In April 2010, the UN Environment Programme named six people “Champions of the Earth” – the UN’s highest award for environmental leadership. Among those recognised this year was Guyana’s president, Bharrat Jagdeo, who won the award for “Biodiversity Conservation & Ecosystem Management”.
On UNEP’s website is a short video with a commentary by Jagdeo in which he complains at the lack of money for REDD in general and in Guyana in particular. There are, he said,
“A lot of promises out there, but when it comes to the provision of financial resources, their rhetoric doesn’t match the action. The failure in Copenhagen didn’t help very much.”
Less than two months later, Jagdeo’s message is rather more blunt. “Climate change is good business for us,” he said at a Canada-funded International Conference of Low Carbon Development and Community Planning. In what must surely be an embarrassing moment for UNEP, Jagdeo continued by explaining that climate change, “is probably the best thing that could have happened to forested countries”.
Funnily enough, UNEP’s press release about its 2010 Champions of the Earth award ceremony focusses on something it calls “Green Economy”. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director said,
“Last but not least, President Jagdeo is a powerful advocate of the need to conserve and more intelligently manage the planet’s natural and nature-based assets. He has recognized more than most the multiple Green Economy benefits of forests in terms of combating climate change, but also in terms of development; employment; improved water supplies and the conservation of biodiversity.”
Now that Jagdeo has clarified what he understands by “Green Economy”, perhaps Steiner should consider withdrawing that statement and maybe asking Jagdeo to return the Champion of the Earth award.
Another of Jagdeo’s statements in UNEP’s video cannot pass without comment:
“We have been mining and cutting trees for a hundred years, yet 85 per cent of our country is covered with forest. And this did not happen by chance. We have some of the toughest sustainable forestry management practises in the world.”
That the UNEP did not edit this part out of Jagdeo’s video reveals the emptiness of the term “sustainable forestry management”. Or perhaps that UNEP knows little or nothing about the logging industry in Guyana. The biggest logging company in Guyana, Barama, has concessions covering an area of 1.6 million hectares in the north-west of the country. Barama is a wholly owned subsidiary of the controversial Malaysian logging company Samling. Writing in 2006, Marcus Colchester, Director of the Forest Peoples Programme, described Barama’s impacts on Guyana’s indigenous peoples as follows:
“The logging operations were denounced by the Amerindian Peoples’ Association, the main national indigenous organisation, which documented how BCL [Barama Company Limited] operations had ignored indigenous rights, bulldozed gravesites, forcibly relocated Amerindian villagers to make way for the log pond and allowed the local environment to be depleted by hunters and wildcat miners entering along the logging roads. It took ten years for the government to regularise the tenure of the Carib Indians at Baramita on the western edge of the concession but a number of other Amerindian settlements in the concession remain untitled and unrecognised to this day. …
“BCL alleged that it had trouble making money out of its massive concession in the North West as the forests there just yielded relatively small diameter baromalli trees. It began buying higher quality timbers from other concessionaires including entering into controversial and ill-regulated deals with Amerindian communities that led to documented over-harvesting and community divisions.”
In 2006, the Forest Stewardship Council surprised many of its supporters (and raised the hackles of its critics) when it certified as well managed part of Barama’s logging operations in Guyana. The following year, the certificate was withdrawn, after an investigation by FSC’s Accreditation Services International. Two years later, WWF announced that it had “disconnected” from Barama. WWF had been working with Barama, aiming to get the company’s operations re-certified. “There are too many issues and it doesn’t look like that will happen,” Dr Patrick Williams, WWF’s country manager, told the Stabroek News. Williams criticised Barama’s managerial and technical capabilityand told Stabroek News that the company did not seem to be serious in dealing with the problem areas.
So much for Guyana’s “sustainable forestry management practises”. Economically too, Barama has been a disaster for Guyana. First, the company was granted a tax holiday. In 2006, Barama announced that it had not made a profit in the past 15 years. That’s despite having concessions covering 20 per cent of Guyana’s permanent forest estate. So where did the profits go?
Meanwhile, Jagdeo has put up a series of billboards in Georgetown and Guyana’s coastal plain announcing that he won UNEP’s “Champion of Earth” award this year. No doubt very useful in the run-up to national elections.