Guyana’s energetic president Bharrat Jagdeo presides over the third-poorest state in the Americas, with a population well under a million and an economy entirely dependent on the export of sugar, bauxite and gold. But Jagdeo has wasted no time in recent years in realizing an entirely new kind of ‘comparative advantage’: a resplendent and intact Amazonian forest the size of England and Wales, which Europe and North America are ever more keen to conserve and offset against the ravages of carbon-intensive development.
The pragmatic leader of the formerly socialist Progressive Peoples’ Party (PPP), Jagdeo worked at the IMF in the 1990s before assuming the presidency as the protégé of Janet Jagan, herself one half of the dynamic couple who founded the state and introduced sweeping socialist reforms in the 1970s. Climate change became Jagdeo’s cause célèbre when he convinced global leaders at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 to include the conservation of standing forest as part of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) policies. Norway agreed to fund the country to the tune of $250 million over five years to 2015, and Guyana now eagerly awaits its first $30 million payment via the World Bank.
Assuring environmental conservation is a contentious issue on the streets of the capital, Georgetown, however, where forests are assigned little worth and recent expansion of the goldmining industry has brought in much larger amounts of foreign capital. Guyana’s business sector fears that the country will be prevented from future development through its collusion with the carbon-hungry North. Jagdeo’s plan to monetize forest carbon was never planned to be at the expense of mining – though it is inevitably a delicate balancing act when minimal state infrastructure is faced with an environmentally unsound mining industry as well as rising market prices. If it functions properly, REDD is supposed to channel funds to rural areas and promote sustainable livelihoods in Amerindian communities. These are regions that are often very poor, have minimal contact with the state, and are liable to exploitation by private contractors – whether Guyanese, Brazilian, or from further afield.
Socially, Guyana is still straggled by ethnic tensions between its Indo and Afro populations, which inform political allegiance. A series of high-profile crimes and massacres have shocked the nation over the last five years, events that the PPP has appeared powerless to influence. The high murder rate and widespread poverty continue to encourage migration overseas, a hugely damaging brain drain illustrated by the flight of young teachers. The law now requires two years of local teaching before they can leave, but there are nonetheless serious doubts over the quality of basic education.
Many of Guyana’s social problems can be traced back to the economic mismanagement that followed the Cold War era, with the painful process of privatization failing to bring the ‘trickle down’ that economic liberalization promised. The loss of preferential access to European markets was significant, though Jagdeo did secure a better deal from the Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2008, as well as gaining a $700-million multilateral debt write-off. For the urban poor, income is more likely to come from relatives overseas, from alliances with the growing Brazilian informal mining community, or from the highly significant transnational cocaine trade and associated money laundering.
Despite its innumerable problems, Georgetown’s preserved colonial buildings, crumbling wooden houses and network of canals have their own charms, with vivacious street traders and lively cricket and nightlife scenes. As Brazilian influence and investment add a new current to Guyana’s traditional dependencies, there is a clear sense here of changing times ahead.
|Leader||President Bharrat Jagdeo.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $1,450 (Brazil $8,070; UK $41,520).|
|Monetary unit||Guyanese dollars (G$203 = US$1).|
|Main exports||Despite a 36% cut in sugar prices due to the end of European trade preferences, the crop still represents a quarter of exports. Bauxite and gold have a similar export share, while rice, shrimp, timber and rum are also significant. Remittances from the Guyanese diaspora represent a significant chunk of national income.|
|People||62,498 (2009). Annual population growth rate -0.1%. Population per sq km 4.0 (UK 253). Some 90% of Guyana’s population lives along the coastline.|
|Health||Infant mortality 29 per 100,000 live births (Brazil 17, UK 5) – this is down from 59 when last profiled 12 years ago. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 150 (UK 1 in 4,700). HIV prevalence rate 1.2%. Access to clean water 94% and to decent sanitation 81%.|
|Environment||CO2 emissions per capita 2.0 (UK 19.3). Deforestation remains low in Guyana. Pollution from the mining industry has, in the worst cases, led to health problems and migration of indigenous communities. The realities of climate change hit home in 2005 when much of the coastal strip, which lies below sealevel, suffered extensive flooding.|
|Culture||TIndo-Guyanese 43%, Afro-Guyanese 30%, mixed 17%, Amerindian 9%, with white, Chinese, Brazilian and other minorities. Guyana’s carnival, Mashramani, is held in Georgetown on February’s Republic Day, and features steel pan, elaborate costumes, floats, and blaring soca music.|
|Religion||Christianity 57%, Hinduism 30%, Islam 7%|
|Language||English; Creolese is spoken colloquially; plus seven indigenous languages, Hindi, Urdu – and Portuguese in the expanding Brazilian community..|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Inequality indices show a steady fall over the past 20 years, but flight of the wealthy overseas may play a large part in that. On the street, inequality feels as bad as ever with the black urban poor suffering disproportionately.|
|Literacy||No official figure. Despite 95% primary enrolment/attendance, however, there are concerns that functional literacy has declined.|
|Life expectancy||67 years (Brazil 73, UK 80). Figures show a slow but steady improvement, partly due to a large decrease in infant mortality.|
|Freedom||Though there is a free press and a culture of debate, real democratic participation appears to be minimal and there is evidence of government-sponsored extrajudicial killings.|
|Position of women||Guyana is far from equal but human development indicators demonstrate an improvement in women’s position.|
|Sexual minorities||Male homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment. Guyana remains a homophobic country where suspicions and hate run high alongside religious rhetoric.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Jagdeo’s detractors perhaps miss the sad reality that Guyana’s colonial legacies offered little recent prospect for genuine advancement beyond minor economic growth and piecemeal improvement to social indicators. By increasing the country’s international voice and attempting to turn its undeveloped, forested interior to economic advantage, the outgoing president (elections are due in August) may well have set in motion a more sustainable future.|
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.