Climate change news

With the Discovery of Oil, Guyana Must Invest in Protecting the Environment

Renewing its commitment to climate action will prove strategic for the economic diversification of Guyana — a country set to become one of the richest oil producers in the world.
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January 15, 2020 08:25 EDT

Climate change has become a global priority, but not for everyone. For some, it is a spoke in the wheel of economic interests — the splinter that sparks a dangerous political debate seeking to turn climate change into a myth. But if anything should summon global consensus, it is the fact that our planet is rapidly transforming into hostile territory, and that we are part of both the problem and the solution.

Yet the anti-climate change lobby largely pushed by multinationals and encouraged by conservative leaders such as US President Donald Trump in the north and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the south, is gaining ground. The recent burning of the Amazon rainforest reminds us of the threat posed by reckless leadership and business practices, and of the need to rethink development while it is still possible. In a country like Guyana that still possesses one of the most intact forests in the world, this includes the pressing need to seriously discuss a green state model.

Conservation Success

Guyana has a history of conservation that goes as far back as the establishment of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in 1996, but the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) was perhaps the first major policy document that sought to concretize the country’s commitment to the development of a green state model. A decade later, Guyana has become the regional leader in environmental protection and climate action, with funds provided by Norway as part of a $250-million forest protection agreement signed in 2009 being the backbone of most projects so far implemented.

Despite the disruption of business continuity in 2015 resulting in the scrapping of the Amaila Falls hydro-electric project, the continued drop in deforestation rates, which have hovered around 0.05 % for the past 5 years, has triggered the release of a substantial $80-million tranche in June 2019 to fund the construction of solar parks instead. This continued progress further prompted the Norwegians to announce their decision to transfer the remaining $50 million of the LCDS funds.

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On the other hand, with its 2040 deadline the Green State Development Strategy (GSDS) goes beyond the carbon reduction principle of the LCDS, though the document was not yet formally passed in Guyana’s Parliament. This led to speculation that should the government change in 2020, the GSDS will run the risk of being scrapped in the same way some elements of the LCDS were when the new coalition took over in 2015, despite being already subject to a signed memorandum of understanding between Guyana and Norway.

Media reports from 2018 and 2019 suggest that this might be the position of the main political opposition on the adoption of the GSDS should it win the 2020 general election. Nevertheless, the conceptualization of both the LCDS and the GSDS can be interpreted as a manifestation of political commitment and consensus to support sustainable climate action. This is particularly crucial at a time when Guyana is on the verge of becoming one of the richest oil-producing countries per capita in the world.

As a matter of fact, if Guyana is to avoid falling into the so-called Dutch disease trap, it would do well not only to learn from the experiences of its neighbors, but to imagine economic diversification as a means of strengthening and expanding sectors that already exist as sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel. With the vested interests and financial support of longstanding international partners such as Norway, it would be foolish for any government serious about curbing climate change to ignore what can only be described as low-hanging fruit. This head start is not given to other countries that lack the legal and institutional framework, capacity and resources.

Business and Human Activity

With the advent of oil, specializing in the monetization of conservation and sustainable forest use and management, and eventually establishing a full-fledged green state model is not just a means of economic diversification. It is a necessary buffer to protect the country from the negative impacts on the environment that can result from large-scale oil and gas exploitation, as well as the inevitable boom in business and human activity that will more than likely ensue.

A surge in migration, both internal and regional, linked to new opportunities in the oil and gas industry, and the much-anticipated construction of the Linden-Lethem road connecting Brazil to Georgetown are other foreseeable factors that can affect both the environment and the state’s ability to monitor activities such as the increased and illegal exploitation of subsurface minerals, especially gold.

Enhanced infrastructure might also see economic ties between Guyana and Brazil strengthened, raising questions on whether or not we might feel inclined to satisfy the insatiable demand of Brazil’s agro-industry for farmlands in the hinterland. The subsequent repercussions on the environment, indigenous peoples and on all Guyanese should not be allowed to creep up on us. The need for a green state model in Guyana should not, therefore, be seen as an isolated measure to combat climate change, but rather as a bid for balance and safeguarding the environment, lands and resources for future generations. The Guyanese are the ones who will be left to deal with the long-term consequences of poor planning and irresponsible governance well after oil giants of the developed world have departed.

But unlike economically advanced countries, Guyana does not need to reset its institutional and legislative framework to embrace an environmentally conscious democracy. Instead, it is at a stage in its history where it now has the luxury of creating, innovating and reinventing the very concept of development, expanding what already exists and deciding what the country would look like in the next decades. There is a choice between suffering the resource curse or carving a path of innovative leadership in environmental protection and climate change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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