The Shielded Guianas

Ask someone the location of Suriname and you are as likely to hear "Africa" and "Asia" as you are "South America." While Latin America is demographically dominated by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Catholics, the Guianas -- from west to east the countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana on the northeastern shoulder of South America -- comprise a curious mosaic left by British, Dutch, and French colonization with input from indigenous populations, as well as Africans, Hindustanis, Indonesians, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, and even Laotians and Cambodians.

So off the beaten track is this corner of the world that even the origin of the region's name is in dispute. According to most references, the term "Guianas" comes from an Amerindian word meaning "Land of Waters." This is certainly untrue: in the dominant tribal dialects, the suffix "yana" means "people." The name in fact represents an English corruption of a Spanish spelling of the name of a tribe living on the borders of Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil. The correct name and spelling of this tribe is "Wayana," but the early Spanish explorers wrote it on their maps as "Juayana" or "Guayana."

For two reasons, all three Guianas are of enormous interest from the viewpoint of conservation and development. The first is their extraordinary amount of relatively pristine rainforest (they retain over 80 percent of the original forest cover). The second is their extraordinarily low population densities -- among the lowest in the world. Suriname, with an area roughly that of the U.S. state of Georgia, has fewer people than Oklahoma City.

From a conservation perspective, these low population densities can prove both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the abundance of natural resources is not being threatened or even destroyed by the survival needs of huge numbers of poor people, as in Haiti or El Salvador. The curse is that these small populations are potentially more susceptible to corruption. In an increasingly globalized world, in which small countries feel ever more marginalized and unable to compete economically on the global stage, there is increased temptation to sell off resources at bargain-basement prices.

In Suriname, for example, a recent influx of cheap foreign goods -- particularly from China -- has out-competed local businesses to the point where a business suit can be purchased for the same price as a bag of Brazil nuts. The death and dearth of local businesses in both Suriname and Guyana mean that people often have to work two, three, or four jobs to survive. The lure of easy money in the drug trade or the willingness to turn a blind eye to such illegal activities as uncontrolled gold mining becomes ever greater.

International tourism -- and ecotourism in particular -- is among the world's fastest growing industries. Ecotourism in the tropics in the Western Hemisphere got much of its start in Suriname. Thirty years ago, when much of what we now call ecotourism fell under the category of bird-watching, three of the most popular destinations were Costa Rica, Peru, and Suriname. Political difficulties in the 1980s all but choked off this trade in Suriname for well over a decade, but ecotourism is now again on the rise across the Guianas. Given the relatively pristine state of their ecosystems, these countries are especially well positioned to capture an increasing share of global ecotourism revenue, provided they build the necessary infrastructure and protect the resources on which this trade depends.

Conservation has a long history in the Guianas: the first protected area was established at the spectacular Kaieteur Falls of Guyana in 1921. Suriname has the most extensive system of parks and protected areas of any of the three countries; the reserves are superb although the infrastructure is not. Beginning in 1947, Suriname's government was determined to establish a system of protected areas which would include a broad cross section of the many ecosystems found there, from rainforest to savannas and from granitic mountains to beaches where sea turtles nest. This system covers over 14 percent of the country and serves as a major draw for ecotourists coming to Suriname. Better management, infrastructure, and marketing would result in a sharply increased tourism industry.

Both French Guiana and Guyana lag far behind Suriname in their protected-area systems. Guyana has long been planning the establishment of a series of national parks, but much of this is still in the discussion stage. In 2006 French Guiana announced the establishment of the "Parc du Sur," an enormous tract that covers over a quarter of the country. Detailed management plans and a trained guard force are still urgently needed.

While much of the discussion of conservation in the Western Hemisphere tropics (in general) and the Amazon (in particular) has centered on national parks, a long-overlooked component of rainforest conservation has been the lands of indigenous peoples. In Suriname, national parks and protected areas cover around 14 percent of the country, yet lands claimed by the Trio and Wayana tribes of the interior cover close to 50 percent. Furthermore, indigenous peoples depend on these forests and know them far better than any outsiders (including park guards and scientists). They clearly constitute underutilized allies for the protection of these ecosystems, but these indigenous peoples (and their friends in both the government and the NGO world) must do a far better job of making the case that they should be seen as the cutting edge of the conservation vanguard. As long as recognizing the land rights of indigenous peoples is seen by national governments as a sacrifice rather than as a conservation and sustainable-development opportunity, this type of "biocultural" conservation -- protecting both biodiversity and indigenous culture -- will be an underutilized tool in the conservation toolbox. There are signs of hope: Guyana has already made some tentative steps in this direction by granting titles to land to indigenous communities, and both Suriname and French Guiana are considering similar proposals.

Nonetheless, all three countries stand at a conservation crossroads. For much of recorded history, these territories were largely cut off from much of the outside world. However, in a political world driven to compete for and capture natural resources -- particularly with the advent of Brazil, China, and India as major players in the global marketplace -- all three Guianas are receiving attention from old and new industrial superpowers in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. None of the Guianas have powerful local conservation lobbies, and the seductiveness of big monies for natural resources in depressed economies is very real. Mining and forestry are not new to these countries, but the scope of potential projects being discussed or even planned goes far beyond what has taken place before.