain makes it easier to control movements,' he said, adding that authorities have set up choke points across the few unpaved roads and rivers that loggers bring their wares down.
Adding to the environmental problems, Guyana is currently undergoing a goldrush, as the global economic crisis pushes investors towards the precious metal resulting in record high prices. This is damaging the rainforest as people from all over the region bring in dredgers to seek their fortune.
Mining of gold and bauxite, as well as production of sugar and timber, drive the country’s economy. The government has recently invited oil companies to explore both on- and off-shore fields, in a demonstration of a seeming dichotomy for developing countries in balancing their environment with economic expansion.
'We're seeing a strong increase in mining in the country,' added Olsen, 'I am yet to see any concrete action by the Guyanese government to make sure that does not lead to increased deforestation in the long term.'
Jagdeo sees no dichotomy. 'We want to keep 99.5 per cent of the forest and develop just 0.5 per cent. If done well, we could expand mining, selectively logging one or two trees per hectare.' The president claims to have replanting plans in place.
Local travel agent Alisha Ousman is in despair with Jagdeo’s policies and the miners’ 'scarring' of the jungle. 'You either want to preserve the country and its riches or you destroy it now. You have to make a choice,' she said.
Guyana goes to the polls next week and Jagdeo’s party is expected to win, with his ally Donald Ramotar likely to take over the presidency. Despite the pitfalls, Jagdeo has at least been incredibly vocal on the environment over the last few years and some have voiced concerns that his successor may not be.
'Ramotar shares my views on this,' Jagdeo countered. 'He’s very passionate about it. The upcoming government will continue the project and I have great confidence that all parties have subscribed to this vision, deep down.'
The question remains whether Guyana’s current administration, and indeed the Norwegians, have subscribed to the vision, deep down.