Earlier this month at the formal opening of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting at the National Cultural Centre, President Jagdeo must have seriously surprised some of those in his audience as he wrapped up his presentation.
Coming to the final few paragraphs of what had been a straightforward address, the President disclosed that Guyana’s offer of almost its entire rainforest in the fight against climate change was still on the table. He disclosed that in a meeting last year with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair he “outlined our offer to deploy almost our entire rainforest – which is the size of England – in the long term service of the world’s battle against climate change. That offer remains”.
It is unclear which Guyanese stakeholders knew of President Jagdeo’s proposal beforehand and the process through which it was hammered out. Suffice to say, none of the political parties represented in Parliament was aware of it and no other stakeholder has since come forward to claim ownership of the idea.
In the context of the clear and perceptible threat that climate change poses to humanity, an offer such as President Jagdeo’s may appear attractive and broadly acceptable to all once it is fleshed out. It does not however excuse the fact that it is unacceptable for President Jagdeo to have completely surprised the nation with this munificent offer – so far his own – to the world.
The announcement in itself relegated Parliament and all other stakeholders in the discussion about the future of Guyana’s forested area and the best means of making it work for the country and its people. The proposal also completely ignores the involved and widely applauded bi-partisan work contained within the National Development Strategy.
At the very least one would have thought that the President would have presented his thoughts and views to the Economic Services Committee and the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament. These were among the several standing committees that the reformed constitution had envisaged playing a muscular role in overseeing government’s activities and public business. The pledge of almost the entire rainforest in the climate fight should definitely have been on their agenda.
Similar criticisms had arisen when the late President Desmond Hoyte had made an unheralded offer at another Commonwealth forum – the Heads of Government Meeting in 1989 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That proposal gave birth to the Iwokrama International Rainforest Centre which has struggled to find viability in an international framework which placed little value on standing forests.
This framework is now set for a serious shake-up at the upcoming Bali climate meeting and whereas the Kyoto Protocol on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions didn’t assign real worth to standing forests like Guyana’s that perversity is about to change. This sea-change has also begun to course through the main multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank which recently announced a Forest Carbon Partnership Facility to pay for the protection of standing forests including those in countries like Guyana.
It may be these fundamental changes which have encouraged President Jagdeo to fast-track this offer which caught Georgetown unawares. Because the offer was so bare there is time for the President to retrieve the situation before the proposal is formally placed before the upcoming meeting of the Common-wealth Heads of Government. President Jagdeo needs to detail exactly what his ideas are for the rainforest which is to be deployed (there are several new emerging possibilities which would be far better than trading credits in the now rapacious carbon market), the exact areas it would encompass, the impact on the forestry, mining and indigenous communities and how the country and its people are expected to benefit. Such a proposal should be tabled in the National Assembly for consideration by the relevant standing committees and full debate in the House.
It is gravely discordant that the government is given to routine and sprawling consultations on issues such as an interim management committee for the city but that there would be not a word of public debate before this grand forest offer was unveiled by the President.
The President’s proposal has taken on added significance and potency in the light of the recent demarche on Barama Company Limited which is the largest forest concession holder in the country – just over four million acres in the northwest. The company has been slapped with $96M in fines and its relationship with the government seems to have entered a new phase. The fines were completely unexpected considering the lax regulatory environment that had prevailed for many years and the seemingly blind eye that was turned to several heavily criticized practices which the company has now been fined for. President Jagdeo himself made the point on Friday that if companies like Barama did not follow the rules they would have to leave. Coming in tandem with the fines this signals a seismic shift in the approach to the country’s forests. It, however, needs to be explained to the public and discussed with all stakeholders.