The frightening spectacles– of the Atlantic Ocean’swaters rushing unimpeded onto the rice paddies at Dantzig; of the stelling at Parika, in full flood; of Omai’s cavernous, mined-out craters; of Aurora’s depleted forests or Cuyuni’s turbid waters contaminated with gold-mining effluent; of Rupununi’s savannah fires and Shell Beach’s disappearing mangroves – are nothing if not apocalyptic.
The environment must be preserved and protected for the benefit of our people, the planet and for present and future generations. We have much to lose if we are careless with the priceless, precious and peerless resource.
Guyana’s biodiversity is more precious than petroleum. It must be preserved and protected to prevent further damage to the physical environment, to mitigate the effects of climate change and to provide support and services, necessary for life.
The protection of our biodiversity can help to reduce, and even reverse, the adverse effects of climate change. Biodiversity – plants, animals, micro-organisms and the ecosystems in which they exist – supports life:
terrestrial ecosystems mitigate the greenhouse effect by increasing carbon storage;
reforestation and land reclamation reduce soil erosion and land degradation and help to restore soil nutrients and insect and plant species;
the protection of flora and fauna can reverse biodiversity loss, improve food security and provide services of the forests;
the protection of the mangrove forests, so vital to the protection of the coastland where more than 80 per cent of the population lives and where much of the country’s infrastructure is located; and
the preservation of the forests and their products which support the livelihoods of thousands of Guyanese; the integrity of our rivers and freshwater sources are necessary to sustain human survival.
Guyana is beautiful, blissful and bountiful. The country’s landscape – comprising its coastlands, grasslands, highlands, islands, lakes, rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and wetlands –paint a picture of a pristine paradise.
These lands and waters are the habitat of our giants – the anaconda, the anteater, arapaima, armadillo, bat, caiman, capybara, eagle, jaguar, manatee, stork, tapir, turtle, vulture and many more.
Their waters and forests abound with animal and plant life, including more than 8,000 plant species, 467 fish species, 814 bird species, 130 amphibians, 179 reptiles and225 mammals.
Guyana is at the centre of the Guiana Shield – one of the world’s last remaining tracts of pristine rainforest. The ‘Shield is spread over 2.7 million km2, an area bigger than Greenland and which encompasses all of Guyana, Guyane and Suriname and parts of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.
The Shield’s biodiversity is unparalleled. Its pristine forests, largely uncontaminated aquatic ecosystems and other intact ecosystems contain 15 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserves.
The Shield is vital to the planet’s survival. It is part of the ‘lungs of the earth’ because of the environmental and ecosystem services it provides.
The Shield’s forests sequester carbon and mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. They aid in the regulation of the water cycle, water quality and pollination. They are sources of food, medicine products and timber and non-timber products.
Guyana’s natural capital is a vital resource which must be preserved and protected because it is:
a source of wealth, including its minerals, timber, flora and fauna and which provide citizens with their livelihoods;
a source of environmental and invaluable ecosystem services necessary for earth’s survival; and
a part of the country’s patrimony which we inherited and which we must bequeath to future generations.
Guyana’s environment is a global resource which is necessary to stem global biodiversity loss and freshwater depletion. The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019 found that more than 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.
Water stress, depletion of aquifers, along with an increased demand for water are placing pressures on the world’s freshwater reserves. The protection of the environment remains vital amid these threats.
Green State Development Strategy
The Green State Development Strategy: Vision 2040 is the country’s roadmap towards transitioning towards a ‘green state’.
The ‘Strategy’ aligns economic development with safeguarding the environment. It is a model which aims at protecting the environment and preventing damage and degradation while promoting economic development.
The ‘Strategy’ aims at an inclusive, low-carbon path of sustainable development, inter alia. It will enhance the nation’s hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for environmental stewardship.
The ‘Strategy’ recognizes that our country is about to become a petroleum-producing state. This will be the most transformative economic development in the country’s history one that will boost economic growth and provide increased resources for national development.
Petroleum is ephemeral…the environment is eternal…extinction is forever. The environment is essential to earth’s existence and will remain so long after oil reserves have been exhausted. Guyana plans to utilize the revenue from petroleum production to advance its ‘green’ development agenda, inter alia.
Environmental conservation and protection are key elements of this agenda. The ‘green state’ will preserve and extend the country’s Protected Areas System which includes Iwokrama and the Konashen Protected Area – the latter encompassing some 7,000 km2 – and which has been accredited to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy.
Iwokrama is at the centre of this evolving national and international environmental order. Iwokrama is the child of the Langkawi Declaration on the environment.
The Langkawi Declaration was promulgated three years prior to the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro; twenty years before the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in 2009; and more than a quarter of a century before the landmark Paris Agreement of December 2015;
The Langkawi Declaration, issued at the 11th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malaysia in 1989, sounded an ‘early warning’ of the threats to earth’s environment. The ‘Declaration’, identified the ‘greenhouse’ effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, marine pollution, land degradation and biodiversity loss as among the world’s foremost environmental threats.
The Langkawi Declaration noted that many environmental hazards were transnational in nature and, therefore, necessitated international responses. It charted a 16-point programme for committing the Commonwealth to take immediate action on the environment.
The programme called for support for “activities related to the conservation of biological diversity and genetic resources, the significant areas of virgin forest and other protected natural habitat…” inter alia.
The Declaration urged, also, the strengthening of “…efforts by developing countries in sustainable forest management and their manufacture and export of higher value-added forest products…”
Guyana responded promptly to the Declaration by demonstrating how a ‘small’ state could make a ‘big’ gift to the world. Guyana, committed a forested area of371,000 hectares as a model for conservation and sustainable forest management. It was an ambitious and audacious initiative by a small state in response to a global threat.
The Iwokrama covenant was sealed on 9th November 1995 with the signing of the Agreement between the Government of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana and the Commonwealth Secretariat for the establishment of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development.
The “Agreement” represented a partnership between Guyana, the Commonwealth and the global community aimed at:
…undertaking research, training and the development of technologies which will promote the conservation and the sustainable and equitable use of tropical rain forests in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits to the people of Guyana and to the world in general.
Iwokrama was a bellwether of environmental programmes. It represented a model of how the Declaration’s objectives could be fulfilled through international cooperation. That model required the mobilization of adequate assets to ensure that the objectives of the Agreement, bringing Iwokrama into being, could be realized.
International crises – the financial crisis in Asia of 1997; the global financial crisis of 2007; the food crisis beginning in 2008; and the energy crisis of the early years of this decade – diverted donor preferences and priorities away from supporting major environmental initiatives such as Iwokrama.
The Centre, as a result, has been unable to access adequate assets to execute its mission fully. The Centre is here to stay, however, and remains relevant to the national responses to local and global environmental threats:
it is part of the solution to the adverse effects of climate change – such as the extreme weather;rising sea levels; precipitous levels of biodiversity loss and diminishing freshwater supplies –to which the world is seeking solutions;
it is immense, impressive, irreplaceable; it provides priceless environmental and ecological services to the earth and remains vital to the protection of the world’s biodiversity, fresh air and freshwater supplies;
it is central to Guyana’s transition to becoming a ‘green’ state and is part of the Guiana heartland –the ‘green heart’ – the country’s rich natural capital and a cradle and conservatory of thousands of species of biodiversity, some of which are among the rarest in the world.
Iwokrama must change to survive; it can no longer subsist under the old covenant which played a pivotal role over the past 30 years. The Centre is part of the national patrimony and Guyanese, first and foremost, must bear greatest responsibility for the Centre’s future development, without cutting the umbilical cord of international cooperation.
Dinosaurs became extinct because they could not adapt to change. If organisms cannot change they cannot survive. Change is imperative and indispensable for improvement.
Iwokrama will not survive unless it adapts to the challenges imposed by climate change. Change is taking place at a rapid pace and is improving our knowledge of the environment. Institutions which do not prepare for the continuous changes in the environment will become irrelevant.
Iwokrama will not be allowed to become a lifeless monument or museum or, worse, a timber grant or gold mine.
Iwokrama will not be allowed to become an environmental ‘theme park’ or the ‘playground’ for celebrities.
A new covenant will be crafted to ensure Iwokrama’s survival and success, in perpetuity. The new covenant will be functional rather than ornamental.
Iwokrama, under the new covenant, will be about education rather than entertainment andresearch rather than recreation. The Centre must become a schoolhouse for students aiming to study the sciences – biology, botany and zoology – inter alia.
Iwokrama, with its rich biodiversity, is pivotal to positioning our economy onto a green growth pathway. It is our key to protecting our environmental patrimony. The pursuit of sustainable development cannot be achieved unless there is an unobstructed obligation to the protection of our biodiversity.
Iwokrama, with yet undiscovered and unexploited resources, is essential to our economic existence. Iwokrama can teach the world lessons on biodiversity. Sanctuaries for the conservation and preservation of our rich flora and fauna will be established.
I iterate my Government’s intention, with the support of international partners, to make Iwokrama into a world-class institute for biodiversity research – an academy of excellence to serve the educational needs of our students for generations to come.
Iwokrama will be the home of an International Institute for Biodiversity to support its educational efforts. The Institute will allow students and researchers from the Continent, the Caribbean and the rest of the world to come to Iwokrama to study its biodiversity and to increase knowledge and understanding of our vital ecosystems.
Iwokrama is part of our patrimony. It is central and integral to Guyana’s green development strategy. It will reinforce its emphasis by being a Centre of excellence in education in biodiversity.
One of the most depressing experiences I have had was to visit the University of Guyana’s Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity (in October, 2016). I was almost moved to tears by the state of that institution. I saw a cemetery rather than a laboratory of biodiversity. It was a disservice to our nation to have allowed such neglect of an institution established to preserve the country’s biodiversity.
Iwokrama will not suffer that fate. The new covenant to be unveiled, during our Decade of Development: 2020-2029, envisages Iwokrama as a ‘living’ repository of the country’s unsurpassable biodiversity. Iwokrama will become the home of all of Guyana rich and diverse flora and fauna.
Government will establish, at Iwokrama, a world-class centre of excellence for students and researchers interested in increasing their knowledge of our essential ecosystems.
The ‘Decade’ will also witness Guyana’s honouring its commitments to:
place an additional two million hectares under conservation, in accordance with our nationally-determined commitments under the Paris Agreement;
pursue measures to preserve our biodiversity and ecosystem services and to proscribe the exportation of wildlife; and
promulgate policies aimed at ensuring low rates of deforestation, improved timber-monitoring, a high level of timber legality and greater value-added activities in the forestry sector to augment carbon storage in long-use wood products and promote low emission, low-carbon development of the country’s natural resources.
Guyana has been a trailblazer in global environmental protection. Iwokrama has demonstrated how small states can punch above their weight in offering solutions to global environmental problems.
A new era is about to dawn for Iwokrama. It will be developed into a biodiversity conservatory and a schoolhouse for studying ecosystem services.
I congratulate the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development on this important milestone – the 30th anniversary of the pledge of the concession.
I wish the Centre continued success and pledge my Government’s continued support for the refashioning of a new covenant which will ensure that Iwokrama is remains for perpetuity.