Guiana Shield

Guiana Shield


The Guiana Shield region, as a name, is a recent "invention", first defined by European geologists with a strict reference to the central mountain chain which dominates the region. Later, the watersheds emerging out of these mountain chains, whose watercourses flow northwards into the Caribbean sea and southwards into the Amazon River, began to be associated with distinct ecological biomes (primarily rainforest and savannah ecosystems). This resulted in a number of conservation organisations identifying the region as a whole, including its geology, ecology and peoples, as the "Guiana Shield", often referring to it as a specific "biodiversity hotspot".

The Guiana Shield region of South America covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometres, five times the size of Spain, extending from Colombia in the west to Brazil in the east. It is part of the world's largest contiguous block of tropical forest, with the highest percent of forest cover and lowest rate of deforestation on the planet, capturing and storing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. It is home to an extremely rich diversity of plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the region. In addition, the region is inhabited by hundreds of thriving indigenous communities, whose knowledge and skills are indispensable for effective conservation of the region and are therefore a great asset to the world.

Historically the Guiana Shield countries (Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana) have experienced low deforestation rates. The low density of commercial timber species and poorly developed infrastructure have – until now – resulted in comparably low rates of deforestation. Therefore, the Guiana Shield captures large amounts of carbon and is an important region for Climate Change mitigation. However, the region is facing tremendous challenges to protect its forests and the lives of its forest-dependent communities. Among the most important threats are the major economic drivers of the region: industrial mining of gold and bauxite, cultivation of agro-commodities, development of infrastructure and the trade in wildlife. On top of this, illegal destructive and polluting activities such as artisanal gold mining and cocaine production and trafficking are undermining governance in the region.

Making use of the vast natural resources present in the Guiana Shield is seen as playing an important part in its economic development, in a push to achieve the same standard of living of developed countries. Unfortunately, much of the development which has taken place so far has been badly planned and poorly executed. During the last half century, the seemingly endless Guiana Shield has lost large areas of forest cover, its connectivity has been disrupted, and the vast majority of the millions of people living in the Guiana Shield are confronted with abject poverty, primitive public services and severe health problems. On the other hand, a small number of elite individuals, and their associated corporations and/or political parties, have significantly benefited from the exploitation of the Guiana Shield’s natural resources so far.

International Action

A large number of international regulations, treaties and agreements has been developed over the last decades and are supported by the Guiana Shield nations.

A number of international conventions on environmental issues and on the conservation of natural resources such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) and the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands of International Importance have been signed and ratified by the Guiana Shield nations. These conventions provide a political instrument to address issues of over-exploitation and non-sustainable use of natural resources, and they offer frameworks for national action and international cooperation to achieve their main goals. Some multilateral environmental agreements, like the UNFCCC and the CBD, propose financial mechanisms to enable parties to reach the targets of the agreement (e.g. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation - REDD+).

Trade policies such as World Trade Organisation (WTO) and regional trade agreements (CARICOM, MERCOSUR, etc.) affect the broad spectrum of commodity production in the Guiana Shield. Their main goal is to remove "barriers to free trade". Additional to the general trade agreements are commodity-specific conventions such as the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna (CITES) and the European Union (EU) Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) mechanism. For the Guiana Shield, some trade agreements have the potential to stimulate the reform of big industries such as large-scale mining by putting restrictive criteria on international trade chains, or limiting illegal wildlife trade by establishing and maintaining strict controls and intensive monitoring.

Although Guiana Shield governments have not signed the initiative so far, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) will have great implications in the region as the Guiana Shield nations do become EITI members over time. Mining in the Guiana Shield is driven by multinational mining companies, as well as artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations. Gold mining is on the rise in the Guiana Shield and as a result also mercury pollution. In 2013, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was signed. The Convention aims to prevent emissions and releases of mercury by banning several products by 2020. All Guiana Shield countries, with the exception of Suriname, were involved in the last negotiation round to reach agreement on the Convention. 

Voluntary market initiatives that promote environmental and socio-ecological sustainability are gradually gaining ground globally. Important in the Guiana Shield context are attempts for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. FSC certified forest concessions have successfully been established in the Guiana Shield in Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. 

Featured International Organisation

  • WTO

    World Trade Organisation

Featured International Initiatives

  • REDD+

    Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation
  • EITI

    The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
  • FSC

    Forest Stewardship Council

Featured International Publications

  • CBD

    Convention on Biological Diversity

    United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa

    United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Ramsar Convention

    Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat

    Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • Minamata Convention on Mercury

EU Action

A number of European Union legislation are relevant for the Guiana Shield region, and additionally the EU maintains bilateral as well as multilateral relationships with many of the Guiana Shield countries.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) is the official diplomatic service of the EU. Its central task is to support the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to carry out the Common Foreign and Security Policy. As such, the EEAS is responsible for the EU’s Delegations worldwide, of which there are about 140 in total. The Delegations are key to maintaining EU’s foreign relations with countries – they engage in negotiations, explain and implement the EU’s foreign policy and analyse and report on the host countries’ relevant policies. The EU has delegations to five of the Guiana Shield countries – single delegations to Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela; and a combined delegation to Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and for the Dutch Overseas Countries and Territories. French Guyana is fully part of the EU. In addition, the EU has multilateral, or regional ties to groups of countries that include the Guiana Shield countries, which in effect means that their decisions and policies have an effect on the Guiana Shield region. The bi-regional and multilateral forums that are relevant to the Guiana Shield are the EU-Latin American and Caribbean States Bi-Regional Partnership (EU-CELAC), the European Union-Caribbean Bi-Regional Partnership (EU-CARIFORUM) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific States (ACP)-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly.

EuropeAid is the the European Commission’s Directorate General Development and Cooperation (DG DEVCO), and is the agency responsible for the design and distribution of the EU’s official development assistance. The Cotonou Agreement of 2000 is the main framework within which the EU’s foreign relations with the ACP countries are defined. The Agreement, which is relevant particularly to Suriname and Guiana as ACP states, addresses three pillars, namely Development cooperation, Political cooperation and Economic and Trade cooperation. It recognises the importance of sustainable development and the issue of Climate Change as major themes for the regional partnership. The European Commission and EuropeAid also contribute to external action, such as the Guiana Shield Facility, a multi-donor funding facility led by the UNDP and supported by a wide range of civil society organisations that supports long-term sustainable development cooperation in the Guiana Shield region. Besides the EU, the Government of the Netherlands is a major donor for the initiative.

As regards EU legislation, the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) framework and its corresponding Action Plan is important for the Guiana Shield region. The FLEGT Action Plan of 2003 aims to reduce illegal logging. One of the cornerstones of the Action Plan is the EU Timber Regulation, which aims to ensure that no illegal timber or timber products, including pulp and paper, are sold in the EU. The Regulation came into effect in 2013, and makes it illegal for operators in Europe to placing illegally sourced timber and timber products on the EU market and requires them to exercise ‘due diligence’ with regard to information about the timber. In addition, traders of timber in the EU market have to keep records of their transactions. Furthermore, and as part of the EU’s effort to reduce illegal logging, Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are being established with timber-producing countries outside of the EU. These are legally binding trade agreements that help ensure that timber is legally sourced and as part of the agreements, the EU supports efforts to improve regulation and governance of the forest sector. Of the Guiana Shield countries, negotiations on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement are taking place only with Guyana. Nevertheless, and taking into account the growing threat of illegal deforestation in the region, the FLEGT Action Plan and the Timber Regulation are undoubtedly highly relevant legislation for the Guiana Shield countries.

Another ecological and social issue in the Guiana Shield that is notable concerning EU Action is gold mining and the associated use of mercury. Three countries within the region of the Guiana Shield - Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname - still rely on mercury to extract gold, clearly because such a method is cheaper compared to other alternatives such as hard rock gold mining and sluicing. Mercury contamination in the Guiana Shield can come in various forms. Examples of mercury contamination include surface water pollution as a result of runoffs from mines, urban pollution as a result of amalgam burning in gold shops and transboundary pollution as a result of mercury emissions into the air and runoffs into the water. As a non-biodegradable persistent toxic substance, mercury can end up in the effluents of the Guiana Shield rivers flowing into the Caribbean.

Within the EU, legislation has been enacted to regulate the export of mercury. Regulation No 1102/2008 is specifically targeted on the banning of exports of metallic mercury, mercury compounds and products containing mercury from the EU with the aim to reduce the global mercury supply. The Regulation also mentions the examination of the need to have an import ban of mercury, in consultation with the Member States and the relevant stakeholders.

Featured EU Organisations

Featured EU Initiatives

Featured EU Publications

  • EU FLEGT Regulation

    Regulation (EC) No 2173/2005 of 20 December 2005 on the establishment of a FLEGT licensing scheme for imports of timber into the European Community
  • EU Timber Regulation

    Regulation (EU) No 995/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market
  • Cotonou Agreement

  • Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008

    Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2008 on the banning of exports of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures and the safe storage of metallic mercury

Other Action

In 1993, with the aim to support the sustainable development of the Guiana Shield, the Guiana Shield Initiative (GSI) was launched. The GSI was designed in such a way to enable the six countries and their local communities to benefit from their natural resources and help fulfil national obligations under various multilateral environmental agrements. In 2010, the GSI was succeeded by a more permanent establishment called the Guiana Shield Facility (GSF). Managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Country Office in Guyana, GSF currently exists as a transnational institution and an important financial mechanism, facilitating inter alia, REDD+ readiness in the Guaina Shield nations. 

The sustainable management of ecosystem services within the Guiana Shield region is of great importance in the global battle against climate change. Incentive based Ecosystem Service initiatives seem to provide a natural way to fit environmental concerns into market driven economic growth. However, there are concerns that Ecosystem Service initiatives may actually diminish the power of local communities to manage their own natural resources. In late 2011, Project COBRA was launched as an initiative that will enable communities and individuals that live within the Guiana Shield region to track and document the actual impacts of these global policy changes are making within their own communities and lives. 

Featured Other Organisations

  • GSF

    Guiana Shield Facility
  • UNDP

    United Nations Development Programme

Featured Other Initiatives

  • GSI

    Guiana Shield Initiative
  • Project COBRA

    Community Owned Best Practice in Resource Adaptive Management

Role of Earth Observation

From the beginning in 1994 systematic monitoring of the ecology of the Guiana Shield was considered a key element in the tool box of first the Guiana Shield Initiative (GSI) which became the Guiana Shield Facility (GSF) in 2010. The latter, upon instigation of the European Commission, which as major donor of the Initiative and Facility since 2006, wanted to give more permanence to the work to preserve the values of the Shield. The GSF now is a programme of the UNDP and is managed out of the UNDP office in Georgetown, Guyana.

As the ecoregion encompasses more than 270 million hectars of pristine but difficult to access tropical rainforest, interspersed with rivers, wetlands and occasional savannas, the only way to get a good overview of the condition of the ecology of the region is from space, checked of course by groundtruthing where possible.

A second reason to use imagery from space is to monitor the compliance with the Payments-for-Ecosystem Services (PES) contracts which form the main instrument to achieve the objectives of the Guiana Shield Initiative/Facility.[1]

While the GSI/F has from its beginning stressed the need to use earth observation from space as a vital tool in what may be called diagnosis and therapy, satellite monitoring is now also considered a key element in the Monitoring and Measurement, Reporting and Verification (M & MRV) – part of the REDD+ mechanism under the UNFCCC. REDD+ is considered a potentially important source for financing the programmes of the GSI/F.

GSI/F had the opportunity to work since its inception with SarVision, a remote sensing company established out of Wageningen University, specialising in radar images of tropical forests.

Tropical rainforests are often covered with clouds but with radar technology, one can “see” through the clouds. This is a great asset in the monitoring of the overall condition and contract compliance in the Shield.

The active participation of the entities on the ground to do the field verification of the satellite images and to take pictures or make videos illustrating the local situation is indubitably an essential part of all monitoring schemes.[2]

Uploading these “visuals” on Google Earth can be a powerful tool to ask for global attention to the values of and threats to the forests and their communities. The Surui community in Rondonia, Brazil, has been very active in working with Google Earth and has also put its own ethno-cultural map of the Surui territory on-line:

Commissioned by the GSF, SarVision has produced a plan for the long-term monitoring of the ecology of the Guiana Shield using the advanced Sentinels of the European Space Agency and with full involvement of local communities and observers equipped with handheld devices such as smart phones.

A first edition of this plan was published in November 2013 under the tile FORESEEN (FOrest REmote SEnsing Exchange Network). The idea is to make FORESEEN an integral part of the GSF Work Programme 2016-2020. 

[1] It is very important to note that PES is a generic term referring to any remuneration for keeping the services of the ecosystems intact. For a definition, description and analysis of these services see the documents produced by Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005: These remunerations can be monetary or in kind, depending on the needs and wishes of the entities with which the contracts are concluded.

[2] This is also called CBFM (Community-based Forest Monitoring) or CMRV (Community-based Monitoring Reporting and Verification): see Work on promoting the use of visual technology to promote community-owned solutions in the Guiana Shield has been carried out by the so-called COBRA project: see

Editorial Note:

This section of the Action Guide and the accompanying Project COBRA Directory of Guiana Shield Civil Society Organisations were produced in Project COBRA: The Role of Community Owned Solutions in Sustainable Environmental Management and Governance in the Global South.

Project COBRA was supported by a three year grant from the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme. The contents of this page are the sole responsibility of Project COBRA and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.