Guyana: In praise of the The Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation- commentary

The almost one million acres (371,000 hectares) of land set aside since 1989 for conservation and the study and practice of sustainable use of forests, was a gift to the rest of the world that also benefits us.     
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It was not meant to be an empty gesture, but a living, working substantiation of Guyana’s commitment to the fight against climate change. It is without a doubt a considerably major contribution from a small nation (population-wise), and one that should make us all proud. However, the allusion in the centre’s advertisement to a proliferation of illicit activities that along with logging and mining, include hunting and fishing proves that this is not the case and right-thinking citizens should have no qualms about going full-out Greta Thunberg on any and all delinquents. How dare they? Will people really never learn until they have polluted every river? Sullied every habitat? Chopped down every tree? Damned the planet?

As things stand, Iwokrama and the people who do incredible work there do not receive the praise and recognition they richly deserve, but must it also be abused, and their efforts taken for granted? And why is it that so many of the centre’s milestones are a mere blip on the radar of Guyanese life? In about two weeks it will be 24 years since the official agreement for Iwokrama was signed by then president Cheddi Jagan and former Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku and this very month is the 30th anniversary of the pledge to set aside the pristine forest made by former president Desmond Hoyte at a Commonwealth Heads meeting. A few months ago, as well, Britain’s Prince Charles, the first and only Patron of Iwokrama, a role he accepted nearly 20 years ago, when he visited Guyana, extended his patronage for another term.

From those years to now the effects of climate change on the world at large have become much more drastic. The foresight of demarcating an area like Iwokrama is praiseworthy and perhaps more crucial now than it was at the beginning, which is why illegal activities within its boundaries must be roundly condemned.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Iwokrama vision has only partially come to fruition. This is because some of the monetary pledges made by the international community at the inception eventually fell away to nothingness. In addition, over the years, donations and grants it did receive dwindled in the face of global financial austerity and the diversion of funding by international organisations to health crises, poverty alleviation and recovery after natural disasters. However, the parts that have come together have done so beautifully and include an eco-lodge and research centre that draw hundreds of visitors every year, including university students from in and outside of Guyana as well as other educational institutions.

The entire area of the forest is divided in two; half of it is for conservation and preservation and the other half for sustainable usage with the aim of it being a model for other countries. Iwokrama has formed partnerships with at least two companies over the years to pursue sustainable timber harvesting – Tigerwood Guyana Inc in 2007 and Farfan and Mendes Ltd in 2014 – with the royalties from these ventures helping to offset the centre’s expenses. In addition, in March 2008, the centre sold rights to its environmental services to a UK-based company, Canopy Capital. The five-year agreement was to have seen Iwokrama receiving funding from Canopy Capital in exchange for that company measuring and valuing the forest’s ecosystems; it was also marketed as a means of Iwokrama securing financial independence. Iwokrama confirmed that it received US$100,000 (a mere drop in the bucket considering its US$1 million-plus budget, which is by no means lavish) from Canopy Capital in 2009, but there was no further word. In any case, the five years ended in 2013 and Canopy Capital, the brainchild of Englishman Hylton Murray-Philipson, described as an eco-entrepreneur with interests in silviculture and other forestry activities, was dissolved in July 2017.

Around all of this, the Government of Guyana has steadfastly funded the centre though it cannot be said this contribution meets its needs. And although it fervently fundraises, including an ongoing arrangement with Amazon Smile, the centre currently cannot afford the quota of staff it needs to run as effectively as it should, hence the incursions by crooks as outlined above. Despite all of this, however, Iwokrama remains a shining example to the world that forests do not have to be decimated to provide value and continues to do its part in helping us all to breathe. We all need to do more to help sustain it.

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