Take over our rainforest

Guyana's extraordinary offer to Britain to save one of the world's most important carbon sinks


Man-made climate change is a clear and present danger. Decision-makers from around the globe will converge on Bali in a fortnight in an attempt to do something about it. And the call has gone out for the world's leaders to take bold action to avoid a catastrophe.

Enter Guyana. The former British colony, sandwiched between Venezuela and Brazil, is home to fewer than a million people but it is also home to an intact rainforest larger than England. In a dramatic offer, the government of Guyana has said it is willing to place its entire standing forest under the control of a British-led, international body in return for a bilateral deal with the UK that would secure development aid and the technical assistance needed to make the change to a green economy.

The deal would represent potentially the largest carbon offset ever undertaken, securing the vast carbon sinks of Guyana's pristine forest in return for assisting the economic growth of South America's poorest economy.

Speaking in his office in the capital, Georgetown, on the Caribbean coast, Guyana's President, Bharrat Jagdeo, said the offer was a chance for Britain to make a "moral offset" and underline its leadership on the most important single issue facing the world – climate change. "We can deploy the forest against global warming and, through the UK's help, it wouldn't have to stymie development in Guyana."

Mr Jagdeo, 43, said he was "looking for a partner to sit across the table with" to work out the precise terms of any deal, without compromising the country's sovereignty. "We are a country with the political will and a large tract of standing forest. I'm not a mercenary, this is not blackmail and I realise there's no such thing as a free lunch. I'm not just doing this just because I'm a good man and want to save the world, I need the assistance."

Mr Jagdeo, an economist by training, did not envisage long-term support from the British taxpayer but said the British government could help by lending its backing to private sector investments through the emerging carbon markets. "The market should ultimately compensate countries but in the absence of this, this is the best thing on the table. It would send a strong message to Bali that standing forests matter," he said.

The existing rainforest reserve of Iwokrama in central Guyana has been mentioned as a model for what could be done countrywide. The million-acre reserve was gifted to the Commonwealth in 1989 as a showcase for how tropical forests could be managed to provide ecological and economic benefits. Scientists working there estimate it holds close to 120 million tons of carbon – an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of the UK.

David Singh, chief executive of Iwokrama, said Guyana's offer has to be taken seriously: "When a sovereign state does this, it's something the world needs to pay attention to. Nowhere else is a state willing to place its forest into the hands of the international community for protection."

The accelerating destruction of the rainforests that form a cooling band around the earth's equator is recognised as one the main causes of climate change. Tropical deforestation accounts for one fifth of all carbon emissions, more than the entire transport sector – including the aviation industry. The burning of trees pumps as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the US and has pushed Indonesia and Brazil into the world's top four polluters. Despite this, efforts to avoid deforestation were not included in the Kyoto protocol. That agreement is expiring and the UN climate change conference in Bali next month is tasked with thrashing out a successor that will work. The landmark Stern Review concluded that forests offer the single largest chance for cost-effective and immediate reductions of carbon emissions.

But the gap between rhetoric and reality remains large for smaller nations such as Guyana. "It infuriates me when I hear lofty speeches and back-patting in the developed world," said Mr Jagdeo. "Despite Stern, we are wondering whether they really believe that avoiding deforestation is the most cost-effective way to combat climate change."

Hylton Murray-Philipson, the head of London-based Rainforest Concern, said a deal could be a breakthrough. "In the absence of an international agreement, an early action by enlightened leaders should be greatly welcomed. Business as usual is not going to work." The former investment banker, who is working to bring funding into developing carbon markets, said: "It's insanity that a single service company, Google, has a market value of $200bn, while all the services of all of the world's great forests are valued at nothing."

Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America and, with its history in the sugar trade and Caribbean links, is primarily a coastal culture. With a population of only around 750,000 in a country almost as big as the entire UK, it combines dense, species-rich forests with low population pressure.

But the soaring price of timber and gold, which is mined from forested areas, means pressure to exploit its most obvious resource is building. A Brazilian plan is on the drawing board to build a paved highway through the rainforest, a move that could turn Georgetown into a major port and change the face of the country. "Maybe we should just cut down the trees. Then someone would recognise the problem," said Mr Jagdeo. "But I want to think we can fulfil our people's aspirations without cutting down the trees."

Mr Jagdeo said the UK's leading role in achieving debt relief for Third World countries had inspired him to make the offer to London: "Ordinary people in Britain, the churches and NGOs put the issue squarely on the agenda. Then the British Government championed debt relief. This would send a signal that we are prepared to go beyond Kyoto. It could be a symbol of what can be done."

Iwokrama: the prototype which prospered

The outline of the Iwokrama rainforest reserve cannot be seen from the air. The green ocean of the forest canopy stretches uninterrupted in every direction. But the sanctuary, which takes its name from the language of the local Makushi people and means "place of refuge", is there and it's an extraordinary place.

Part of the Guyana Shield, one of the last four intact rainforests left in the world, it is home to mountains, 200 lakes, rivers flowing over volcanic dykes, lowland tropical rainforests and palm forests. The forest shelters some of the world's most endangered species, including the jaguar, harpy eagle, giant anteater, giant river otter, anaconda, black caiman and giant river turtle.

Iwokrama is more than a reserve. It is a living laboratory where science, conservation, tourism, biodiversity and the needs of the local community have come together in an experiment to sustainably manage the forest. It was set up after Guyana offered the one million acre site to the international community in 1989 and is run by local and foreign staff. David Singh, a Guyanese conservationist who has run the centre for three years, is convinced the experiment has been a success. "We have learnt how to do it and how not to do it – which is often the most expensive lesson," he says. "The international community could transform the way we use forests."

The centre attracted heavy funding in its early years but has struggled more recently as overseas donors shifted their attention from sustainable development into HIV and Aids projects. The scope of the scientific work undertaken at the reserve's field station has been scaled back and Guyana's government had to plunder its own meagre budget two years ago to keep the reserve going.

But the increasing attention now being paid to climate change is starting to make Iwokrama look like a project ahead of its time as it seeks to solve the conundrum of making its trees worth more standing up than they would be if they were cut down.

A mixture of eco-tourism, non-timber products and business ventures such as a butterfly farm are bringing in an income. Ron Allicock, a Makushi ranger at the centre, said: "People come here thinking the forest is empty, that the place is just full of trees. But it is also our home."

He thinks Iwokrama could be a model for getting it right in forests around the world: "We've got to fix the small place first to show we can fix the big place."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

£60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

Head of Affiliate Sales for Emerging Markets

competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you looking for your next role ...

Brand Engagement Manager - TV

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is your chance to join a gl...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Experienced Primary Teachers We are curr...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits