The Kansas-sized country of Guyana, formerly known as British Guiana and the only English-speaking nation in South America, held elections on November 28, 2011, and voted in a new president, Donald Ramotar. This marked the end of 12 years in office for President Bharrat Jagdeo, under whose leadership Guyana became a global leader in calling attention to the incredible importance of tropical forests in the global battle to mitigate climate change. I would like to pay tribute to him here because what he has accomplished in the global arena has been truly exceptional and should be brought to the world's attention.
I have been working in the Guiana Shield region of South America for 36 years now; as a rainforest specialist, I was attracted to this part of Amazonia because of its vast expanses of pristine rainforest, the largest extent of undisturbed rainforest anywhere in the world. Conservation International (CI) has had programs in Guyana and the neighboring country of Suriname since 1991, and we first met with President Jagdeo shortly after he took office in 1999. He was only 35 at the time, but we were impressed from the first moment with his intellect, his charm and his willingness to listen and learn. Over the next few years, we developed a real friendship, and I could call him on his personal line any time the need arose -- a rare thing for a head of state these days.
In October 2006, I paid another visit to President Jagdeo, one that turned out to be very important for Guyana and for the world. At the time, the global community was just starting to realize that tropical rainforests play a key role in mitigating climate change, with about 16 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from the destruction of these wonderfully rich and diverse ecosystems. From this realization emerged the concept of "avoided deforestation" -- the basic idea that if cutting down these forests contributes to climate change, we should stop cutting them down. This concept later morphed into another of those clumsy acronyms that inhabit the jargon of international conventions -- REDD+, or Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation -- but the idea remained the same.
The idea behind this concept was to compensate countries with high deforestation rates for reducing or halting forest destruction. However, the problem was -- and still is to some extent -- that this system didn't take into account the more than 30 percent of all remaining tropical forests which are in countries that, for one reason or another, have kept their forests intact. There aren't many of these -- Guyana and Suriname lead the list, joined by a handful of other countries like Bhutan in Asia and a few countries in Central Africa. In 2007, I and several of my CI colleagues co-authored a paper highlighting the importance of what we called High Forest Cover, Low Deforestation Rate (HFLD) countries. We pointed out that rather than excluding them from the REDD+ process, we needed to reward them and put them at the forefront of REDD+ discussions. But we needed an articulate and visible spokesman, and happily we found one in President Jagdeo. We met with him for an hour on that day in October 2006, and he immediately grasped the importance of the issue, inviting us to come back a few days later to talk to his cabinet.
From that moment on, he took on the mantle of leadership for continually and forcefully speaking on this issue whenever the opportunity presented itself -- at U.N. climate conventions in Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun, and at a wide variety of other global events. He did press conferences on the issue with CI board member Harrison Ford, with prime ministers and presidents, and with key figures in the business world. Along the way, he also designed and launched a Low Carbon Development Strategy for his country, one of the first of its kind and certainly the first for an HFLD country. And this became so appealing to the international donor community that in 2009 the Norwegian government made a $250 million commitment to his Strategy. When asked why his country -- a long way from the tropical forest world -- had made such a commitment, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg stated in good vernacular English, "It's a no-brainer."
But one thing was still missing. Guyana has long been the only country in the Americas without a formal protected area network and the accompanying legislation. Yes, they made a "gift to the world" in 1989 with the creation of the Iwokrama Reserve, a 371,000-hectare (916,760-acre) protected area designed to demonstrate sustainable forest management. With the help of CI, the country also created one of the first indigenous community-owned conservation areas in the world, a huge 625,000-hectare (more than 1.5 million-acre) pristine area in southern Guyana now owned by some 250 Wai Wai people. But there was still no real protected area network.
To resolve this, President Jagdeo again showed his leadership. In June 2011, the Parliament passed the National Protected Areas Act, and in October they signed into law the first two parks under this act, the magnificent 611,000 hectare (1.5 million acre) Kanuku Mountains Protected Area in the interior of the country, and the 125,000-hectare (309,000-acre) Shell Beach Protected Area along the coast, one of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the Americas.
We were delighted. For us, this culminated 18 years of work with several governments, but most especially with the government of President Jagdeo who, with these protected areas created in the final months of his presidency, cemented his legacy and his place in history.
We have high hopes that his successor, President Donald Ramotar, who just took office last month, will carry this forward, and continue Guyana's leadership role among the forest-rich countries of the world.
Russ Mittermeier is the president of Conservation International