Nurturing a jewel of the Caribbean

August 14, 1998

British research students are helping to develop sustainable forest use programmes in Guyana. Cath Cotton reports

Guyana, once regarded as the jewel of the Caribbean, is facing political and economic crisis. Yet while racial tensions underlie many of these problems, it seems that small-scale, multicultural programmes could play a crucial role in the country's development.

Guyana has a gross national product of around $530 (Pounds 325) per capita, not even a tenth of that for neighbouring Barbados or Trinidad. Its traditional industries based on balata (a rubber-like product) are long gone. But it lacks the busy tourist trade enjoyed by its more popular,palm-fringed Caribbean neighbours.

However, Guyana does boast vast areas of pristine tropical forest, covering around 80 per cent of its land. They provide a home to much of the country's Amerindian population, and are now regarded as a prime resource for economic development.

One outcome of an ever-growing interest in the nation's forest resources has been the internationally-sponsored Iwokrama Rainforest Programme, which now protects 360,000 hectares of tropical forest. Developed under the auspices of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1989, the Iwokrama programme aims to combine forest conservation with its sustainable utilisation, through the identification of useful plant products, ecotourism and the development of traditional craft industries.

One development to emerge from the programme is the formation of the Makushi Women's Research Group. Consisting of representatives from each of nine Amerindian villages in the North Rupununi - the region immediately to the south of the reserve - this active group has collected a wealth of information on Amerindian lifestyles and the use of local forest resources.

Initially, this work has been carried out by local Amerindian women in collaboration with Janette Forte, the University of Guyana's leading anthropologist and expert in Amerindian issues.

And now the women, who are predominantly from Guyana's Makushi and Arawak cultures, are sharing their research skills with researchers from Guyana and other Commonwealth nations.

One such is Christine Allen, a British research student from the Roehampton Institute, London. Ms Allen has teamed up in the field with the women's research group and the University of Guyana.

Based in Surama, an Amerindian village located just outside the boundaries of the Iwokrama reserve, her work parallels the interests outlined in the Commonwealth Institute's strategic plan launched earlier this year. One of the main concerns in Surama is the development of appropriate educational resources, both for its own school and for those in neighbouring villages.

"We do not have enough books here," Surama's long-suffering headmaster said. "Especially books about the local wildlife. We have one or two books on animals from the Arctic - about penguins and polar bears. But of course we don't get too many of those here in the forest! We don't have any resources to teach the children about the wildlife here."

In addition to identifying the type and amounts of forest products used by the villagers in their everyday lives, Ms Allen's work is geared towards producing educational resources based on local knowledge.

"We don't know so much about the forest," said Sidney Allicock, the chairman of the North Rupununi district development council. Yet like many local people, he will identify any given tree, list its animal predators and give details of its dispersal or pollination mechanisms at the drop of a hat.

It is this type of detailed ecological knowledge that the Guyanese and Roehampton researchers are seeking to document. The Makushi Women's Group has carried out a comprehensive study of traditional uses of local plants and animals. It is anticipated that supplementary work on the ways in which these plants and animals interact will help to understand the best ways to develop sustainable forest use programmes, while providing ideal material for educational resources.

The project, which already links British, Guyanese and native Guyanese researchers, now looks set to gain Canadian involvement too. A second PhD student, based at Canada's University of York, is also interested in documenting local use of forests surrounding Surama, and will begin her work later this summer.

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