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Green Travel
Two Roads Diverge in Guyana
Guyana offers a near-pristine landscape brimming with birds and other wildlife. Now faced with pressure to boost its economy, the South American country must decide how important preserving its ecological treasures is on its path to development.
This dusty red road connects the town of Lethem, on Guyana's Brazilian border, with the national capital Georgetown. It’s the only long inland road in the South American country.
Greg Butcher

A dusty red road courses through the heart of Guyana, connecting the southern town of Lethem, on the Brazilian border, with the national capital Georgetown, on the Caribbean coast. It’s the only long inland road in the South American country, which I visited this past fall as part of a group of bird and travel experts from Europe, Canada, and the United States. We did most of our touring by boat and plane, yet the image of this unpaved track—which has recently been improved, with a bridge to Brazil added at the southern end—sticks in my mind. It makes me think of the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” about a traveler who comes upon two paths and must make a choice:

...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Guyana faces a similar decision. More pristine than most other tropical countries you can visit, with healthy savannahs, as well as intact forests covering nearly 80 percent of the land, it’s poised to become either a tourism hotspot rooted in sustainable development, or an aggressive exporter reliant on environmentally destructive practices like those used by South America’s economic dynamo, Brazil.

Much of our group’s speculation about Guyana’s future revolved around Brazil’s apparent interest in kick-starting Guyana’s development. Rumor had it that Brazil wishes to pave the road from Lethem to Georgetown, from which it could ship goods to the United States. Exports would consist mostly of agricultural products at first, but almost certainly expand dramatically.

In addition to serving as a conduit for Brazilian exports, Guyana could also earn $580 million per year for the next 25 years by cutting down its forests and converting them to agriculture, according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company, economic consultants for the President of Guyana. The road from Lethem to Georgetown could carry a lot of homegrown logs and agricultural products.

My co-travelers had all visited other developing countries, and in our collective experience, we have noticed that when roads are built, roadside development quickly follows. Guyana is also showing a desire to build its ecotourism industry, however, which could also help boost its economy, but in a less jarring way. The country has already begun to develop a tourism infrastructure and has a website, and several companies offer a variety of travel itineraries (our trip was put together by Wilderness Explorers, but there are 11 different operators to choose from.)

Most of Guyana’s tourism energy is focused on bringing people into the country’s sparsely populated interior, where visitors pursue bird or other wildlife watching, adventure treks, or immersion into Amerindian culture. Amenities are basic, so they have a low carbon footprint. The major ecological impacts are the airplane flights and a few cases where a bit too much natural vegetation has been cleared around the lodges or cabins.

The Iwokrama Forest Reserve, where we stayed for three days, is the centerpiece of Guyana’s commitment to sustainable development. In addition to offering accommodations for tourists, Iwokrama has designed a sustainable forestry program. Half of Iwokrama’s forest is set aside as an ecological reserve; the other half is divided into 10 sections that will be selectively logged, one section per year—amazing restraint compared with the clear-cutting under way in so many other countries.

When it comes to natural splendor, Guyana is a biophiliac’s dream. As Audubon’s director of bird conservation, I was, of course, interested in its bird life. The country, though just the size of Idaho, boasts almost as many species (more than 800) as the contiguous 48 United States. The birding is alluring in part because Guyana shares a unique avifauna, known as the Guianan Shield endemics, with its neighboring countries (Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil). In addition, some species spill over from Venezuela, and many Guyanan species are Amazonian, given the country’s close proximity to Brazil. The most spectacular of the region’s endemics is probably one of its best-known birds: the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, with bright-orange males that feature delicate filamentous plumes. It’s a member of the tropical cotinga family, many of whose colorful members can be found in Guyana. Another of my favorites is the purple-breasted cotinga, one of several species with a bright blue back.

Guyana’s tropical locale also lends itself to great birding. Tropical areas have more and a greater diversity of species than temperate zones, and they also have different species than we have here in the U.S. Sure, we have grouse and turkeys—and in south Texas, we even have a chachalaca, a big game bird—but we don’t have anything as spectacular as, for example, a black curassow, another big game bird, with a curlicue crest and a bright-yellow knob on its beak. And yes, we have showy hummingbirds, but nothing as colorful as a crimson topaz, with a bright green gorget and a black head that contrasts with its crimson body.

Perhaps Guyana’s greatest wildlife asset, however, is its collection of large animals, the so-called “charismatic megafauna,” including harpy eagles, jaguars, giant armadillos, false vampire bats, giant anteaters, giant river otters, black caimans, and anacondas, among others. A poster at the Iwokrama River Lodge calls this group the “Giants of El Dorado.” (El Dorado refers to the legendary city of gold that many explorers thought could be found in Guyana; it’s fitting that the Guyanese see true gold in their ecological treasures.)

It’s even possible to get up close and personal with several of these giants. For instance, we boated up the Rupununi River through the Guyanan savannah to visit Karanambu Ranch and Caiman House. Karanambu Ranch is home to Diane McTurk, who specializes in rehabilitating giant otters. Caiman House is a biological field station devoted to the long-term study of the black caiman. There, we looked over the shoulders of McTurk and the caiman wrestlers as they pursued their vital conservation work. On one of our best after-dark adventures, we watched the crew capture (with what looked to be a fairly delicate noose), measure, and tag a pair of caimans, including a six-footer; the next night, members of our group watched them catch a 10-foot caiman.

To a visitor from the states, Guyana doesn’t seem like it’s racing to build. Yet, during my trip, we all got the sense that it might start breaking new ground tomorrow. But fortunately, Guyana seems—at least to me—to be leaning away from Brazil’s (and the developed world’s) environmentally destructive economic model and toward one based, at least in part, on ecotourism and other eco-sensitive practices. Indeed, Guyana’s president, Bharrat Jagdeo, has proposed that Guyana become an icon for sustainable, low-carbon development based on a carbon credit program, whereby richer countries offset their emissions by paying developing countries to keep their forests intact. If Guyana continues down this untrammeled road, it could make a world of difference.

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