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The recent removal of a large swathe of mangrove forest at Versailles-Malgre Tout, apparently in the name of development, is irresponsible, to say the least. The fact that the developer of the multi-million-dollar shore base facility was given the proverbial inch and took a yard is a gross understatement. Where was the oversight? Where were the various agencies and institutions responsible for ensuring compliance with the laws governing the environment and specifically coastal areas in Guyana? Perhaps, what was even more disappointing is the response from the subject Minister. In this day and age, development should be economically viable, socially acceptable, and environmentally sound.
While the wholesale destruction of the mangroves has raised fears about flooding, and rightly so, this valuable wetland ecosystem provides many other ecosystem services. Apart from shielding our coastal communities from high tides, soil erosion, and storms, mangroves also support coastal livelihoods by serving as a nursery for fishes, crustaceans, and other species. It is a mecca for biodiversity supporting many species of vertebrates and invertebrates, including a variety of algae, bacteria, fungi, fish, birds, crustaceans, and fauna. What is even more alarming is that many of these species reproduce slowly and are severely impacted where mangrove destruction rates exceed reproduction rates.
While the developer indicated that mitigation measures would be taken, more information is needed on the specific remediation or restoration efforts planned. Will these measures focus exclusively on the creation of artificial barriers such as sea walls? Will there be re-seeding? What about the other ecosystem services that were lost? Regardless of the actions to be taken, this developer should be made an example. A hefty fine will send a clear message to other prospective developers and investors that are likely to push our environmental institutions and regulations to their limits in the coming years.
Going forward, more needs to be done to protect our environment in light of the fast-approaching economic boom. As development activity and opportunities in Guyana increase, further protection in law and practice is needed to maintain vital ecosystems, especially those located along the coasts. These include identifying and preserving critical ecosystems on public land, increase public education and outreach about the importance of intertidal wetlands for coastal protection and ecosystem services, and strengthening our existing institutions responsible for environmental oversight and protection.
Additionally, regulations and agency oversight should be expanded to balance competing social, economic, and environmental interests. For example, in the developer’s home state of Florida, where exists the largest mangrove forest in the United States, there are no less than eight state agencies that play a role in coastal management, with a number of statutes enacted to protect the state’s coastal areas, including mangrove forests.
Although Guyana is open for business, economic development should not come at the expense of our already fragile coastal ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests that protect us from rising seas under a changing climate and offer a plethora of ecosystem services. Efforts to maintain and protect this vital biome will pay dividends for many years to come.