Guyana, officially the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, is a sovereign state located on the northern continent of South America. However, it is included in the Caribbean region due to its close cultural, historical and political ties with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Guyana is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Brazil to the south and southwest, Suriname to the east and Venezuela to the west. At 215,000 square kilometres, Guyana is the fourth smallest country in South America after Uruguay, Suriname and French Guiana.
The region known as “Guiana” consists of a vast shield north of the Amazon and east of the Orinoco River, known as the “land of many waters”. Originally inhabited by several indigenous groups, Guyana was colonised by the Dutch before coming under British control in the late 18th century. It came under British control in the 19th century. It was governed as a plantation economy of British Guiana until independence in 1966, and officially became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970. The legacy of British rule is reflected in the diversity of the country’s population, which includes Indian, African, Amerindian and multi-racial groups.
Guyana also has the distinction of being the only South American nation where English is the official language. However, the majority of the population speaks Guyanese Creole, a Creole language based on English with slight Dutch, Arawakan and Caribbean influences. Not only is Guyana part of the English-speaking Caribbean, it is also one of the few Caribbean countries that is not an island in the West Indies. CARICOM, of which Guyana is a member, is headquartered in Georgetown, the capital and largest city of Guyana. In 2008, the country joined the Union of South American Nations as a founding member.
About three quarters of the western part of the country is claimed by Venezuela, specifically 159,542 square kilometres, representing 74.21% of the territory, which the latter refers to as Guyana Essequiba. The other neighbour, Suriname, claims for itself part of the eastern territory in the south-east of the country, more precisely about 15,600 square kilometres, called the Tigri Zone, which currently represents 7.26% of the country.
The area controlled by Guyana is located between latitudes 1° and 9°N and longitudes 56° and 62°W.
The country can be divided into five natural regions: a narrow, fertile swamp along the Atlantic coast (Low Coastal Plain), where the majority of the population lives; a white sand belt further inland (Hillly Sand and Clay Region), where most of Guyana’s mineral deposits are found; the dense rainforests (Wooded Highlands Region) in the southern part of the country; the desert savannah in the southwest; and the smaller Inner Plain (Inner Savannah), which consists mainly of mountains that gradually rise to the Brazilian border.
Guyana’s highest mountains include Mount Ayanganna (2,042 metres or 6,699 feet), Mount Caburaí (1,465 metres or 4,806 feet) and Mount Roraima (2,772 metres or 9,094 feet – Guyana’s highest mountain) on the Brazil-Guyana-Venezuela tri-border, part of the Pakaraima range. Mount Roraima and the mesas (tepuis) of Guyana are said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s 1912 novel The Lost World. There are also numerous volcanic escarpments and waterfalls, including Kaieteur Falls, considered the largest waterfall in the world. North of the Rupununi River is the Rupununi Savannah, and to the south are the Kanuku Mountains.
The four longest rivers are the Essequibo with 1,010 kilometres, the Courantyne with 724 kilometres, the Berbice with 595 kilometres and the Demerara with 346 kilometres. The Corentyne River forms the border with Suriname. Several large islands are located at the mouth of the Essequibo, including the 145 km wide Shell Beach on the northwest coast, which is also an important breeding area for sea turtles (mainly leatherbacks) and other wildlife.
The local climate is tropical and generally hot and humid, although tempered by the north-easterly trade winds along the coast. There are two rainy seasons, the first from May to mid-August, the second from mid-November to mid-January.
Guiana has one of the largest pristine rainforests in South America, parts of which are almost inaccessible to man. Guyana’s rich natural history was described by early explorers Sir Walter Raleigh and Charles Waterton, and later by naturalists Sir David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. In 2008, the BBC broadcast a three-part programme entitled Lost Land of the Jaguar, which highlighted the enormous diversity of wildlife, including undiscovered species and rarities such as the giant otter and the harpy eagle.
In 2012, Guyana received a $45 million award from Norway for its efforts to protect the rainforest. This follows a 2009 agreement between the two countries, which provides a total of $250 million for the protection and conservation of the natural habitat. So far, the country has received $115 million of the total.
Guyana is in a border dispute with Suriname, which claims the area east of the left bank of the Corentyne and New Rivers in southwestern Suriname, and with Venezuela, which claims the land west of the Essequibo River, formerly belonging to the Dutch colony of Essequibo and part of the Guayana Essequiba of Venezuela. The maritime aspect of the territorial dispute with Suriname was submitted to arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and a decision was announced on 21 September 2007. The decision, concerning the Caribbean Sea north of the two nations, found that both parties had violated treaty obligations and refused to order compensation for either party.
When the British surveyed British Guiana in 1840, they included the entire Cuyuni River basin in the colony. Venezuela disagreed and claimed all the territory west of the Essequibo River. In 1898, at Venezuela’s request, an international arbitration tribunal was convened and in 1899 issued an award that ceded about 94% of the disputed territory to British Guiana. Venezuela never accepted this award and raised the issue again at the time of Guyana’s independence. The issue is now settled by the 1966 Geneva Treaty, signed by the governments of Guyana, Britain and Venezuela, and Venezuela continues to claim Guayana Esequiba. Venezuela calls this area the ‘Zona en Reclamación’ (recovery zone) and Venezuelan maps of the national territory systematically include it and delineate it with dotted lines.
The specific small disputed areas involving Guyana are Ankoko Island with Venezuela, the Corentyne River with Suriname, and the Tigri Zone or New River Triangle with Suriname. In 1967, a team of Surinamese investigators was encountered in the New River Triangle and forcibly removed. In August 1969, a Guyana Defence Force patrol discovered an unauthorised military camp and a partially completed airstrip within the Triangle, as well as documented evidence of Surinamese intent to occupy the entire disputed area. After an exchange of fire, the Surinamese are driven out of the triangle.
Environment and biodiversity
The following habitats have been categorised for Guyana: Coastal, marine, littoral, palustrine estuarine, mangrove, river, lake, swamp, savannah, white sand forest, brown sand forest, montane forest, cloud forest, lowland rainforest and dry evergreen shrub (NBAP, 1999). Some 14 areas of biological interest have been identified as potential hotspots for a national system of protected areas. More than 80% of Guyana is still covered by forests, which are also home to the world’s rarest species, ranging from dry evergreen and seasonal forests to mountain and lowland rainforests. These forests are home to over a thousand species of trees. Guyana’s tropical climate, unique geology and relatively pristine ecosystems support vast areas of species-rich tropical forests and natural habitats with a high degree of endemism. Approximately eight thousand plant species are found in Guyana, half of which are found nowhere else.
Guyana has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Guyana has one of the richest collections of mammalian fauna of any region of comparable size in the world, with 1,168 species of vertebrates and 814 species of birds. The Guiana Shield region is little known and extremely biologically rich. Unlike other parts of South America, over 70% of the natural habitat remains intact.
The rich natural history of British Guiana was described by early explorers Sir Walter Raleigh and Charles Waterton, and later by naturalists Sir David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell.
In February 2004, the Guyanese government issued title to over one million acres (4,000 km2 ) of land in the Konashen indigenous district and declared the land a Konashen Community Owned Conservation Area (COCA), to be managed by the Wai Wai. In doing so, Guyana has created the largest community-owned conservation area in the world.
This important event follows a request by the Wai Wai community to the Government of Guyana and Conservation International Guyana (CIG) for assistance in developing a sustainable plan for their lands in Konashen. The three parties have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation that sets out a plan for the sustainable use of the biological resources of the Konashen CZO, identifies threats to the area’s biodiversity and helps develop projects to raise awareness of the CZO and generate the income needed to maintain its protected status.
The Konashen Indigenous District in southern Guyana is home to the headwaters of the Essequibo River, Guyana’s main source of water, and drains the Kassikaityu, Kamoa, Sipu and Chodikar Rivers. Southern Guyana contains some of the most pristine areas of evergreen forest in the northern part of South America. Most of the forests found here are large evergreen forests in the hilly and low mountainous regions, with large areas of flooded forest along the main rivers. Due to the very low human population density in this region, most of these forests are still intact. The Smithsonian Institution has identified nearly 2,700 species of plants from this region, representing 239 different families, and there are certainly more species yet to be recorded.
This incredible diversity of plants supports an even more impressive diversity of animals, recently documented by a biological survey organised by Conservation International. The clean, unpolluted waters of the Essequibo watershed are home to a remarkable diversity of fish and aquatic invertebrates, as well as giant otters, capybaras and several species of caiman.
On land, large mammals such as jaguars, tapirs, bush dogs, giant anteaters and saki monkeys are still common. More than 400 species of birds have been reported in the area, and the reptile and amphibian fauna is equally rich. The forests of Konashen COCA are also home to countless species of insects, arachnids and other invertebrates, many of which remain unknown and unnamed.
Konashen ACCA is relatively unique in that it contains a high level of diversity and biological richness, preserved in an almost pristine state; such places have become rare on Earth. This fact has given rise to various non-exploitative and ecologically sustainable industries, such as ecotourism, which successfully exploit the biological richness of Konashen SAC with comparatively low sustainable impacts.
The majority of Guyana’s population (90%) lives on a narrow coastal strip that varies in width from 16 to 64 kilometres and represents about 10% of the country’s total area.
The current population of Guyana is racially and ethnically heterogeneous, with ethnic groups originating from India, Africa, Europe and China, as well as indigenous or native peoples. Despite their diverse ethnic origins, these groups share two common languages: English and Creole.
The largest ethnic group is the Indo-Guyanese (also known as East Indians), descendants of indentured servants from India, who represent 43.5% of the population according to the 2002 census. They are followed by Afro-Guyanese, descendants of slaves from Africa, who represent 30.2%. Guyanese of mixed ancestry account for 16.7%, while indigenous peoples (known locally as Amerindians) account for 9.1%. Indigenous groups include the Arawak, Wai Wai, Carib, Akawaio, Arecuna, Patamona, Wapixana, Macushi and Warao. The two largest groups, the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese, have experienced some racial tension.
The majority of Indo-Guyanese are descended from indentured servants who came from the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of northern India. A sizeable minority originate from South India, largely of Tamil and Telugu origin.
The distribution pattern of the 2002 census was similar to that of the 1980 and 1991 censuses, but the proportion of the two main groups decreased. Indo-Guyanese accounted for 51.9% of the total population in 1980, but by 1991 this had fallen to 48.6% and then to 43.5% in the 2002 census. The percentage of people of African descent increased slightly from 30.8% to 32.3% in the first period (1980 and 1991), before falling back to 30.2% in the 2002 census. With little growth in the overall population, the decline in the shares of the two largest groups resulted in a relative increase in the shares of the multiracial and American Indian groups. The American Indian population increased by 22,097 people between 1991 and 2002. This represents an increase of 47.3% or an annual growth of 3.5%. Similarly, the multiracial population increased by 37,788 people, an increase of 43.0% or an annual growth rate of 3.2% from the 1991 census base period. The number of Portuguese (4.3% of the population in 1891) has steadily decreased over the decades.
Data from a 2012 census on religious affiliation showed that about 64% of the population was Christian, 25% Hindu and 7% Muslim, while 3% of the population did not profess any religion.
Most Christians in Guyana are either Protestant or Roman Catholic and include a mixture of Indian, African, Chinese and European ancestry, as well as a large indigenous population.
Guyana’s main economic activities are agriculture (rice and demerara sugar production), bauxite and gold mining, timber, shrimp fishing and minerals. Chronic problems include a shortage of skilled labour and poor infrastructure. In 2008, the economy grew by 3% amidst the global economic crisis, followed by impressive growth of 5.4% in 2011 and 3.7% in 2012.
Until recently, the government was juggling a large external debt and the urgent need to expand public investment. Low prices for key mining and agricultural commodities, coupled with problems in the bauxite and sugar industries, have threatened the government’s tight fiscal situation and clouded prospects for the future. However, the Guyanese economy has recovered slightly and has been growing moderately since 1999, thanks to the expansion of the agricultural and mining sectors, a more favourable atmosphere for entrepreneurial initiatives, a more realistic exchange rate, relatively low inflation and continued support from international organisations.
The sugar industry, which accounts for 28% of total export earnings, is largely run by GuySuCo, which employs more people than any other industry. Many industries benefit from significant foreign investment. In the minerals industry, for example, the US company Reynolds Metals and Rio Tinto’s British-Australian subsidiary, Rio Tinto Alcan, are heavily invested; the Korean/Malaysian Barama Company has a significant stake in the forestry industry.
Balata (natural latex) production was once an important activity in Guyana. Most of the balata tapping in Guyana took place in the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains in the Rupununi. Early exploitation also took place in the North West District, but most of the trees in this area were destroyed by illegal tapping methods, where trees were felled instead of cut. Uses of balata included the manufacture of cricket balls, the temporary filling of troublesome tooth holes, and the manufacture of figurines and other decorative objects (notably by the Macushi people in the Kanuku Mountains).
Key private sector organisations include the Private Sector Commission (PSC) and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI);
In early 2007, the government launched a major revision of the tax code. The Value Added Tax (VAT) was enacted, replacing six different taxes. Before the introduction of VAT, it was relatively easy to evade VAT and many businesses were in breach of the tax legislation. Many businesses were very much opposed to the introduction of VAT because of the additional paperwork involved, but the government stood firm. Replacing several taxes with a single tax rate will also make it easier for government auditors to detect embezzlement. This was endemic under the previous PPP/C regime, which set VAT at 50% of the value of goods. Although the transition to VAT has been difficult, it can improve daily life because the government will have significant additional funds for public expenditure.
President Bharrat Jagdeo had made debt relief one of his government’s top priorities. He has succeeded in getting the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to cancel $800 million of debt, plus millions from other developed countries. IDB President Moreno praised Jagdeo for his leadership and negotiating skills in providing debt relief to Guyana and several other countries in the region.