Hydropower in the rainforest
The Amaila Falls hydropower project has been referred to as the flagship strategy of the low-carbon strategy. The plans for this project involve the containment of two rivers in the forested Pakaraimas/Potaro region, and the first phase will flood 23 square kilometers of forest. The dam is expected to have an installed capacity of 165 megawatts (MW) which will thus make Guyana independent of imported oil and instead provide the Guyanese population with home-produced and clean electricity which also costs consumers less. However, since the start up, the project has been very contentious.
The reservoir will significantly intervene in the traditional habitat of the Patamona people, and many of the residents of the neighboring villages are afraid of how the project will affect their cultural activities, such as hunting, fishing and gathering materials. Quick visits by the project developers to these villages have not led to real consultation. The residents have reported to the country’s most recognized indigenous organization, the Amerindian Peoples Association, that the information they have received focuses only on the possible positive effects, and makes it impossible for them to weigh these against the potential negative consequences of the project.
Studies conducted to identify the potential social and environmental impacts conclude that the project will have no significant negative impact on indigenous peoples’ land, resources, society, rights, identity or cultural integrity. This suggests a lack of a basic understanding of how the Patamona people use their land. It is also very unfortunate that neither in the meetings with the villages, in the studies nor in the national debate has there been any focus on possible future extensions of the reservoir. In the original project documents, there is talk of the potential of a second and third phase that can increase the power capacity to as much as 1060 MW and thus flood a significantly larger area.
At the national level, construction of the road leading to the project site has been a source of widespread criticism from civil society and opposition to rising project prices, corruption and lack of transparent procedures. Data revealing that the region has experienced long periods of drought in the last 20-30 years has also raised doubts about the viability of the project. Due to a lack of political agreement within Guyana, one of the most important investors chose to withdraw in August 2013, and the future of the project is now very uncertain.
Indigenous peoples’ land and rights
Protecting the rights of the indigenous peoples is a fundamental condition for supporting Guyana in the agreement with Norway, and the rights of indigenous peoples have also been the main focus of another of the most profiled projects under the agreement. This project, which is overlooked by the United Nations Development Program, aims to secure the land rights of the country’s indigenous peoples and proposes a plan to grant all villages wanting the formal right to land by 2016. Despite repeated protests by national and international organizations (Amerindian The Peoples Association, the Forest Peoples Program and the Rainforest Foundation) that the project does not uphold international human rights standards to which both Guyana and the UN are bound were approved and signed in October 2013 according to Countryaah.com.
The concerns of the aforementioned organizations are based on the fact that the project is based on Guyana’s existing indigenous law, the Amerindian Act, and thus the existing procedure for formal recognition of land, so-called land titling. This law does not recognize the right of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and resources and, for example, allows the government to issue large-scale mining concessions on indigenous peoples’ property. The United Nations Racial Discrimination Committee (CERD) has on several occasions pointed out that the law violates Guyanese human rights obligations.
The land titling procedure has so far created major problems. Since the system does not publicly recognize territories, but instead issues debris to individual villages, the traditional areas of indigenous peoples have become fragmented. While the people who challenge the existing system are told by the Department of Indigenous Peoples that they must accept the land they “get” and then apply for an extension, their agricultural, hunting and fishing areas are distributed as lumber and mining licenses. This has very serious consequences for both people and nature.
Taking this into account, the conclusion in the recent independent evaluation of the agreement between Guyana and Norway, which used the land titling project as one of the indicators that indigenous rights are respected and promoted, can easily be called into question.
Gold or green forests?
With the record high price of gold in recent years in the world market, the pressure on land for mining has increased significantly. In 2012, Guyana was able to report gold production 20 percent higher than the previous year – the highest in history. Although Guyana’s agreement with Norway contains an important commitment to make the mining sector more sustainable, it appears that the environmental and social negative consequences of mining have increased rather than decreased in recent years.
Mining accounted for 93 percent of all deforestation in the country in 2012, and in the same year the sector was responsible for a measured increase in annual deforestation from 0.054 to 0.079 percent. In the world context, deforestation rates are still low, but a number of aerial photos clearly show how mining is like growing wounds in a green blanket of rainforest. Indicative figures show that deforestation may have declined slightly in 2013, but this has not yet been confirmed by a third-party verification.
In addition to making a foray into the forest, gold digging also gradually eats into indigenous territories. Recently published maps from the country’s mining ministry show that concession blocks have been issued both in the traditional areas of indigenous peoples, which are not recognized by the state, and on lands that have been publicly recognized. This has happened without the people living in the areas being consulted or informed. On other national maps, the boundaries of several of the titled villages have been reduced and in one case completely removed. Two villages have been taken to court in the last two years after trying to stop mining in their areas. In one case, the judge ended up granting a gold digger, stating that the people living there have no right to evict foreign concessionaires who received licenses before the village had been formally entitled to the land. The other village is still in court, which costs the citizens great both mentally and financially.
One of what these and many other villages are afraid of is how the mercury used in gold mining will affect their and nature’s health. Studies conducted in Isseneru (the village that lost its lawsuit) by the National Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 showed that the mercury level in the water they use daily is far above what is recommended and safe.
Critical voices in civil society have questioned how developments in the mining sector are consistent with Guyana’s internationally stated commitment to preserve rainforest and protect the rights of the people who live and depend on it. In the second half of 2014, a comprehensive national debate on sustainability and good governance in the timber sector was also kicked off after revelations about the activities of Chinese company Bai Shan Lin. The debate comes in handy as it sheds light on ongoing negotiations between Guyana and the EU on legal timber trade under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative. Guyana enters into a FLEGT agreement with the EU to ensure good governance in the forest sector is one of the conditions in the agreement with Norway. As it looks in mid-2014, there are many indications that essential improvements are needed to fulfill a number of key commitments Guyana has under the agreement.
Population: 735 909 (2017)
Life Expectancy: 68.4 (2017).
Infant mortality: 31.5 per 1000 (2016)
GDP per capita: US $ 7,900 (2016)
Religion: Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Official languages: English
Currency unit: Guyanese dollar
Export articles: Sugar, gold, bauxite, aluminum, rice, shrimp, molasses, rum, timber
Regional relations: Member of OAS, UNASUR, AOSIS, CELAC and Petrocaribe