As an economist at Conservation International (CI), Dr. Jonah Busch has recently spent a lot of time in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. His fondness for the city is evident in his description. “Flamboyant trees and charming old wooden buildings. Vegetable markets on streets alongside open drainage canals. The city sits a meter below sea level, with only a centuries-old seawall holding back the Atlantic Ocean. And just south of town, a rainforest that stretches unbroken for hundreds of miles.”
It is this swath of rainforest that brought Busch to Georgetown in the first place. In 2009, he joined CI’s team of economists, scientists and experts, assisting the Guyanese government as it developed a plan for forest protection that will improve Guyana’s economy while strengthening global climate security. With its focus on healthy ecosystems that support human wellbeing, CI has advocated for a structured approach that integrates ecosystem conservation with human development.
In light of Guyana’s recent historic agreement with the Norwegian government, this goal is a giant step closer.
A Valuable Forest
The Guayana Shield is a massive geological formation that encompasses all of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, as well as parts of Venezuela and Brazil. Not only do the region’s forests supply food and other essential resources for local people, they also provide important benefits for the world as a whole. The Guayana Shield’s forests contain at least 5 percent of the world’s flowing surface water and store about 5 percent of the world’s tropical forest carbon.
VIDEO: Guyana's Conservation Concession
Although Guyana is South America’s third smallest country by area, the majority of its almost 800,000 people live along the narrow strip of coastline, leaving up to 80 percent of Guyana’s interior tropical forests relatively undisturbed. Guyana is among a select group of developing countries with high forest cover and low deforestation (HFLD), whose tradition of forest conservation provides a strong basis for their leadership in future efforts to prevent emissions from deforestation. The country’s expansive forests hold great potential as a future site for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation “plus” conservation). The implementation of a REDD+ mechanism would provide financial incentives for forested countries to reduce, avoid or reverse deforestation.
Creating Low-Carbon Development Plans
Guyana’s involvement in the international forest carbon debate has largely been the result of effort by President Bharrat Jagdeo. Over the last few years, he has been tirelessly advocating for the protection of Guyana’s standing forests in exchange for payment from more industrialized nations.
Last June, the Guyanese government launched its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), an ambitious plan that outlines how the country plans to achieve economic growth without resorting to the deforestation that has plagued other tropical countries. President Jagdeo emphasizes that the LCDS is not a conservation plan, but a development plan structured around what he describes as Guyana’s most valuable asset—its rich forest biodiversity.
Today, the LCDS stands as a model for how to structure a framework for partnership between forested developing countries and the international community that simultaneously promotes economic development and combats global climate change.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about Guyana, the people who live there and the forest we are working to save.
CI has been working with Guyana’s national government since 1996. In the creation of the LCDS, CI scientists and advisors helped conduct studies on applying REDD+ to Guyana, facilitated participation by President Jagdeo in international forums, and contributed in designing effective monitoring systems. In its recent work on applying REDD+ to Guyana, CI and partners quantified the level of threat that Guyana’s forests will be exposed to if the country pursues economic development in the absence of an effective and adequately financed REDD+ framework.
As with other poor developing countries that have substantial natural resources, the choice today is clear. As Guyana takes action against the global problems associated with climate change, economic development that responds to the needs of its citizens is socially, economically and politically non-negotiable.
A Historic Agreement
On November 9, a Memorandum of Understanding on issues related to climate change, biodiversity protection and sustainable development was signed by the leaders of Norway and Guyana, endorsing Norway’s commitment of up to $250 million by 2015 for the support of the LCDS through a Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund. An initial payment of $30 million will be invested into REDD+ activities through the country’s LCDS. The rest of the money will be paid out over time as the program successfully achieves its goals.
Given Guyana’s high poverty rates, this agreement has big implications for the nation’s economy. Busch is optimistic about the scale of the agreement. “Guyana's entire GDP is about $1 billion per year. This agreement means that forest conservation could expand Guyana’s economy by double digits in the short term.”
The Next Steps
The significance of this agreement cannot be overstated: it is the first time that a HFLD country will be financially rewarded for its efforts towards climate change mitigation through forest protection. Through its work with Guyana and other tropical forest countries, Norway has already played a huge leadership role in advancing the REDD+ concept.
So how can we encourage other governments, organizations and communities to take action? An international agreement on REDD+ is arguably one of the most important outcomes of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting currently underway in Copenhagen. “The next step is for the UNFCCC to agree to a robustly financed REDD+ mechanism,” Busch says. “Guyana and Norway are setting out to show the world that economic development without deforestation is politically and financially achievable. Now at Copenhagen, our climate needs more Guyanas and more Norways.”
READ MORE: Disney's Commitment to REDD