Guyana - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Guyana, country on the northern coast of South America. It was formerly a British colony known as British Guiana. In 1966, after more than 150 years of colonial rule, British Guiana achieved independence and took the name Guyana, from a Native American word meaning “land of waters.” The country’s full name is Cooperative Republic of Guyana. Today, Guyana is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of nations that once formed the British Empire. It is the only English-speaking country in South America. Georgetown is its capital.

Although Guyana is a South American nation, it has more in common with the smaller islands of the West Indies, with which it shares certain cultural, historical, and economic characteristics. Like most of the smaller islands that dot the eastern Caribbean, Guyana was not settled by the Spanish and Portuguese. Guyana was originally a Dutch colony that came under British control in the late 18th century.

The cultivation of sugarcane dominated Guyana’s economy beginning in the early 18th century. The introduction of sugar production brought dramatic changes in the population. The European colonists imported large numbers of Africans to work the fields as slaves. Later, following Britain’s abolition of slavery in the 1830s, workers arrived from the Indian subcontinent to work as laborers on the plantations. By the end of the 20th century, Indians and Africans were the largest ethnic groups in Guyana.

Since independence, political parties have formed along ethnic lines, and moderately left-wing governments have ruled Guyana. African Guyanese dominated the government until the 1990s, when a political party associated with Guyanese of Indian descent gained control of the government.


Guyana is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by Suriname, on the south by Brazil, and on the west by Brazil and Venezuela. Guyana has an area of 214,969 sq km (83,000 sq mi), and its coastline is 459 km (285 mi) long.

Guyana can be divided into three major geographical regions: a swampy coastal plain, a belt of sandy hills, and an interior highland. A belt of alluvial mud, varying in width from about 8 to 65 km (about 5 to 40 mi) and mostly below sea level, extends along the coast. A system of dams and dikes protects the fertile coastal plain, and sugarcane plantations and rice paddies fill much of it. Most of Guyana’s people live on the coastal plain, and the capital is situated here, at the mouth of the Demerara River.

Beyond the plain are low, sandy hills covered with tropical forest. Bauxite is found in the hills to the east. Dense forest covers about four-fifths of the country, gradually rising toward the south onto an interior highland. The highland is part of the vast Guiana Highlands region that extends into Brazil. The highland includes Guyana’s maximum elevation, atop Mount Roraima, of 2,810 m (9,219 ft). A region of savanna lies beyond the forest in the southwestern part of the highland.

Guyana is a land of rivers and forests. Several important rivers—the Essequibo, Demerara, Courantyne (Dutch, Corantijn), and Berbice—cross the country from south to north, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the rivers form spectacular waterfalls, notably Kaieteur Falls (226 m/741 ft high), on the Potaro River, one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world. Oceangoing freighters can travel up the rivers only about 100 to 160 km (about 60 to 100 mi) from the sea; farther inland, navigation is not possible because of rapids and falls.

Climate in Guyana

Guyana has a tropical climate, with little seasonal temperature change. The climate of coastal Guyana, where most of the people live, is mild for a low-lying tropical area because of persistent trade winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. The annual rainfall (about 1,525 to 2,030 mm/about 60 to 80 in) on the coast occurs mainly from April to August and November to January. The savanna region receives about 1,525 mm (60 in) of rain annually, mainly from April to September.

Natural Resources of Guyana

The important mineral deposits of Guyana include bauxite, used for making aluminum; gold; and diamonds. Some petroleum is located offshore. However, ownership of the oilfields is disputed by neighboring Suriname. The country’s timber from its rain forests is also valuable, although there are environmental concerns about the way deforestation contributes to global warming by removing trees and plants that absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. About 80 percent of Guyana’s land mass, an area about the size of England, consists of an undisturbed rain forest, known as the Guiana Shield, one of only four pristine rain forests still in existence. In March 2008 Guyana announced that it was preserving 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of a rain forest reserve in exchange for international aid.

The plants and trees of Guyana are noted for their great size; the giant water lily is common. The dense forests contain excellent woods, such as greenheart and mora. The animal life is varied and includes deer, anteaters, and two species of monkey. Among the birds are manakins, sugarbirds, and cotingas; the diversity of brilliantly colored birds and insects is considerable.


Slightly more than one-half of the total population of Guyana is made up of East Indians, whose ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent. Another 43 percent of the people are of black African descent or of mixed African and European background. Approximately 4 percent are Native Americans. In addition, small numbers of Europeans and Chinese live in Guyana. About 90 percent of the people live along the coast, and 61 percent live in rural areas.

The population of Guyana is 772,298 (2009 estimate), giving the country an overall population density of 3.9 persons per sq km (10.1 per sq mi). Georgetown, the capital and principal port, had a population (2003 estimate) of 231,000. Smaller population centers include the port of New Amsterdam (18,000 (1991 estimate)) and the mining community of Linden (formerly called Mackenzie-Wismar-Christianborg; 30,000 (2000 estimate)).

About 50 percent of Guyana’s people are Christians, with Protestants—divided among a number of congregations—making up the majority. There are also large numbers of Anglican and Roman Catholics. Hindus make up 33 percent of the country’s population and Muslims 9 percent. The official language of Guyana is English, but it is spoken as a second language by most of the people. Nearly all the people speak Guyanese Creole English, an English-based creole. Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, and several Native American languages are also spoken.

Native Americans were the original inhabitants of the country. They have not been integrated into Guyanese society and live mainly in the interior as hunters and nomadic farmers. Guyana’s diverse population results from its history as an agricultural colony. The European settlers imported Africans by the thousands in the 17th and 18th centuries to work on the sugar plantations as slave labor. Following emancipation in the 19th century, the Africans tended to move to the cities and to adopt European patterns of living. People of mixed African and European ancestry form a distinct group in Guyana, maintaining closer social ties to the European community than to the African Guyanese community.

Asians from the Indian subcontinent began to arrive in the 19th century, following the abolition of slavery in Guyana, to work as indentured and contract laborers. They continued to arrive until 1917, when Britain outlawed indentured servitude. Thousands of Indians chose to remain in Guyana after their terms of employment ended. Many live in the rural districts as plantation workers and rice farmers, although some have moved to urban areas. A small but highly influential community of Indian business and professional people live in Georgetown. The Indians have tended to preserve their cultural identity and have maintained a deep interest in their homeland.

Guyana’s Portuguese inhabitants are the descendants of indentured laborers brought mainly from the island of Madeira in the 19th century. They did not work as agricultural laborers for long; many became urban shopkeepers and merchants. Guyanese of Portuguese descent have not preserved their native language. Indentured laborers also came to Guyana from China in the 19th century. Many Guyanese of Chinese ancestry now own shops. The few British inhabitants of Guyana are generally employed by the sugar firms or by the government.

Guyana’s various ethnic groups form distinct communities within the nation. This division extends into politics, where major political parties are often identified with specific ethnic groups. Despite the political importance of ethnic identifications, a common Guyanese culture has developed. The bulk of the people are descendents of plantation workers and have had little contact with their ancestral homelands. There is also widespread belief that racial or ethnic origin should be unimportant in public life. There is broad tolerance of religious diversity. Many Indians, for example, accept baptism and membership in Christian churches without abandoning their participation in Hindu rituals.

Education in Guyana

In the 2006 school year 110,500 pupils were enrolled in 422 elementary schools in Guyana. Secondary, technical, and teacher-training institutions had a total of 70,800 students. The country’s principal institution of higher education is the University of Guyana, founded in 1963 in Georgetown. Education is valued as a means of social mobility. In 2005 Guyana had a literacy rate of 99 percent, one of the highest in Latin America.

Culture of Guyana

Until its independence, Guyana was tied culturally more closely to Suriname and French Guiana than to the rest of South America. Guyana was settled by East Indians, who still speak Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil dialects; black Africans; and a few Europeans, mostly from Britain. These various ethnic strains have remained fairly distinct, and today each group has its own style of life and culture, although the ties of nationhood tend to bind them together.


Immediately before independence in 1966, Guyana was in the early stages of developing its resources. The development continued under an economic plan drawn up by British, United States, and Canadian experts. Manufacturing, which was on a small scale in the late 1960s, was expanded in the 1970s, but in the early 2000s the economy of Guyana was dominated by agriculture, mining, and service industries. The country had a gross domestic product (GDP) of $1,080 million in 2007. The national budget in 1996 included revenue of $247 million and expenditure of $287 million.

Agriculture of Guyana

Agriculture accounts for 31 percent of GDP and employs 28 percent of the labor force. Sugar, its by-products, and rice account for most of the agricultural exports; 3.3 million metric tons of sugarcane and 475,000 metric tons of rice were produced in 2007. Cultivation of sugarcane and rice is confined primarily to the narrow coastal strip of rich, alluvial soil. Coconuts, coffee, cacao, citrus fruits, corn, manioc, and other tropical fruits and vegetables are grown primarily for home consumption. Large areas of rough pasture exist in the interior savanna. Substantial numbers of cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens are raised.

Forestry and Fishing in Guyana

In 2007 the timber harvest from Guyana’s extensive forests was 1,381,900 cubic meters (48.8 million cubic feet). Almost all of the harvest was made up of hardwoods, used mainly in construction and furniture-making. Timber has become an important export, and the government sought foreign investors to expand its forestry industry.

Fishing in Guyana is concentrated along the Atlantic coast. The industry expanded during the 1990s and early 2000s, with shrimp becoming a valuable export. The catch in 2007 was 54,660 metric tons.

Mining in Guyana

Guyana is a major producer of bauxite; 1.6 million metric tons were mined in 2007. Guyana also produces gold and diamonds.

Manufacturing and Energy in Guyana

Manufacturing in Guyana largely involves the processing of minerals, especially bauxite, and of agricultural and forest products, including sugar, rice, rum, and timber for export. Factories also produce foodstuffs, beverages, construction materials, clothing, soap, and cigarettes for local use.

In 2006 Guyana generated 900 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, 100 percent of which was produced in thermal facilities. The country has a great potential for producing hydroelectricity.

Tourism of Guyana

With its vast, untouched rain forests, Guyana has great tourism potential. The government has begun to target the tourist sector for development, especially ecotourism, but tourism has so far not contributed greatly to Guyana’s economy. Reports of violence in Georgetown during the early 2000s deterred potential tourists from visiting the country.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Guyana

The Guyana dollar consists of 100 cents (202.30 Guyana dollars equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Bank of Guyana, established in 1965, is the central bank.

The chief exports of Guyana are sugar, bauxite, rice, gold, shrimp, and timber. The principal imports are petroleum products, machinery, and consumer goods. In 2007 imports cost $1,040 million, and exports earned $681 million. The principal purchasers for the country’s exports were Canada, the United Kingdom, and Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana’s imports come mainly from the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom.

Transportation in Guyana

Guyana has 7,970 km (4,952 mi) of roads, most of which are near the coast. Guyana’s main seaports are Georgetown and New Amsterdam. The rivers provide an important means of access to the interior. The main airport, Timehri International, is near Georgetown.

Communications in Guyana

Regular telephone service exists in Guyana, although radio-telephone links are frequently the only efficient means of communication with the interior. The government operates broadcasting services. Guyana has 147 telephone mainlines, 604 radio receivers, and 100 television sets in use for every 1,000 inhabitants.


Guyana is governed under a constitution adopted in 1980 and amended in 2000 and 2001.

Central Government in Guyana

The head of state and chief executive of Guyana is a president, elected to a five-year term of office by the National Assembly. The president is a candidate of the party that receives the largest number of votes in elections for the National Assembly. The president appoints a cabinet, headed by a prime minister who must be an elected member of the National Assembly.

Legislature of Guyana

Legislative power in Guyana is vested in the unicameral National Assembly of 65 members who are elected to five-year terms under a system of proportional representation. Forty members are elected at a national level, and 25 from various regions.

Judiciary in Guyana

The law of Guyana is based mostly on English common and statute law. The highest tribunal of the country is the Supreme Court of Judicature, which is divided into a court of appeal and a high court.

Local Government of Guyana

Guyana is divided into ten regions. Each region is governed by a council.

Political Parties of Guyana

The People’s National Congress (PNC), founded in 1957, held power from independence until 1992, when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), founded in 1950, won a parliamentary majority. The PNC is largely supported by the black African population, while the PPP is Indian-dominated. There are also a number of smaller political parties.

Health and Welfare in Guyana

The Guyana government provides social assistance, including old-age pensions and relief for the aged, the infirm, and destitute children; delinquency services; and community services. Public-health measures have eliminated malaria as a major problem. Life expectancy at birth is 64.1 years for men and 69.4 years for women (2009).

Defense of Guyana

The armed forces of Guyana are organized in one group, called the Guyana Defense Forces, which in 2006 had 1,100 members.


Before the arrival of European explorers, what is now Guyana was inhabited by tribes of Arawak, Carib, and Warrau Native Americans. Spanish explorers first charted the territory that is now Guyana in 1499. In the 1620s the Dutch established a permanent and successful colony on an island in the Essequibo River. The English and French also founded settlements on the South American coast during the 1600s. All three nations claimed rights in the whole region extending from the Orinoco River to the Amazon River.

The Colonial Period

By the mid-18th century, Dutch settlers and traders had prevailed over rival Spanish and British expeditions. They formed three colonies in the region. During the 17th century, the Dutch penetrated well into the interior of Guyana and developed trade contacts with the Arawak- and Carib-speaking indigenous people. The Dutch concentrated on sugar cultivation, however, and in the first quarter of the 18th century they rapidly developed sugar plantations. Under the leadership of Laurens Storm Van’s Gravesande, the Dutch commander from 1742 to 1772, the Dutch built sea defenses and drainage and irrigation systems in the coastal lowlands. Many English planters from the Caribbean island of Barbados also moved to the Dutch colony.

Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the French occupied Holland. In 1795 the Dutch offered administration of the colonies to the British because they did not want the colonies to fall under the control of the French. The British officially took possession of the area from the Dutch in 1814. In 1831 the British merged the three Dutch colonies that had existed on the territory that is now Guyana, forming a single colony known as British Guiana.

The Dutch and British imported African slaves to work the sugar plantations. During the years of British rule, diseases introduced from Europe killed many Native Americans. An influx of European immigrants and African slaves reduced the Native American population to a tiny minority. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, the British brought laborers from India to work the plantations. The resulting division of Guyana’s population into African and Indian ethnic groups had long-lasting effects on Guyana’s society.

Most of the former slaves established villages on abandoned sugar plantations. They did not succeed in becoming independent farmers, but instead became dependent on wage labor. Gradually a class of black professionals developed. They sought a role in the political life of the colony. Some constitutional reforms were introduced in the late 19th century. The British governor and appointed members of the colonial legislature continued to dominate the government, but the legislature expanded to include a limited number of elected representatives.

Guyana received its first constitution under the British administration in 1928. Although the right to vote was extended at that time, it did not become universal until 1953. In the meantime, the government continued to nominate some members of the colonial legislature, and those representatives had more power than the elected representatives. Widespread unrest in Britain’s Caribbean and West Indian territories led in 1938 to the appointment of a royal commission to investigate social and economic conditions. The commission recommended that the people be given a larger role in the government and administration of their territories. Progress toward self-government had to wait until after the end of World War II in 1945, however.


In 1953 Britain allowed limited self-government in Guyana. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was a multiracial nationalist party founded in 1950 by political activists Cheddi Jagan, who was of Indian descent, and Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, of African descent. The PPP won the election and formed a government under the leadership of Jagan. His government lasted only a few months before the British government, concerned over Jagan’s left-wing political beliefs, reimposed an appointed government.

In 1955 a conflict developed within the PPP between Burnham and Jagan. Burnham founded a new party known as the People’s National Congress (PNC). Support for the parties generally split along racial lines. The urban population, which was largely of African descent, supported the PNC. Rural voters, who were mainly of Indian descent, backed the PPP.

In 1961 Guyana achieved full internal self-government, and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), under the leadership of Jagan, gained a majority in the legislative assembly. In 1962 Jagan introduced a program of severe economic austerity that caused violent riots and a general strike. British troops were called in to restore order in February 1962 and again in 1963. In 1963 the disturbances took on racial overtones; people of African descent clashed with the Indian supporters of Jagan. Calm was restored, but the nation was left on the brink of economic chaos.

Following constitutional conferences between Guyana and Britain in 1962 and 1963, elections were held in late 1964. The PPP again received the most votes, but it failed to gain a majority. The British government thereupon called on Burnham, leader of the minority People’s National Congress (PNC), to form a coalition government.


In 1965 the British Guiana Independence Conference met in London, England, and a new constitution was approved. On May 26, 1966, Guyana was declared an independent nation. It joined the United Nations in 1966. Guyana became a charter member of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) in 1968. Elections that year confirmed Burnham in office. On February 23, 1970, Guyana was proclaimed a republic.

Burnham moved to establish government control over most of the economy. In 1971 the government nationalized the Guyanese holdings of the Canadian multinational corporation Alcan Aluminum. In 1974 it took over the properties of the U.S.-owned Reynolds Metals Company, and in 1976 the government also nationalized sugar companies, chief among them the giant British firm Booker McConnell.

In the early 1970s Guyana established diplomatic relations with China and several other communist nations. In the economic sphere, an investment plan was adopted in 1973, calling for expenditure of $1.15 billion by 1976. The country aimed to be self-sufficient in agriculture and to develop its oil resources. It also wanted to have a greater voice in the mining of its bauxite deposits and in controlling the profits from them. The government assumed control of all foreign trade in 1974.

In 1973 elections to the National Assembly gave a large majority to the PNC. However, fraud and violence were so flagrant that the PPP refused to take its allotted minority seats. The PPP ended its boycott of the assembly in 1976 to show support for Burnham’s seizure of foreign-owned companies.

Economic and Social Problems

In the mid-1970s the Burnham government welcomed a number of U.S. religious cults to Guyana. This brought the country international notoriety in 1978, when Guyana was the scene of the Jonestown mass suicide and murder. More than 900 members of a religious cult, primarily U.S. citizens, took poison on orders of their leader, James Warren (“Jim”) Jones, and died.

Starting in the late 1970s, the economic condition of Guyana began to deteriorate steadily. As world demand fell for its main exports, bauxite and sugar, the country was unable to pay for the imported goods it needed to maintain its already low standard of living. Inflation and shortages led to repeated strikes, which the government repressed.

In 1978 the term of the National Assembly was extended for a year beyond its five-year limit in anticipation of a new constitution; it was extended again in 1979. After the new socialist constitution was put into effect in 1980, Prime Minister Burnham was elected president and given greatly increased powers. The PNC retained its overwhelming majority in the assembly, but an international team of observers concluded that the PNC had rigged the election. Burnham governed until his death in 1985; Desmond Hoyte succeeded him. Elections that same year confirmed PNC control of the assembly and Hoyte as president. Hoyte remained in office until 1992, when, in an internationally supervised election, Jagan and the PPP returned to power.

The PPP in Power

Jagan died in office in March 1997. His widow, Janet Jagan, who was born in the United States, assumed leadership of the PPP. She won election as president in December 1997 after the PPP won 55 percent of the vote. The PNC, which won only 40 percent of the vote, claimed that Jagan’s victory was the result of election fraud. Sporadic outbreaks of political rioting followed the election, and members of the PNC boycotted the National Assembly, refusing to take their seats.

Representatives from a number of Caribbean nations conducted an audit of the election and released their findings in June 1998. Their report concluded that the election was conducted fairly. The PNC continued to protest against the Jagan government, however. Hoyte charged the government with corruption and discrimination against African Guyanese citizens. The economy of Guyana declined during 1998, partly as a result of the political unrest. Nervous foreign investors were reluctant to keep their money in Guyanese businesses, and a slowdown in the world economy resulted in lower prices for many of Guyana’s major exports.

In June and July 1998 several weeks of rioting took place in Georgetown. In response, the government declared a state of emergency in the capital. Shortly thereafter, the PPP and the PNC worked out a compromise in which the PNC ended its boycott of the National Assembly. Talks aimed at settling the dispute stalled in early 1999 when the PNC accused Jagan’s government of negotiating in bad faith. In August 1999 Jagan resigned, citing health problems. She was succeeded by Bharrat Jagdeo, an economist who had served as finance minister in Jagan’s cabinet. The PNC refused to recognize Jagdeo’s administration.

General elections in March 2001 returned Jagdeo’s administration to power. The PNC accused the PPP of election fraud and appealed to the Supreme Court of Judicature to intervene. The high court upheld the PPP’s victory, sparking street demonstrations by the PNC and its supporters in Georgetown. An ethnic relations commission was established by the major parties in an attempt to subdue the violence surrounding the election. However, dialogue between the groups stalled on several occasions.

Floods in early 2005 caused widespread devastation in Guyana, destroying the possessions of 40 percent of the population. The government declared Georgetown, the capital, a disaster zone.

General elections in 2006 gave the PPP a majority in the National Assembly, and Jagdeo began another five-year term.

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