Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo leads a poor country with a priceless resource: 40 million acres (16 million ha) of largely untouched rain forest. Logging firms are keen to cut it down, but Jagdeo, an economist and former Finance Minister, is seeking what he regards as a better business proposal: he wants international donors and investors to pay for the increasingly tangible benefits of keeping the rain forest intact. "If we're serious about global warming and its consequences," says Jagdeo, "then the market has to address all the sources of greenhouse emissions."
Deforestation is a major source, accounting for 20% of human-generated greenhouse gases. Still, Jagdeo raised eyebrows last year when he announced that Guyana would offer its entire rain forest, which covers 75% of the country's territory, as a sustainable commodity. The idea is that public and private organizations would pay Guyana for the right to manage and profit from unscathed rain forests. They can sell the carbon credits on global markets, make money from ecotourism and pharmaceutical discoveries, and eventually create markets for "ecosystem services" such as rainfall generation and climate regulation.
Jagdeo found his first taker this year when Canopy Capital, a London-based eco-finance firm, signed a deal to maintain Iwokrama, a 1,430-sq.-mi. (370,000-ha) rain-forest preserve. Studies suggest that such ventures could bring Guyana, one of South America's poorest countries, almost $60 million a year, or 6% of its gross domestic product.
But Guyana's plan faces hurdles. Some critics consider it eco-blackmail to suggest that without market incentives poor nations will let loggers run amok. "They say, 'Here we go again, another developing country looking for a free handout,' " says Jagdeo. "But this time we've got something to trade." He adds that environmental treaties like the Kyoto Protocol reward countries for reducing deforestation, but not for being good rain-forest custodians all along, as Guyana has been.
Jagdeo is confident that his concept will catch on as its dividends become more evident. Guyana needs the money to upgrade the 223 miles (360 km) of dykes along its low-lying Atlantic coast, where sea levels are rising due to global warming a reminder that paying for intact rain forests now could avert greater costs later.