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LectureHop: We Heart Bharrat Jagdeo

Eco-friendly Bwogger Mark Hay explains why he has a massive crush on Bharrat Jagdeo- and why you should too!

Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo had just finished his speech, “What’s Greener than a Rainforest: Economic Transformation and Forest Conservation in Guyana,” this past Friday when a member of the audience eagerly sprang towards the microphone to boldly declare: “My favorite president in the western hemisphere was named Barack; now it looks like I’ll add Bharrat.” Columbia has fallen madly in love with Mr. Jagdeo, and it is easy to understand why. Jagdeo entered Guyanese politics at the age of 26 and ascended to the presidency just nine years later making him, in 1999, one of the world’s youngest leaders. He has maintained his position, and an unimaginable level of popularity at home and abroad, for a decade now- and seems to have done it all with an unflagging idealism tempered by optimistic pragmatism (almost a contradiction in terms, but somehow he pulls it off).

And he’s green to boot. In June of this year, Jagdeo launched a “Low Carbon Development Strategy” for Guyana – one of the largest and most practical applications of sustainable development ever implemented. It was this milestone program that had the entire audience, including Interschool Committee for Sustainable Development Co-Chair and moderator Ruth DeFries batting butterfly kisses at him for an hour.  DeFries, though, gave a moment’s pause in her adoration when Jagdeo seized upon her reference to Columbia and Yale’s cooperative Environmental Performance Index to lambast the metrics used in the index’s compilation, lament Guyana’s placement on the list, and suggest methods for better reflecting reality in such widely-read resources.

This brazen display of convictions, this strong sense of duty towards one’s nation and one’s beliefs set Jagdeo apart from the pandering and politics so common at the World Leader’s Forum. Indeed, Jagdeo admitted to the audience that he had “deliberately stayed away from a prepared statement,” so as to better engage with and learn from his audience. For a man winging it – a ballsy move for a world leader – Jagdeo’s address was fluid and concise, factual and methodical. His speech focused on the place of small, developing nations in the current U.N. climate change negotiations, and the challenges facing the dual needs for industrial development in Guyana and for the world to lower its carbon emissions. With this framing set, Jagdeo launched into a comprehensive and impressively detailed explanation of how basic and inexpensive approaches to stop deforestation and forest degradation could potentially cut 20% of greenhouse emissions, bring about immediate and inspiring results, and remain profitable for developing nations. This program, already well underway in Guyana, should be replicable in other developing nations, but even if this gambit (and a dire gambit it is) pays off for Jagdeo, he acknowledges that the approach may not be welcomed elsewhere.

The problem, he stressed, is a lack of trust between developed and developing nations. Vague promises and a lack of follow-through on the part of developed nations in the past leave developing nations suspicious that, in taking a leap of faith and preserving their forests, the larger powers will not uphold their end of the bargain (providing positive incentives and lowering their own industrial carbon emissions). A valid fear, but one Jagdeo hopes to allay by his own daring example. Although he never admitted as much in his address, it became increasingly clear that Jagdeo’s “Low Carbon” plan involves huge risks for the president and his nation. What fabulous faith this man must have to have watched similar plans flower and fail for over a decade, but to still reach out and put his faith in the reciprocal kindness and decency of humanity as a whole.

Being of an academic ilk, the audience was naturally skeptical of Jagdeo’s apparently sincere and enthusiastic overtures. Yet I, along with the rest of the audience, hoped that Jagdeo could deliver – so we spent the better part of an hour grilling the president on his specific plans. What incentives must be provided? How does one mobilize unconnected Guyanese citizens behind the plans? Why does the plan provide a greater incentive to keep a forest than to implement one? What are the plans for development? And to each question, Jagdeo provided a measured, appropriate and terrifyingly specific answer. Always, he sought confirmation from his inquisitors that their questions had been satisfactorily answered and at one point even offered the full cooperation of a member of his entourage in explaining a rather tricky issue raised by one audience member. There is no doubt: Bharrat Jagdeo is the real deal.

Which is why my fragile heart was broken while leaving the event. Tagging behind a gaggle of dapper students, the following exchange was overheard:

“It’s a nice thought, but I mean, big nations have so many other things to worry about.”

“Yeah, small nations just have nothing else to care about. I mean, they’ve got to realize that we just have more pressing matters to think about.”

Laughter ensued. While Jagdeo may command his audience and inspire hope in a closed setting, his hope and his spirit so quickly fly from the body in the open air. And I cannot help but wonder, to paraphrase a saying: Have we no sense of decency … at long last? Have we left no sense of decency?

-Mark Hay 

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