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.

The spectacular waterfall on the Potaro river

Robert Coates

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.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled March 1999

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)