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At the northern edge of the South American continent sit two countries, Guyana and Suriname, with vast forest covers and nascent oil and gas sectors. As world leaders meet in Dubai to decide how the climate crisis could be solved, the Presidents of these two states believe that their vast forests must be protected at all costs.

Their argument is similar, if not identical.

For years, Guyana and Suriname have kept their forests intact. They could have cut their trees down to make way for money-making ventures like agriculture or mining, but they didn’t.

And they want to be paid for doing that. Why? Because if they are losing money by not clearing land for economic ventures, they need to find other ways to make money to build their countries.

They believe their ask for payments isn’t unwarranted since the trees help to trap vast amounts of carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and the climate crisis. If the trees were cut down, the gas would be released into the atmosphere and contribute to worsening disasters like floods or wildfires. Thus, their forests benefit the entire world.

Chandrikapersad Santokhi, President of the Republic of Suriname, speaks onstage during the High-Level Segment for Heads of State and Government at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike)

“Conservation of our standing forests and biodiversity should be higher valued than reforestation,” Suriname’s President Chandrikapersad Santokhi said during his three-minute speech at the high-level summit of this year’s United Nations (UN) climate talks, COP28.

The day before, his Guyanese counterpart Dr. Irfaan Ali made this point.

“We must preserve forests,” he said.

And President Ali pointed out how Guyana has been working, largely on its own, to get compensation for its forest protection efforts since 2009. It has been doing so through its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS).

The countries’ forest credentials are intact. Suriname has the world’s highest national forest cover: 93% of its landmass. Guyana has the second highest at 85%.

Both Presidents argued that compensation wouldn’t just help keep those forests standing, it would also help to protect the rich biodiversity (the plants and animals) there and help support the people who depend on the trees like Indigenous communities.

Two years ago, both leaders were in Glasgow for COP26. And there, they both shared a similar message: countries with vast forests must be paid to keep those intact.

Since then both countries have advanced their case. They are both getting into the carbon market. Guyana already has a deal with one of the oil companies in its lucrative Stabroek Block offshore, the Hess Corporation.

The deal is worth at least US$750 million, with leeway for Guyana to earn more if prices in the carbon market go up.

Suriname, on the other hand, is exploring how it can sell carbon credits under the Paris Agreement in keeping with UN guidelines.

A carbon credit is a kind of tradeable permit or certificate that represents the removal of a certain amount of carbon dioxide from the environment. Since carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas that harms the environment, it is tracked and traded like any other commodity, and hence the name carbon market.

Carbon markets have been the subject of much scrutiny recently and as newcomers, Guyana and Suriname have to figure out how they make this work for them.

But the other elephant in the room for both these countries is their burgeoning oil and gas industries. That sector is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide and talks on reducing the world’s dependence on oil and gas are abundant at COP28.

Guyana and Suriname want countries to understand their plight.

President Santokhi said his country is forced to “adapt to extreme dry and wet weather events which cause losses and damages” because of the climate crisis. Without enough compensation, the country is left, largely, to fend for itself.

He explained that Suriname can now, however, leverage its oil resources to fund its developmental needs.

“… we must respond to the legitimate demands of our population for economic development and diversification,” he said, promising that Suriname will continue to offset carbon from around the world with its forests.

For Guyana, the world’s newest oil hotspot, slashing oil and gas use shouldn’t be the sole focus of plans to solve the climate crisis.

For him, those plans should include the phase-out of fossil fuels like oil but also efforts to keep forests intact. And he reminded a gathering at a Guyana side event at COP28 that the demand for energy remains huge- there are countries still grappling with energy poverty- and the existing supply of renewable energy just does not fill that gap.

Balancing these resources to meet developmental needs is a huge focus of the LCDS, the President said.

So they both make it clear, that as they continue to protect their forests, they will develop their resources. They only hope that they will get adequate support to do so.

This story was originally published by the News Room, with the support of Climate Tracker’s COP28 Climate Justice Reporting Fellowship.

About the author of this article
Vishani Ragobeer

Vishani is a 23-year-old journalist from Guyana with a keen interest in science journalism and data visualisation.