Why We All Should Care about Guyana’s Rainforests
Guyana’s rainforests are a nexus of natural history, majestic scenery, and diverse communities
Introduction to Guyana’s Landscapes
They say everything is bigger than Guyana, and a visit certainly shows why. With an area of 83,000 square miles, Guyana contains coastal plains, towering mountains, sprawling natural savannas, and vast rainforest ecosystems. That’s about the size of the US state of Idaho. This rich topography is estimated to contain approximately 4% of all the world’s flora and fauna species, including:
- > 825 species of birds
- > 228 mammal species
- > 350 species of freshwater bony fish
- > 500 species of marine fish
- > 8,000 flower species (more than half of which are endemic, and new ones are being discovered every year)
Many of these species are iconic Amazonian animals that have given Guyana the nickname “Land of the Giants.” Impressive animals abound in Guyana’s rainforest regions: some famous faces, like jaguars, giant river otters, giant anteaters, and giant armadillos, call the Amazon their home, but so do less well-known animals, like river-dwelling arapaimas and Amazonian tapirs.
Guyana is in a unique position to offer sustainable tourism options for travelers. Much of the country’s forested interior has remained free from the extractive industry due to a low population density and indigenous management techniques. Furthermore, 9% of Guyana’s land cover is officially under protection and/or conservation status. Conservation efforts have successfully established five national protected areas: the Iwokrama Forest, the Kaieteur National Park, Shell Beach, the Kanashen Amerindian Protected Area, and the Kanuku Mountains Protected Area.
A recent action plan by the government to address climate change pledged more than 7,700 square miles (2 million hectares) that are slated for conservation in the Nationally Protected Areas System by 2025. Between 2009 and 2015, Guyana pursued the world’s first national-scale, payment-for-performance forest conservation agreement in partnership with Norway. Guyana’s unique sustainability model demonstrates the willingness of its government to pursue meaningful and innovative conservation approaches.
Why Are Guyana’s Rainforests Different from Other Rainforests?
Imagine – abundant wildlife, roaring rivers with thousands of gallons of fresh water, and vibrant cultures. Here are three reasons why Guyana’s rainforests are so unique:
Position at the northern edge of the Amazon basin
There is perhaps no ecosystem better known than the majestic Amazon Rainforest. The largest tropical rainforest on the planet covers nearly 40% of South America, 6.9 million square miles, and 8 countries. The Amazon’s forests and waters make it arguably the most important terrestrial biome on the planet.
Guyana’s rainforests are nestled between the vast expanse of the Brazilian Amazon and the remarkable Orinoco Delta region in Venezuela. The eight rivers that define the country flow both in and out of the Amazon Basin, providing unique nutrients that nourish some of the most biodiverse areas in Guyana.
A key member in the Guiana Shield
Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia make up the Guiana Shield, a 1.7 billion year old geological formation that encompasses 40% of the Amazon. Despite forming part of the Amazon Basin, the Guiana Shield has unique ecosystems created by the mountains and flat-topped plateaus (tepuis) that define the region, meaning Guyana has a particularly high number of species that live only within its forests. Beyond the wildlife, the landscapes of the Guiana Shield are breathtaking and important to local communities, including the ancient Kanuku Mountains and the historic Mount Roraima.
Very low rates of deforestation
At over 87% forest cover, Guyana has the second highest proportion of forest cover of any country in the world. The rainforest in Guyana is considered one of the wildest places on earth, with “intact but unstudied biodiversity” and a deforestation rate currently under 1% per year. A major reason for this forest preservation is the stewardship of indigenous communities who inhabit and protect Guyana’s vast, forested interior.
Given its unique position in the Amazon and in the global ecosystem, there are plenty of reasons why we must protect Guyana’s rainforests. Here are a few of the most pressing reasons:
1. Guyana’s rainforests help us breathe
The vast systems of trees and plants absorb the carbon dioxide and harmful toxins put into the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen. They are the most powerful resource our planet has to mitigate harmful greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to climate change.
2. Guyana’s rainforests minimize global heating
The vast canopies shroud the forest floor, reflecting the sun’s rays during the day and trapping heat during the night. They are large-scale climate regulators that keep our weather patterns steady.
3. Guyana’s rainforests give us clean water
The vast, interconnected plant systems in Guyana’s rainforest absorb water from the ground through their roots and release millions of tons of water vapor daily, creating the Amazon’s “flying river” system. In the Amazon Rainforest, 70% of the atmospheric moisture comes from plants.
A crucial part of the global water cycle, this evaporation is what leads to rainfall and consistent, annual seasons, which can be felt as far away as the United Kingdom and the American Midwest. This prevents droughts that drive food shortages and human conflicts. If more of the rainforest is lost, more extreme weather events will continue, putting global ecosystems at risk.
4. Guyana’s rainforests give us hope for the future
With new species being discovered every year, humans only have minuscule insight into the thousands of plants and insects living in Guyana’s rainforests. Many scientists suspect that secrets to curing deadly global killers such as HIV and malaria lie here. In fact, more than 60% of anti-cancer drugs are derived from natural sources, including rainforest plants.
5. Guyana’s rainforests are preventing the next global pandemic
Scientists have discovered the COVID-19 pandemic was borne from wildlife trafficking and human interference with wildlife. Tampering with natural ecosystems means unregulated exposure between humans and animals, inevitably resulting in the spread of zoonotic diseases – that is, diseases spread between vertebrate animals and humans. Biodiversity and forest cover in rainforests also prevent viruses from becoming too strong, since a diverse and scattered population is less likely to share diseases.
Threats to Guyana’s Rainforests
Although rates of deforestation are currently low, local rule of law is also relatively weak, so Guyana’s rainforests are not safe from the extractive industries that threaten the region. Mineral extraction (gold, diamonds, and bauxite) currently poses the greatest threat to Guyana’s rainforests. Gold is the country’s primary export, and it is currently found under the forest floor. One study reports that 85% of the country’s deforestation is attributed to gold mining. Furthermore, the recent discovery of coastal oil reserves has created potential infrastructure proposals to deforest land for easier land access to the drilling sites. Deforestation poses a threat to Guyana’s rainforests, and could introduce more surveying of the country’s land for extraction.
Guyana’s indigenous communities have long kept deforestation rates low. Since 2000, Guyana has experienced a 1.2% loss in tree cover – a statistic that is unmatched by most South American countries. However, international interests in natural resources must be disincentivized, both for the natural environment and for the people whose lives depend on it. It is now our turn to advocate for the wellbeing of Guyanese rainforests, even in the face of lucrative resource extraction opportunities.
Indigenous Peoples – Stewards of Guyanese Natural Areas
With 90% of Guyana’s population living along the coast, the country’s indigenous communities play a significant role in caring for the country’s forested interior. Many of these communities – including our partners at Warapoka – can trace their ancestry back thousands of years and see how ancient traditions continue to manage the forests for future generations.
Today, 80,000 people make up Guyana’s nine recognized indigenous groups. That’s nearly one-tenth of Guyana’s population. Many live away from marine coastlines in remote villages, accessible only by boat. Indigenous peoples in Guyana own approximately 18% of the country’s forests, though this does not reflect how much their original lands previously covered or how much they manage directly or indirectly.
Countries from the global north have used the environment as a means for human and capital expansion. However, indigenous groups see their identities and histories reflected in the land, and they understand their relationship with the land as reciprocal. Due to their interconnectedness with the land, indigenous peoples were the first to recognize seasonal migration patterns, population changes over time, interactions between species, declines in species, and more.
To provide protections for indigenous rights and recognition for native properties, the Guyanese government passed the Amerindian Act in 2006. The Act fails to address a number of problems within indigenous communities, which include difficulties obtaining land deeds, unclear map boundaries, improper use of traditional lands, and more. A lack of legislation that inadequately protects indigenous rights impacts not only indigenous livelihoods, but also the welfare of the rainforests.
Scientific inquiry and conservation efforts must learn to include indigenous knowledge, as no amount of learned knowledge from field books can substitute millenary roots. It is crucial to listen to the voices of the land’s original inhabitants and to involve them in decision-making processes.
What Is It Like to Visit Guyana’s Rainforests?
Guyana’s presence in the tourism industry is like no other: because it has so few visitors every year, it offers a unique experience that cannot be found in more popular destinations. Furthermore, its majestic canopies, vibrant topography, and distinctive wildlife produce a landscape that is unforgettable, even to the most seasoned of travelers.
Guyana’s rainforests offer special opportunities to their visitors. A guided walk through the rainforest, a boat ride through the country’s major rivers, and a swim in some of Guyana’s freshwater bodies are among the many options offered by the rainforest. Additionally, there are a number of community-owned lodges available for adventurous travelers wishing to immerse themselves both in Guyana’s natural beauty and its various cultures. One of the most engaging of these experiences is in Warapoka, a remote indigenous village in Region One.
How Can I Do My Part to Give Back to Guyana’s Rainforests?
Contributing to sustainability projects through volunteer hours and financial gifts is one way to support both the rainforests and the people who depend on them. Supporting indigenous communities’ fight for improved legislation and representation is another way to promote a better relationship between local lands and people.
It is also important to know how extractive industries, trade, and consumption can impact the global carbon footprint. Awareness campaigns and other advocacy efforts go a long way to educate the public about how they can be more mindful of their impact on the global environment.
Every November, Guyana also celebrates its own Tourism Awareness Month, which offers both domestic and international travelers a chance to enjoy the sites and experiences that the country has to offer. Guyana Tourism Awareness Month advertises a host of opportunities for tourists to responsibly participate in tourism experiences that support industry growth, generate revenue for employees, and support the maintenance and longevity of the rainforests.