Guyana - rainforest pioneer

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Don Gilmour

Author Info: Dr Don Gilmour is a forestry consultant based in Australia. He was head of IUCN's Forest Conservation Programme from 1993-1997.

For Australian forester, David Cassells, the Iwokrama Rainforest Programme in Guyana is an experiment on which the fate of the earth's remaining rainforests could turn in the new Millennium. Don Gilmour reports.

Ten years ago, the then President of Guyana, Desmond Hoyte, surprised and delighted other Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Kuala Lumpur, by offering to make the Iwokrama rain forest, covering 360,000 hectares, or 2 per cent of his country, a 'Gift to the World'.

Dr. Don GilmourĀ© Ian Brierley / Focal Point

To be precise, he said this rich and pristine forest would be made available to the international community on one condition: it had to set up an international research and development centre to show other developing countries like Guyana just how they could conserve and sustainably manage their forest, while helping the long-term development of the people living in and nearby it, as well as the country as a whole.

Iwokrama CentreThe Commonwealth accepted the offer and with its support successive governments in Guyana have turned the concept into a reality. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) chipped in $3 million through the UNDP, and both the Commonwealth and the International Development Research Centre in Canada provided additional funds to get the Centre off the ground.

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development was formally constituted in 1996 and David Cassells, a 35-year-old Australian forester with a brilliant track record in Australia and Japan was seconded from his senior post in the World Bank Environment Department to be the first Director General. In January 1998, the Commonwealth, the European Union and the World Bank jointly convened a donors meeting which netted promises of funding support in excess of $8 million from 28 countries and international organisations to start work on the operational plan.

In David Cassells' view, the focus on financial sustainability and self sufficiency is what distinguishes Iwokrama from a host of other initiatives to conserve tropical forests. And, as chairman of the Advisory Group for the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Forest Conservation Programme, he is in a good position to know.

Self-sufficientThough the forest has a rich diversity of plants and animals, with more than 450 species of birds, 206 species of fish, 120 species of amphibians and reptiles and 105 species of mammals - including jaguars, giant river otters, harpy eagles, caiman and macaws - there are bigger reserves in quite a lot of tropical countries, he says.

"However, I don't know of any other research and development centre that has a direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of such a large area of forest and the challenge of becoming largely self-sufficient largely from the endowment of the forest."

He plans for this revenue to come from a mixture of eco-forestry, with certified logging in a sustainable way, eco-tourism, sustainable production of non-timber products such as vines and latexes, bioprospecting, training services, and the sale of forest management expertise. In doing this the Centre is already working closely with the local Amerindian community.

Most of the field staff are from surrounding villages, and a community environment worker is stationed in each of the 12 scattered villages to help two-way communication with local leaders, including the women's groups and village captains.

"This is fundamentally important because it means that our research has a very applied focus. Indeed, our very survival depends on us making the conservation and sustainable management of tropical forests work.

"If we succeed, there is a good chance we can change the way people everywhere value and use tropical forests. If we fail, I see little prospects for the future of tropical forests in the 21st Century being significantly different from its fate in the 20th Century - continued loss and degradation and consequent loss of biological diversity and environmental function.

"Iwokrama has forged a unique partnership for forest conservation and sustainable development. The staff of the Centre and myself will certainly be putting all our efforts to help ensure that it leaves a positive legacy for continued evolutionary possibilities for the coming millennium."