The Environment and Sustainable Development in Guyana

(Statement by His Excellency Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador of Guyana, at the Environmental Forum at Waynesburg College, Pennsylvania, on September 14, 1999)

Posted September 15th. 1999

Mr. Chairman, President Thyreen, Members of the Faculty of Waynesburg College, Distinguished Guests, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen. . . .

In these days we are becoming more and more concerned over problems affecting the environment in various parts of the world. Here in the United States, damage to the environment in far-off lands is well publicized in the media, particularly when such problems occur in countries where areas of forests are being destroyed by the action of man.

We who live in those far-off lands are also deeply concerned because we want our people to live in a healthy, clean environment. Nevertheless, we also want to enjoy the wealth of our lands by using our natural resources in a sustainable manner for the economic development of our societies.

In Guyana we are fully aware of out responsibilities in protecting our natural environment and using out natural resources in a sustainable manner. We boast of a country which has nearly 80 percent of its land area still covered with tropical rain forest - probably the greatest proportion for any county in the world. But this forest area, besides containing a wealth of almost untapped forest products, also has untold wealth in mineral resources under the surface.

Interestingly while my country remains relatively poor, concerted efforts are afoot to tap the wealth of our natural resources. Naturally, in the developed countries in particular some environmental groupings have raised a hue and a cry claiming that we should leave the forest environment untouched. They disregard the fact that we are making stringent efforts to protect that very environment as we try to use our resources in a sustainable manner, As such, we are encouraging both local and foreign investors to participate in the development of these resources.

Countries like Guyana with vast forest resources are being called upon by developed societies to be the lungs of the world. Environmental groups in these societies demand that we stop exploiting this natural wealth because they feel we are killing off the rain forest. In Guyana, the rain forest is healthy and well. But what people in developed societies have to understand is the fact that we need to use our natural resources to improve our economy and provide a better standard of living for our people -- standards which people in developed societies enjoy.

In dealing with the topic of "The Environment and Sustainable Development" I intend this evening to look at three main aspects as they affect my own country, Guyana. In tie first instance I want to show what we are doing to protect our environment while simultaneously promoting sustainable development. Secondly, I will express some views on the idea of sustainable development. Finally, in my conclusion, I intend to propose some ideas on how developing countries like mine can be assisted, through the use of their environmental resources to remove their burden of debt and strive for economic development.

Let us now examine the first aspect.

In spite of being cash poor, the Government of Guyana has taken a very cautious approach to prospective investors in the fields of forestry and mining. This is most vividly reflected in the introduction of exploratory leases as a preliminary step before timber sales agreements cart be considered.

The Government has chosen the path of establishing firm conditions aimed at ensuring a sustainable approach to the exploitation of our natural resources. In this respect, over the past four years we have strengthened and/or established several facilities to assist in this direction. These agencies are:

1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This Agency was established in 1996 and it works closely with the Forestry Commission and the Geology and Mines Commission. The EPA demands environmental impact assessments for all activities considered to have significant impact on the environment. The Executive Director of the EPA is a Swedish citizen chosen from a list of more than 70 applicants from all parts of the world.

2. Guyana Forest Commission. With the assistance of the British Government, the Forest Commission has been considerably strengthened and it has developed an environmental unit. The Commission is in the process of revising Guyana's forestry regulations. It is also collaborating with the Global Forest Partnership program of the United Nations Development Program.

3. Natural Resources Management Project. With the assistance of the German Government, this Project has completed its first phase, which has resulted in an improved Geographical Information System and the digitalizing of maps of Guyana for more efficient use. A National Land Use Baseline document has also been developed and the principles have been tested in a pilot area.

4. National Land Use Policy and Physical Plan. Following the National Land Use Baseline document, a more elaborate National Land Use Policy is being developed. A National Physical Plan has been drafted to create a better planned approach to the development process.

5. Guyana Environmental Capacity Development in Mining. With the assistance of the Canadian Government, this facility has been developed to strengthen capacity for environmental management in mining-related agencies. It focuses on policy and regulation, including codes of practice; monitoring, inspection and enforcement; and training and demonstration of operational technologies.

6. Biodiversity and Protected Areas Strategies. Two important national strategies have been developed in relation to Biodiversity and Protected Areas aimed at protecting fragile ecosystems. A Biodiversity Action Plan is currently being developed and a program to create a national protected areas system has started but is awaiting support from donors for expansion.

7. Ozone Layer Protection. A country program has been developed to phase out ozone depleting substances, and regulations are being drafted to restrict such substances.

8. Iwokrama International Rainforest Program. Guyana has made available to the international community approximately one million acres of pristine tropical rainforest to serve as an open laboratory to find practical ways of attaining sustainable forest management.

I mention these facilities to show that we are very serious in our approach to protecting our environment while we develop our natural resources in a sustainable manner. I must mention, too, that many countries have expressed their recognition of Guyana's stewardship on sustainable development by electing us to regional and international positions. We currently serve as representative of Latin America and the Caribbean on the Bureau of the UN Commission for Sustainab1e Development for the period 1998-99. We also have been elected as a Member of the Bureau for the Implementation of the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Plan of Action.

Now, let me say a little about sustainable development. We in Guyana consider that sustainable development is an all-embracing approach to socioeconomic development. It is centered on the interaction of the economic and political, social and cultural and environmental features of global and national realities and goals. This concept has gained increasing currency since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Generally also, there has been much progress in developing special agreements, conventions and protocols on some of these principles. A close examination, however, reveals that the implementation process of these conventions leans heavily in the direction of the environmental issues with little emphasis on the social and economic factors.

We do agree that progress has been made on sensitive environmental issues. The Biodiversity Convention, the Climate Change Convention, Pollution Prevention Programs and other global partnerships are vital to the protection of our planet. However, if we examine these Conventions, we recognize that the critical issues of financial resources and technology transfer are not adequately addressed in these processes.

Developing countries like Guyana expect global partnerships to he maintained on a more realistic and just approach. We want to implement all universally accepted requirements for the protection of our environment, but we lack the resources to do so. This situation needs to be recognized and understood by the developed world. But world economic and social relations continue to be unjust, unfair and destructive for underdeveloped countries.

Sustainable development is imperative for the survival of small countries, especially small-island and low-lying coastal states. In the Caribbean region, the small islands and low-lying coastal states are exposed to extensive damage from recurring natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanoes and tropical storms. They are also extremely prone to potential man-made disasters such as oil spills, nuclear accidents and sea level rise. The Caribbean economies are essentially coastal with more than 90 percent of the population living within 10 miles of the coast. Economic activity such as tourism and fishery are heavily dependent on the coral reefs, the mangroves and the beaches. These fragile ecosystems are very vulnerable to damage from man-made or natural calamities.

We must he concerned over the fate of small islands now facing the threat of rising sea levels caused by the melting of the ice sheets near the North and South Poles. But global warming is already posing a serious threat to countries that have low coastal areas. In Guyana the rising level of high tides is already battering our sea defenses and there are increasing incidents of flooding of residential and agricultural areas, much of which are below sea level. We have now to divert our already limited resources to sea and river defenses and flood management. This is a very expensive exercise and it bites very deeply into resources that could have been otherwise used for productive development.

Finally, I want to express some ideas on how developing countries like mine can be assisted through the use of their environmental resources, to throw off their burden of debt and strive for economic development.

As I have mentioned earlier, Guyana has brought on stream the Iwokrama Rainforest Program by which nearly one million acres of pristine tropical rainforest in the heart of our country are set aside just for scientific research by local and international scientists and environmentalists. Obviously the results of this research in the years ahead will ultimately benefit all humanity. At the same time, Guyana is making a sacrifice by refusing to economically exploit the timber, mineral and other natural resources in this area. So far, no multilateral financial institution or developed country to which Guyana has debt obligations has made any suggestion about how Guyana can he repaid for making this sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world.

Some imaginative ideas must be developed to reduce the debt burden Guyana shoulders and to obtain financial reimbursement for providing its forest resources for the benefit of the international community. In 1994, at the OAS, I proposed that if the developed world wants poor countries to keep their rainforest untouched, those poor countries should be compensated for all the wealth they could accrue if they use the resources from their forests. In other words, they should be paid for not cutting timber. My proposal then was - and still is - that if developed countries do not want us to cut timber from our forests, they should compensate us with a minimum of one dollar a year for each mature tree we have in our forests. Some economic experts in the multilateral financial agencies felt that my proposal was a pipe dream. Earlier this year, at a global-warming forum at the OAS, I again raised this proposal, and a representative of the World Bank who was participating said that the proposal is now worthy of serious consideration at the political level.

Today, as we strive to protect our environment, we expound many ideas, which sometimes sound unrealistic to those who do not experience our economic and social conditions. As an alternative to the above proposal, we can state that if a count of only the population of trees and other plant life in the Iwokrama Rain Forest Project is done, the total may run into hundreds of millions. Just consider for a moment if the developed countries which are benefiting - and which will benefit - from the biodiversity research at the Iwokrama Rainforest Program donate a pittance for each plant in this protected area. The sum obtained will go a very long way in drastically reducing the country's debt burden and subsequently releasing substantial financial resources for national development and improved protection of the environment.

Consideration must also be seriously given to the idea of "selling" oxygen to industrialized countries and use the money to protect the rainforest. This is not fantasy in any way, since Honduras and Canada have reached an agreement by which Honduras will now "sell" oxygen to Canada. Deals of this type are developed from concern that developed nations, by consuming large quantities of fossil fuels, produce large amounts of carbon dioxide which is widely believed to cause global warming. Therefore, these countries that add large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere have some responsibility to help pay for the protection of endangered carbon-dioxide-consuming ecosystems.

As a matter of interest, Honduran forests recycle about seven and a half million toms of carbon dioxide annually, and the Honduran Government is negotiating for a payment of between 10 and 30 dollars a ton. Guyana's forests absorb almost three times that amount of carbon dioxide annually; therefore should we reach an agreement with industrialized countries to pay us for the service that our forests are providing we will easily raise a minimum of more than two hundred million dollars a year, which will go a long way in putting in place systems for environmental protection and to hasten our social and economic development programs.

Let me state that with the recurring problems of debt, ethnic conflicts, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, urban disorder, environmental degradation, crime, disease and narcotics facing so many societies across the globe, it is clear that we need a New Global Human Order. Under this Order, the United Nations system, with the support of international organizations, has to play a more central role in global economic management and should have access to larger financial resources, some of which should he used to establish a Forest Monitoring and Management Training Fund for Sustainable Development.

Urgent action is needed to utilize the gains at the end of the Cold War by further reducing military expenditure. By doing so, there will be a "peace dividend" which will give the wealthy countries a chance to direct mote resources to a social agenda and to assist poor countries through debt relief. At the same time, a Human Development Fund managed by the United Nations and financed by demilitarization funds and global taxes on energy, pollution and global speculative foreign exchange movements, can be used for human development worldwide. Payments for services to poor countries can also be made to ensure global human security. This can be for environmental controls including the protection of forests, destruction of nuclear weapons and controlling communicable diseases and narcotics. Compensation should also be paid to poor countries for brain drain, exclusion of unskilled labor and restrictions on trade.

Finally, we have to begin the application of what I call preventive ecology. As with preventive diplomacy where we have to find solutions to regional, hemispheric and world political problems before they escalate to serious levels, in the same way we will have to apply preventive ecology - to look ahead and apply measures both nationally and internationally to prevent any degradation of the environment. This is a challenge that we now have to seriously confront.

Thank you.

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