This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Georgetown, Guyana – South America’s only English-speaking nation has one of the continent’s best records in protecting the Amazon rainforest – and an ad hoc patrol group of indigenous farmers, teachers and hunters tracking down loggers and wild cat miners is one part of it.
At one point last year, a three-person team from the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), an indigenous community coordination group, was on a routine patrol in the jungle near the Guyanese border with Brazil.
They were accosted by a gang of gold diggers and threatened with automatic weapons, said Kid James, program coordinator for SRDC, a Wapichan indigenous council that administers conservation initiatives.
As the team members escaped the encounter uninjured, James said the incident highlights the threats conservationists may face when trying to protect the world’s largest rainforest. “The mining business was almost in a Wild West state,” James told Al Jazeera.
After their members were threatened, the SRDC filed formal complaints with Guyana’s mining regulators. They received a serious response. Guyana’s natural resources minister visited the region later in the year, James said, and subsequent public pressure from authorities and residents resulted in a significant drop in the level of mining. informal in the region for about eight months.
Part of the effectiveness of conservation patrols by groups like the SRDC is that they can maintain a more regular presence in remote parts of the jungle than government regulators, James said.
SRDC works with 18 part-time conservation officers who know the rural terrain and can track deforestation with cameras, GPS technology, drones and satellite phones. They conduct regular patrols on motorcycles, boats and even on foot, and report their findings to police and other government regulators.
“The Wapichan Territory can still boast a high level of biodiversity, very pristine forest, clean fresh water and we want to make sure that is maintained,” said James. “We have a program that works, although it is not perfect. “
As deforestation increases across much of the Amazon, exacerbating climate change and harming biodiversity, conservationists say Guyana offers useful lessons for protecting the world’s largest rainforest.
High forest cover
About 82 percent of Guyana’s land is covered with rainforests, said Liz Goldman of the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based monitoring group.
This is the highest rate on the continent, with the exception of neighboring Suriname and French Guiana, she told Al Jazeera, adding that other Amazon countries cover 35 to 52 percent of the land covered. of primary forest.
Meanwhile, trees, in general, cover over 90 percent of Guyana’s territory, Goldman said, and “loss of primary forest and loss of tree cover in Guyana has tended to decline in recent years.”
Part of Guyana’s conservation success comes down to simple demographics: the country is sparsely populated and much of its Amazon interior is undeveloped.
With less than 800,000 inhabitants, Guyana has about four people living on every square kilometer of land, according to the World Bank, compared to 25 people per square kilometer in neighboring Brazil where deforestation has increased.
Once known to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, deforestation and forest fires have turned the Brazilian Amazon into a net source of new carbon emissions, according to a study based on satellite data released in August by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
Brazil destroyed 13,235 square kilometers (5,110 square miles) of rainforest last year, an area larger than Lebanon, according to official data released in November.
This has dangerous implications for global climate models, according to environmentalists, although the rest of the Amazon outside of Brazil remains a net sink of carbon dioxide.
Another element of Guyana’s conservation success comes from public buy-in, residents of the capital said. Despite clear divisions between ethnicities and social classes, there seems to be a broad consensus that the country’s identity is tied to its natural beauty and that tropical forests deserve to be protected, especially with attack new oil investments.
“If we get rid of all the oil and don’t save the forests, it won’t be good 30 years from now,” hotel doorman Nicholas Blair said. “It’s a balance.”
This sentiment is shared by Simeon Taylor, a security entrepreneur in the capital. “Protecting our biodiversity is crucial,” he said, sipping a cold beer in a neighborhood pub a recent weekend.
“Strong check” for newspapers
When it comes to logging, Guyana also has a “strong verification system” to ensure that trees from illegally deforested land are not easily exported or sold within the country, said Aiesha Williams, responsible for the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
“This tracking of deforestation has been important,” Williams told Al Jazeera in an interview with the conservation group’s office in Georgetown. “Most of the deforestation is linked to gold mining. “
His group works with James and SRDC, as well as other remote indigenous communities, to provide technical assistance on forest protection, including the satellite phones and GIS kits they use to track miners. wild gold.
With vast porous borders, miners from Brazil and other neighboring countries, as well as national prospectors, have entered areas like Rupinuni in greater numbers recently, she said.
“Threats to forests are increasing and so must our efforts,” said Williams.
The Guyana Forestry Commission, a government agency tasked with protecting the rainforest, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
One of the most effective strategies for protecting forests involves formal recognition of indigenous land rights, scientists say. And part of Guyana’s relative success in protecting the rainforest is tied to its system of titling property, James said.
“Guyana has some of the strictest laws in place to protect these land rights,” he said, although he would like to see the process accelerated. “Once the title is given to a community, it is absolute and forever, unlike other countries. “
Forest lands officially controlled by indigenous communities have the best results for conservation and biodiversity, according to two major studies on the protection of tropical forests in Peru and Brazil published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In Peru, within a two-year window after land title was granted to an indigenous community, forest disturbance declined on average by about two-thirds and land clearance by more than three-quarters, according to a 2017 study.
Part of the reason why deforestation has intensified so rapidly in Brazil over the past two years under the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is that indigenous land rights have not been respected, people said. scientists.
Wild miners and loggers were tacitly encouraged to enter indigenous reserves for extraction, leading deforestation in South America’s largest country to peak in 15 years in November.
Indigenous communities in Guyana hold land titles to about 13% of the country’s territory, according to data from the United Nations Development Program. Local communities are pushing the government to speed up the granting of official titles to ancestral forest lands that cover larger areas of rural Guyana.
“If these traditional lands can be recognized, whether absolute and forever in the hands of the local communities who can manage and control these areas, it would deter threats such as mining and illegal logging at the local level. James said.