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Amerindian culture and land rights shape conservation in Guyana’s Rupununi region

Addressing pressures to secure game and fish supply
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South Rupununi landscape

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Everisto Lawrence remembers fishing and hunting as a boy, walking along riverbanks and at the edge of the forest for fish and game in Guyana’s southern Rupununi region.

He said the water was clear, even allowing a glimpse of the bottom in some spots, and the forest was expansive, providing habitat for diverse wildlife. It did not take too long to catch food for the family table.

This is no longer the case. “Today, there are not as many fish, and they are different. The meat is darker, and the taste has changed,” he said.

The zone faces several pressures such as climate change, but the most pressing concern today is from mining, both legal and illegal. There is ample evidence of contamination from mercury, a toxic substance used in alluvial gold mining to amalgamate gold particles in sediment.

In 2017, the community decided to take action, forming the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC).

“SRDC grew out of our concern to protect our ancestral land, the Wapichan Wiizi,” said Kid James, SRDC coordinator. “We believe we know how best to maintain the land. We want them transferred to us legally.”

SRDC is not anti-mining or against infrastructure development but wants to make sure that projects are done according to traditional ways and managed with the best practices available, he added.

Since 2018, a key component of the work that the SRDC is doing to protect wildlife in their ancestral lands is supported by the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, which aims to improve wildlife conservation and food security in 15 countries.

The Wapishan Wiizi Wildlife Committee

Timothy Williams, who coordinates the Wapichan Wiizi Wildlife Committee, which was created under SRDC in 2019, said that while their work is cantered on wildlife and natural resource management, “it feeds into the work the SRDC is doing in terms of advocating for environmental protection, showcasing our livelihoods and how we have always lived in a way that is now called sustainable. When we talk about preserving wildlife, we are also talking about our lives and the future of human life here,” he said.

The Wapichan Wiizi Wildlife Committee, with support from the SWM Programme, is working on a series of wildlife assessments and discussing wildlife use guidelines to foster sustainable wildlife management. The task is growing increasingly urgent, according to Williams.

“The work that we do helps the SRDC to advocate for land-rights extensions. We contribute by showing the government why these areas need protecting and why we are the ones who are capable of doing it,” he said.

   Petroglyphs

The committee began working with communities to draft wildlife use guidelines designed to protect and maintain resources.

Eight communities have started developing guidelines that address a list of issues, from controlling wildlife trading to how hunting should be practiced. The Rupununi, despite progress, continues to suffer from trappers coming in from other areas to collect live birds, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles for sale in the country and abroad. The whole of the Rupununi is a mega-biodiverse zone, with more than 1,500 species.

The guidelines fit into a broader effort to develop a wildlife management plan for the Wapichan Wiizi and includes the upcoming biodiversity and cultural heritage assessment that will document the cultural connection to the land and wildlife.

Williams said that discussions with elders will frame the assessment, which will also document the cultural importance of bush islands, mountains, and water sources. Of particular interest are petroglyphs carved into the rock. Guyana has some of the world’s oldest known rock outcroppings and the petroglyphs date back to 7,000 to 3,000 Before Present.

Legends abound about the petroglyphs and nearby mountains, including stories about invisible people who are guardians of sacred sites.

“We have a lot of tales about why we should not disturb certain places, which also happen to be home to endangered species,” Williams said.

From protecting siskins to wildlife management

One of the key wild species found in the Wapichan Wiizi is the red siskin (Spinus cucullatus), a rare bird known to occur in Venezuela, but later also reported in the South Rupununi. The presence of this endemic bird and the threats it was facing by the wildlife trade motivated the creation of the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS), a grassroots organization based in South Rupununi, which works in partnership with SRDC.

A major change for the SRCS came in 2018, when it partnered with the SWM Programme. The SRCS–SWM Programme collaboration allowed for continued efforts on red siskins, and broadened it to include other species, such giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis).

   Giant anteater © Quadad de Freitas: FAO
   Red Siskin © Quadad de Freitas: FAO

Anteater monitoring activities began in 2019 with camera traps provided by the SWM Programme. The idea was to establish a baseline of the population, but it quickly turned into a research project that has already contributed new information to science.

The key was where the camera traps were placed. Richard Peters, a local guide known as Chado, told Earl that scratch markings on trees were made by anteaters and not jaguars as most people assumed.

“What is really interesting is that several of the anteaters interact in one location and it seems to be for communication, because it is not a feeding spot,” said Erin Earl, an SRCS member spearheading the research on giant anteaters.

A next step is creating a community management zone to protect the ant eater. The first zone would be in Katoonarib, a Wapichan village. The village council is not only onboard, but wants it to be broader, including other animals, such as tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and howler monkeys (Alouatta spp.).

This management model will be used with other species, including the yellow-spotted river turtles in the Sand Creek village, which this year began a program of gathering and hatching turtle eggs to replenish the dwindling population. Turtles are released at an annual event creating awareness about the problem of over-harvesting local fauna.

“The idea would be for villages to decide on special management zones for animals that would constitute a network of community led management efforts within the Wapichan Wiizi,” Earl said.

   South Rupununi.

Tying it together with environmental education

The various management activities taking place in the Wapichan Wiizi, coalesce around the idea of education.

“Since the SRCS was founded, we have been aware that all of the issues we were working on needed an educational component,” said Alyssa Melville, the SRCS environmental education coordinator. “We knew it was the key.”

The SWM Programme’s work with the SRCS led to the design and implementation of an environmental education curriculum that began with the school year in September 2019 in four villages. It is a bilingual curriculum that was written in English but is taught in Wapishana or Macushi, depending on the village. Classes have up to 30 students and run between one and two hours.

The program was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in the second term of the inaugural year but relaunched in September 2021. It was expanded to 12 communities with a revised curriculum. It is being run with the approval of village councils.

The first lesson in the curriculum is called “Web of Life,” and it lays the foundation for the year, with students learning about ecosystems and habitats in southern Rupununi.

“It teaches about the interconnection with our environment and what would happen if an animal were to disappear, the consequence, and what they can do to preserve it,” Melville said.

   Kid James. Photo credit: FAO © Lucien Chauvin:
   Anteater scratch

The program is already working on the next stages, assuming the pandemic remains under control.

Plans include extending the curriculum to all villages in the Wapichan Wiizi and launch a citizen science curriculum.

“Environmental education is at the foundation,” Melville said. “The kids learn, and they become involved in their communities.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact Nathalie van Vliet at n.vanvliet@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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