Guyana boasts a remarkably rich ecology, but also has one of South America’s poorest economies.
Tropical rainforests – filled with distinctive plants and trees, teeming with exotic birds, insects and mammals – are a big draw for eco-tourists. But political troubles, ethnic tension and economic mismanagement have left the former British colony with serious economic problems.
The only English-speaking country in South America, Guyana became independent in 1966.
A third of its population is descended from African slaves, imported by the Dutch to work on sugar plantations. Around half are the descendants of indentured Indian agricultural workers brought in by the British after slavery was abolished.
Persistent tension between these two groups has fuelled political instability and is reflected in hostility between the two main parties, which are ethnically-based.
Until the 1990s more than 80% of Guyana’s industries were state-owned. Mismanagement, falling commodity prices and high fuel costs created serious economic problems and led to a fall in an already-low living standard.
Since the late 1990s the government has divested itself of many industries, but it now faces problems which include environmental threats to the coastal strip and rainforest, poverty and violent crime – the latter fuelled by the drugs trade.
The sugar industry – a key source of foreign exchange and Guyana’s main employer – has been hit by the loss of preferential access to EU markets and a cut in European sugar subsidies.
Many Guyanese seek their fortunes outside the country; the exodus of skilled migrants is among the highest in the region.
A long-running dispute with neighbouring Suriname over the ownership of a potentially oil-rich offshore area was settled in 2007 by a UN tribunal that redrew the maritime boundary and gave both countries a share of the basin. The ruling could bring a surge of exploration by major oil companies.
The issue came to a head in 2000 when Surinamese patrol boats evicted a Canadian-owned rig from a concession awarded by Guyana.
The demarcation of the Guyana-Venezuela border is also disputed, with both countries claiming the mineral and timber-rich Essequibo region.