Guyana’s Rupununi region is home to spectacular landscapes and exotic animals, where visitors hope to glimpse giant anteaters and armadillos.
The area is also home to chickens — lots of chickens — and a traditional cattle production system with low impacts on the environment.
However, since the 1970s, the cattle sector has dwindled from a very lucrative activity to a system which requires innovative transformation and diversification.
In this context, chickens play an increasingly important economic and social role in local communities. They can be seen roaming the savannah, clucking outside schools and even helping sleeping canines by pecking off pesky fleas. The ones that meander around yards are affectionately called yardies.
These are all good signs for the Rupununi Livestock Producers Association (RLPA), which was started in the 1970s to assist ranchers as they brought cattle to market, and revived midway through the last decade, broadening its focus, mission and membership.
In 2018, the RLPA joined forces with the Guyana section of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, on a project for small livestock production.
Chickens became the star attraction.
“All villages have chickens and everyone has been enthusiastic about the project,” said Rebecca Faria, RLPA chairperson and manager of her family’s Point Ranch. “There is interest because it is nurturing people in the community. The SWM has helped us build the capacity we need to reach farmers. The outreach we are doing is transforming lives.”
The project has multiple impacts, with better poultry rearing conceived as a way to boost the local economy, improve livelihoods and help conserve the region’s diverse wildlife.
The RLPA opened a “livestock hub” in Lethem, Rupununi’s political center, in early 2020 as part of the project. It provides farmers with supplies and assistance, and chickens.
Last year, the hub sold more than 16 tonnes of chicken feed and 7,000 chicks. It added more than 10 tonnes of poultry meat to the local diet. The numbers for 2021 will be substantially higher as pandemic-imposed restrictions have been lowered, Faria said.
Local growers say the hub has filled an essential need, not only by providing supplies but operating a vet hotline to answer questions via phone, e-mail or messaging.
“The RLPA hub is very important for us,” said Tessa Felix, who rears chickens in Shulinab village. “I buy feed and medication. “We used to suffer before, having to get supplies from Brazil, but now we have a local source.”
The increase in chicken rearing came at a critical time, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The southern Rupununi borders Brazil — the official crossing is in Lethem — and poultry was routinely shipped from Brazil to Guyana. The border was closed because of the health crisis, limiting imports.
Faria said the crisis happened as the RLPA was gearing up a number of campaigns to raise awareness about locally produced farm products.
“The SWM has helped us raise awareness in the communities about buying local,” Faria said. “The border closing and inflation in Brazil have contributed, because local poultry is now more competitive.”
The RLPA has produced signboards, which it has distributed in Lethem and in nearby villages, such as St Ignatius, for a “buy local” campaign.
“The campaign’s focus is on quality, taste and price. Local poultry tastes better and we know how it is reared,” Faria said. “We do not know how imported meat is produced.”
Feed and pens
The RLPA has two projects that complement the buy local campaign. One promotes local feed and the other establishes a hatching centre so that chicks can be hatched locally instead of brought in from Georgetown, the capital, which is more than 500 kilometers away on an often-harrowing highway.
The association has launched a “local feed challenge” in seven villages, with 70 chicks distributed to 10 farmers in each village. The participants had to propose feed options and monitor weight. Farmers with the heaviest chickens after eight weeks won prizes.
“We wanted to show small-scale poultry farmers that it is possible to have low-cost, and even no-cost, feed,” Faria said. “It offered ideas to farmers, especially low-income farmers, that they can rear chickens economically and sustainably.”
While she did not participate in the challenge, Felix said it was a smart move. “Rearing chickens helps families to be self-sufficient,” she said “In my case, I do not have a job right now and rearing chickens means that we have a source of protein when we need it.”
The newly built chicken-rearing facility will serve multiple purposes, facilitating supply for local farmers and providing a revenue stream to the RLPA. It is envisioned as a teaching facility for farmers and agriculture students.
Faria said the facility, which will include an incubator, will start small, but she hopes that it will eventually be able to serve all of Region 9, the official name of the Rupununi zone.
Wildlife rearing’s potential
The RLPA’s chicken project is helping improve food security, but it also complies with the SWM Programme’s other goal of wildlife conservation.
“Poultry is an alternative source of protein that can be used to supplement wild meat,” Faria said. “We are not telling people they cannot have wild meat, but that they can limit it. Chickens are a sustainable source of protein, and rearing them relieves some of the pressure on wildlife.”
Felix said it is important to continue raising awareness about poultry, because conditions are changing, with villagers having to go farther into the forest each year to hunt and fish.
“The pressure for food is increasing and there are days when you are not lucky with the catch,” she said. “You still have to fill the pot, so a chicken will do.”
The RLPA’s most ambitious project follows these general lines, but is looking at options for villages to actually rear wildlife, such as capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) or labba (Cuniculus paca), for meat.
The idea was on the table when the SWM Programme was launched in Guyana in 2018. It included a fact-finding trip for a few farmers to Trinidad and Tobago, an island nation where wildlife, some of it introduced from the South American mainland, is reared. A study by the University of the West Indies in 2013 found that around 3 percent of the wildlife reared in Trinidad and Tobago was for meat.
The RLPA began the initial work of gauging interest in the project in May 2021. Faria said there has been some interest, but people are skittish.
The program wants to recruit two farmers for a test phase that would start in the final quarter of 2021 or early 2022. The RLPA is also speaking with the Guyana Livestock Development Authority and other agencies to figure out what would be needed to rear wildlife. It is also studying options that have been developed in other countries. For example, in Argentina, capybara hides are used to make leather, which is considered among the finest in the world. Argentina is the only country where the rodent is farmed for its hide.
Faria said that while capybara forms part of the Guyanese diet, it is not as prevalent in the diet as deer, labba or other bushmeat. She said the RLPA would organize the test phase, which will include training in wildlife rearing and management, and then make a decision.
“I do not know how it will turn out, but rearing is an option for the future to lower the burden on wildlife,” she said.
The SWM Programme is an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, which is funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment and the French Development Agency. It is implemented through a consortium partnership, which includes the Center for International Forestry Research, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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