Balancing Environmental Protection and Offshore Petroleum Developments in Guyana

Date01 February 2020
Publication Date01 February 2020

The relationship between offshore petroleum developments and environmental protection is often viewed as complicated and marred with conflict. This paper will show how the current legal framework concerning offshore energy developments in Guyana can be aligned with sustainable development goals. To do this, the paper will discuss certain obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)1 and review several pieces of national legislation and policy documents in Guyana relating to energy developments and environmental protection. It will assess the progress made towards meeting the Aichi target 11 for 2020 under the CBD to protect 10% of the coastal and marine areas in Guyana.2 The discussion will highlight a few key environmental law principles regarding marine management and biodiversity protection in Guyana. The paper will also analyse the compatibility of Guyana's Green State Development Strategy in the new oil and gas sector.

Guyana is a new frontier oil and gas country3 and has unique challenges with its petroleum development and environmental protection. In 2015 ExxonMobil, the operator, found oil in commercial quantities about 120 miles off the coast of Guyana. The total recoverable gross resources for the licensed Stabroek block are reported to be approximately 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent.4 Along with the offshore exploration and production activities, Guyana intends to implement a Green State Development Strategy, Vision 2040,5 with sustainable development at its core. However, several of the laws regulating the petroleum industry are outdated and need to be repealed or amended. Therefore, one of the unique challenges facing Guyana is the need to update the legal framework in the petroleum sector.


Guyana is situated on the northern coast of South America and has a population recorded at a census in 2012 of approximately 747,883 persons.6 Guyana is approximately 215,000 square km in size and of that land area, approximately 87% is covered by forest.7 The country's territorial sea extends 12 nautical miles from the coastal limit and its Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200 nautical miles into the Atlantic Ocean, making up an area of 138, 270 square km. Guyana is part of the Guiana Shield, a distinct eco-region of the larger Amazon Basin. The Guiana Shield alone has over 3000 vertebrate species made up of 2200 fresh water fish (32% endemic), 269 amphibians (54% endemic), 295 reptiles (29% endemic), 1,004 birds (7.7% endemic), and 282 mammals (11% endemics).8 Guyana is centrally positioned within the Guiana shield, containing much of its representative ecosystems and biodiversity, while still featuring many endangered Amazonian species. This biological richness is even more significant considering that the Amazon houses approximately 10% of the world's known biodiversity and is the world's largest remaining tract of tropical rainforest.9

The coastal plain is situated north of the Guiana Shield which has yielded most of the country's soils consisting of deeply weathered Precambrian rocks. The coastal plain itself is of sedimentary origin and accounts for about 7% of the national land area. It is on this strip that most of the industrial cultivation of sugarcane, rice and other crops is carried out.10 The richest soils, consisting of clays and interspersed with sand ridges, are found here and occur for the most part below sea level. The rest of the coastal plain consists of mangrove forests and swamps. The mangrove forest constitutes the forest type in the country most in need of conversion.

Biodiversity plays a very important role to Guyana in maintaining the extensive forest cover of the country, the savannahs, and the various aquatic habitats. The biological resources of the country are important and linked to the future development of the economy and the population. Guyana has commenced the Guyana REDD+11 Monitoring Reporting and Verification System (MRVS) system with support from the Government of Norway.12 Previously, in 2009, the Government of Guyana and the Government of the Kingdom of Norway had initiated a programme under the climate and forest partnership. Under the MRVS and Guyana's national REDD+ programme Guyana's forest cover and resultant carbon emissions from Guyana's forests will be measured as an underpinning for results-based REDD+ compensation in the long-term. Preserving the forest in Guyana will lead towards protection of biodiversity. Biodiversity is valuable to ecosystems functions and is directly related to the livelihood of several communities in Guyana.


Guyana was among the 168 countries that signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in June 1992 at the Rio Summit in Brazil. Guyana subsequently ratified the Convention in August 1994. The Biodiversity Convention provides several general obligations for member states. These include a commitment to develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Member states such as Guyana must also integrate the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies. All member states are required to promote the sustainable use of biological resources by integrating consideration of the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources into national decision-making, adopting measures relating to the use of biological resources to avoid or minimize adverse impacts on biological diversity; protecting and encouraging customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements; supporting local populations to develop and implementing remedial action in degraded areas where biological diversity has been reduced; and encouraging cooperation between its governmental authorities and its private sector in developing methods for sustainable use of biological resources.13

The Conference of the Parties established under the CBD decided on further obligations for all member States. As part of its obligation under the CBD, Guyana is obligated to designate 10% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as a marine protected area (MPA).14 Guyana has prepared and submitted several national reports to the CBD.15 The fifth CBD National Report (2014) stated that ‘no progress has been made towards meeting Aichi target 11 for 2020 (10% coastal and marine areas protected) and further action is required against targets 4, 6, 10 & 14.’16 The overall objective of the Aichi targets is to promote increased marine protection and strengthened governance to safeguard biodiversity and enhance food security, protect livelihoods, increase resilience and support socio-economic development in line with regional ambitions. When Guyana achieves the target, it will help marine species and habitats in Suriname and Guyana, the ‘Eastern Gate to the Caribbean’ to be effectively protected and enable ocean resources to be managed in an equitable, sustainable and integrated manner.


In 2019 the Government of Guyana released a Green State Development Strategy: Vision 2040,17 which has the potential to significantly affect offshore petroleum development. This strategy includes Guyana's twenty-year, national development policy that reflects the guiding vision and principles of the ‘green agenda.’ The aim is for ‘an inclusive and prosperous Guyana that provides a good quality of life for all its citizens based on sound education and social protection, low-carbon and resilient development, providing new economic opportunities, justice and political empowerment.’18 The central objective of the Green State Development Strategy is stated to be development that provides a better quality of life for all Guyanese derived from the country's natural wealth – its diversity of people and abundant natural resources (land, water, forests, mineral and aggregates, biodiversity). The vision of the ‘green agenda’ is centred on principles of a green economy defined by sustainable, low-carbon and resilient development that uses its resources efficiently and sustained over generations. According to the Strategy document, the development philosophy emphasises the importance of a more cohesive society based on principles of equity and tolerance between ethnic groups – recognising that diversity of culture and heritage is the underlying strength of the country's human capital. So the overall picture generated by the strategy is to promote development objectives which seek to improve the health, education and overall well-being of Guyanese citizens, to lift people out of poverty through an economy that generates decent jobs and that provides opportunities for sustaining livelihoods over the long term.

The Green State Development Strategy: Vision 2040 (GSDS) outlines an approach to large scale investment and development in the country which incorporates sustainable development. The document outlines Guyana's economic and sociocultural development over the next twenty years. The goal of the GSDS is to diversify Guyana's economy and reduce reliance on traditional sectors. The objectives include opening new sustainable income and investment opportunities in higher value adding and higher growth sectors. The objectives of the framework of the GSDS are in line with the objectives of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and identifies seven central themes as having potential to transition Guyana to a Green State. Three of the central themes include: (1) Green and Inclusive Structural Transformation: Diversifying the economic base, accessing new markets and creating decent jobs for all; (2) Sustainable Management of Natural...

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