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At COP28, is the ‘climate’ right to talk about Guyana’s border controversy?

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About 70,000 people have landed in Dubai for this year’s annual United Nations climate summit, COP28. Though various players have their ambitions and interests to fight for, Guyana is seizing the opportunity to talk about its border controversy with Venezuela.

The small South American nation that has been championing the role of forests in battling climate change is forging ahead with plans to protect its forest and earn money by doing so, hoping to set an example for the world of how a low carbon economy can work.

President Ali and Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo travelled to Dubai for COP28. The President will return to Guyana by December 2, the day before Venezuela plans to hold a referendum (a public vote) that is seen as the gateway for the Spanish-speaking country to annex the Essequibo region, a resource-rich area that spans two-thirds of Guyana’s landmass.

The first two days in Dubai were a whirlwind of meetings for the President and the Vice President: President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, King Charles III and British Foreign Secretary (and former Prime Minister) David Cameron.

King Charles and Mr. Cameron, the President told the News Room, restated their commitment to support Guyana in its position that the 1899 Arbitral Award settled the boundary line between Guyana and Venezuela. President Al Nahyan, Dr. Ali said, supports the final settlement of the controversy at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where Guyana has taken its case.

Meetings are planned for Friday with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They are, arguably, the two “top gun” world leaders coming to COP28 in the absence of the Presidents of the United States (US), Russia and China.

In his last few hours on Friday, the President will address the high-level summit of world leaders, speak at Guyana’s side event on its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) and push for other bilateral engagements.

“COP28 brings together leaders from across the world but it also gives us this opportunity to engage on important issues.

“… I have the opportunity to engage many leaders in bilaterals that I would have otherwise had to travel (to their countries) for,” President Ali said in an exclusive interview at the sidelines of COP28.

President Dr. Irfaan Ali and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet at COP28’s World Climate Action Summit on Friday

In 1899, the borders of Guyana (then British Guiana) and Venezuela were settled, with Venezuela inheriting 13,000 square kilometres of what was then British Guiana territory – an area bigger than Jamaica or Lebanon.

Venezuela participated in that tribunal and accepted the boundary award for about six decades until 1966 when British Guiana was about to become an independent state, Guyana. Venezuela then challenged the award, raising concerns about the 1899 award.

So the 1966 Geneva Agreement was created, establishing a framework to resolve the controversy. This is a political agreement, not a legal one like the 1899 Award. And for decades after this agreement, Guyana and Venezuela were locked in bilateral talks and a UN-backed engagement known as the Good Offices process.

President Dr. Irfaan Ali, Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo and other Guyanese officials engaging British Foreign Secretary David Cameron

In mid-February 2017, the new UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Dag Halvor Nylander of Norway as his Personal Representative on the Border Controversy, in a final effort at dialogue to settle the matter. That failed and on January 31, 2018, the UN Secretary-General referred the matter to the ICJ and Guyana filed its case.

In 2020, the ICJ found that it has the jurisdiction to hear the border case and earlier this year, it threw out Venezuela’s preliminary objections that, among other things, the United Kingdom must also be part of the case.

Guyana hopes for a final, binding ruling from the ICJ that reaffirms the 1899 Arbitral Award and makes it clear that the Essequibo region is its own. Venezuela refuses to recognise the Court and seems to be forging ahead with its referendum.

Now, back to COP28.

The controversy deals with Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but the area claimed by Venezuela includes a majority of the more than 18 million hectares of forests Guyana boasts about.

Those forests are important to Guyana and the world. About 19.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is stored in those trees; that’s about 18% of the world’s forest carbon. If the forests are cut down, those gases will be released into the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change. Increasing emissions means intensified global warming and worsening disasters like wildfires and floods.

At left is a map of Guyana, from the Guyana Lands and Survey Commission, showing the country’s natural regions and at right is a map of Guyana and Venezuela, from AFP, which includes the Essequibo region.

Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro government, through the referendum, is pushing for the creation of a new Venezuelan state (Guayana Esequiba) in Guyana’s Essequibo region. Again, much of the area is covered in vast, dense forests but Venezuelans are also being asked if they support the issuance of Venezuela identification cards to people who live there.

Regardless of what Venezuela wants to do, Guyana says ‘not so fast!’

Vice President Jagdeo, during a public meeting with residents of Region Two (Pomeroon- Supenaam) said Guyanese are not interested in Venezuelan ID cards. According to him, Guyanese are intent on keeping their land. Guyana also asked the World Court to block those questions in the referendum that interfered with Guyana’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

In Dubai, President Ali said he is telling his colleagues around the world of Venezuela’s “reckless and adventurous” actions but he makes it clear that this controversy does not influence Guyana’s plans to keep protecting its forests and get compensation for doing so.

“First of all, we are very clear on where our borders are.

“We are pushing the forests because it is Guyana forests so we are not factoring in the controversy in these climate talks.

“I mean, the ICJ will rule but we are very sure of our borders and all our resources within our borders and the natural assets within our borders and we are speaking definitively on the development of all our assets within our borders,” the President emphasised.

Though there is some time before the Court rules on the substantive border controversy, the ICJ will on Friday rule on the provisional measures Guyana has asked for in light of Venezuela’s weekend referendum.

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


Picture of Vishani Ragobeer

Vishani Ragobeer

Vishani is a 22-year-old Guyanese journalist, with a special interest in science journalism. She is a Climate Tracker alum fellow, having reported on the COP26 climate negotiations. Vishani loves travelling, meeting new places and getting on top of high places.

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