Sir Shridath Ramphal of
Guyana was Commonwealth Secretary-General 1975–90.
Guyanese writers have won the overall Best First Book award of the
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1991 (Pauline Melville) and in 2006 (Mark
The Government of Guyana, at the 1989 CHOGM, offered to set aside about
360,000 hectares of pristine rainforest for research to demonstrate
methods for conservation and sustainable use of forest resources and
biodiversity: as a result, the Commonwealth’s flagship Iwokrama
Rainforest Programme was launched the following year.
The Commonwealth Youth Programme Caribbean Centre is based in
Joined Commonwealth: 1966
Population: 800,000 (2013)
GDP: 3.0% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 121
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT minus 4hr
Currency: Guyana dollar (G$)
Area: 214,970 sq km
Capital city: Georgetown
Population density (per sq. km): 4
The Co-operative Republic of Guyana lies in the north-east of South
America, north of the equator. It is bordered by Suriname, Brazil and
Venezuela and, to the north and east, extends to the North Atlantic
Ocean. The country comprises ten regions.
Georgetown (capital, pop. 118,363 in 2012), Linden (27,277), New
Amsterdam (17,329), Anna Regina (11,793), Corriverton (10,600), Bartica
(8,500), Rosignol, Skeldon and Vreed en Hoop. Georgetown is famous for
its Dutch-inspired wooden architecture, street layout and drainage
Surface travel in the interior of the country is hindered by dense
forest, rapids on the rivers, and the generally undeveloped character of
the interior. Thus, apart from in the coastal belt and on one inland
route, most journeys are by air.
There are all-weather roads along the eastern part of the coast and some
all-weather roads inland, including one across the country to the border
with Brazil, and about seven per cent of the total network of 7,970 km
is paved. There is no passenger rail service, although mining companies
have private goods lines.
There are some 1,600 km of navigable river, 1,000 km of which are in
areas of some economic activity. Passenger and cargo vessels travel up
the Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice rivers, and also along the coast
between the rivers. Apart from the Demerara, which has a road bridge,
the other major rivers have to be crossed by ferries, which can take
some hours for the wider rivers. At the Corentyne river ferry services
link Guyana with Suriname.
Georgetown is the main port, and the international airport is CBJ
International Airport, at Timehri, 40 km from Georgetown; larger towns
and many mining companies have airports or landing strips.
Guyana is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of
States, Association of Caribbean States, Caribbean Community,
Non-Aligned Movement, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Organization
of American States, United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Guyana hosts the headquarters of the Caribbean Community in Georgetown.
Guyana has three distinct geographical zones. It has a narrow coastal
belt, seldom more than 25 km wide and much of it 1–1.5 metres below sea
level, where sugar and rice are grown and 90 per cent of the people
live. In the far interior are high savannah uplands; between these,
thick, hilly tropical forest covers most of the land area. For the
country as a whole forest covers 77 per cent of the land area. In the
forest zone are found most of the country’s resources of bauxite,
diamonds, gold, manganese and other minerals. Guyana’s massive rivers
include the Demerara, Berbice, Essequibo and Corentyne; rapids, bars and
other obstacles make navigation difficult. The Kaieteur Falls on the
Potaro river have a 222 metres drop – five times the height of Niagara.
The Amerindian name ‘Guiana’ (part of the country’s former name) means
‘Land of Many Waters’.
Guyana has a warm tropical climate with high rainfall and humidity. The
rainy seasons are November–January and May–July with an average rainfall
of 2,350 mm p.a. in the coastal region. Inland rainfall averages 1,520
mm p.a. North-east trade winds moderate coastal temperatures.
The most significant environmental issues are water pollution by sewage,
and agricultural and industrial chemicals; and deforestation.
Guyana’s tropical forest, covering 77 per cent of the land area, is
among the most ecologically valuable and best preserved in the world.
The environment is an issue of great political importance in Guyana.
There is concern about climate change and sea-level rise, because the
low-lying littoral plain relies on a system of dams, walls and drainage
canals to prevent flooding from the sea or the huge rivers. Forest
resources are also important; the country has taken a lead in advancing
forestry conservation and sustainable development and there was no
significant loss of forest cover during 1990–2012.
Under the Iwokrama Rainforest Programme, some 371,000 hectares, much of
it virgin forest, have been set aside for preservation and scientific
study of its ecology and for sustainable development of the parts
inhabited by Amerindian tribes or migrant mining communities. The
programme was launched by the Guyana government and the Commonwealth
The tapir is the largest land mammal; cats include the jaguar and
ocelot. Monkeys and deer are the most numerous species, and caimans are
the largest freshwater animal. The giant anaconda or water boa is also
found in the rivers. The wealth of plant, animal and micro-organism
species includes many so far unrecorded, whose properties are unknown to
science. Some 11 species of mammals and 11 species of birds are thought
to be endangered (2014).
The original Guiana was inhabited by semi-nomadic Amerindian tribes who
lived by hunting and fishing – notably Arawaks and Caribs. It was
divided by European powers into Spanish Guiana (Venezuela), Portuguese
Guiana (Brazil), French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname) and British
Guiana (Guyana). Colonial competition for territory began with the
Spanish sighting in 1499. Probably temporary Spanish or Portuguese
settlements were followed by Dutch settlement, first unsuccessfully at
Pomeroon, and then (in 1627) under the protection of the Dutch West
India Company on the Berbice river. Despite yielding from time to time
to British, French and Portuguese invasions, the Dutch kept control
until 1814, when the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were
ceded to Britain. The Europeans imported African slaves to develop their
plantations, first of tobacco and later sugar, and to labour on
constructing the coastal drainage system and the elegant city of
Georgetown. Some slaves escaped to the forest; these so-called
‘bush-blacks’ eked out a living by panning for gold, hunting and
The British administration merged the three colonies into British Guiana
in 1831, but retained the Dutch administrative, legislative and legal
system, whereby the country was directed by a governor, advised by
councils of plantation owners. After the abolition of slavery, Indian
and smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese indentured
labourers were brought in to work the estates.
In 1928 a legislative council, with members appointed by the British
Government, was established, but members were elected after extensions
of the franchise in 1943 and 1945. The country was by this period among
the most advanced of the British colonial territories in the region, and
became the headquarters of several regional educational and political
institutions. CARICOM still has its headquarters in Georgetown.
In 1953, a constitution with a bicameral legislature and ministerial
system, based on elections under universal adult suffrage, was
introduced. There was a general election, won by the People’s
Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan. The PPP had a large
East Indian following, whereas the People’s National Congress (PNC), a
breakaway party formed in 1957, had its roots among Guyanese of African
origin. Shortly after the 1953 elections, the UK suspended the
constitution, decided to ‘mark time’ in the advance towards
self-government, and administered the country with a government composed
largely of nominated members.
When, in 1957, the UK did introduce elected members, the legislature
voted for more representative government. The UK called a constitutional
conference which was held in 1960 and provided for a new constitution
with full internal self- government. In the elections held in August
1961 under this constitution, the PPP again gained the majority. The UK
held further constitutional conferences in 1962 and 1963, to settle
terms for independence, but ethnic divisions prevented the leaders of
Guyana’s three political parties from being able to reach consensus
among themselves on the terms of a constitution; they then asked the UK
to settle the matter.
The UK selected a form of proportional representation which was aimed at
preventing domination by any single ethnic group. (It was also argued
that, at this period of the ‘Cuba crisis’ with near- war between the USA
and USSR, the UK was under pressure to avoid allowing a socialist
government to come to power in Guyana.) Despite renewed disturbances,
elections were held under the PR system, and brought to power a
coalition of the PNC led by Forbes Burnham and The United Force (TUF).
The new government finalised independence arrangements at a further
constitutional conference, which was boycotted by the PPP. Guyana became
independent and joined the Commonwealth in May 1966, and became a
republic four years later.
The PNC led by Burnham was returned in 1968 elections and remained in
power until 1992 (despite repeated electoral disputes). During the
1970s, 80 per cent of the economy was nationalised. These were years of
considerable unrest and increasing economic difficulty, as debt rose and
world prices for the major exports fell. The PPP, led by Dr Cheddi Jagan,
remained in opposition. Executive presidency was introduced in 1980. In
1985 Burnham died and was replaced by Desmond Hoyte.
The elections due in 1990 were postponed twice, in part because the
Commonwealth observer team invited by President Hoyte’s administration
reported irregularities in the voters’ rolls and proposed that certain
preparatory arrangements should be done again. When the elections were
held, in October 1992, the PPP–Civic coalition, led by Jagan, won 53.5
per cent of the votes, giving it 28 seats; the PNC won 23, the TUF and
the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) one each. The Commonwealth observers
described the elections as ‘a historic democratic process’ which
expressed the people’s genuine will. Jagan was sworn in as President.
In March 1997 Jagan suffered a heart attack and died. Samuel Hinds,
Prime Minister in Jagan’s PPP–Civic government, became President and
Janet Jagan, Jagan’s US-born widow, was appointed Prime Minister and
Vice-President. Mrs Jagan was one of the four founders of the PPP, and
had served in two previous cabinets. In the December 1997 elections the
PPP–Civic coalition claimed a decisive victory with 56 per cent of the
officially counted votes. Mrs Jagan became Guyana’s first woman
President and appointed Hinds Prime Minister.
However, the opposition PNC refused to accept the declared results.
Increasingly violent demonstrations followed and were only ended when,
in January 1998, CARICOM brokered an agreement between the PPP–Civic and
PNC. Under the Herdmanston Accord, CARICOM would undertake an audit of
the election results, to be conducted by a team selected by the then
CARICOM chair, Dr Keith Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada. A
broad-based Constitutional Reform Commission would be established, to
report to the National Assembly within 18 months. And there would be new
elections within 18 months after presentation of the report.
The CARICOM audit team reported that although the management of the
count left much to be desired ‘the results of their recount varied only
marginally from that of the final results declared by the Chief
Elections Officer’. But the PNC remained dissatisfied and violent
demonstrations broke out again. A settlement was finally reached at the
CARICOM summit in Saint Lucia in July 1998, under which the PNC agreed
to take their seats in the National Assembly.
President Janet Jagan resigned after suffering a mild heart attack in
August 1999 and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo.
The Constitutional Reform Commission’s proposals were enacted in 2000.
These included establishment of a permanent elections commission and new
national identity cards.
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