The Shielded Guianas: The Global Economy Discovers the Most Obscure Corner of the Rainforest

By Plotkin, Mark J. | The American Prospect, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Shielded Guianas: The Global Economy Discovers the Most Obscure Corner of the Rainforest


Plotkin, Mark J., The American Prospect


SK SOMEONE THE LOCATION OF Suriname and you 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 E1 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. …

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