A man motions to a bush island on the edge of the savanna. It is one of those days like any other in the Rupununi, a vast region of savanna in Southern Guyana. Every day here feels like Sunday. People work at their own pace. It may seem lazy from the outside, but it makes sense in such a hot savanna that at the height of the day, many people choose to relax.
He has returned after many years, since leaving on the eve of our country’s independence from the United Kingdom many years ago. “I used to hear howler monkeys over there, but not any longer,” he says. He’s an old American, a foreigner, and the shift in time has made the change quite noticeable. Even still, it doesn’t escape those who live here. Conversations at night time, in a place where people still have conversations at night time without the need for phone screens, often lead to lines like “I remember when you used to these big herds of bush hogs all about.”
The winds of change are ever blowing, but for Guyana these days it feels stronger. As a nation, our blessing is our curse. Although we host one of the highest percentages of intact forest of any country, most of that forest is inaccessible, and much of it understudied. Not only do we have very limited knowledge of what even lives in Guyana and what they need to survive, change is coming rapidly, with the country on the precipice of burgeoning development due to the growing oil industry. Like many post-colonial countries left in the British Empire’s shadow, we were left with infrastructure not designed for nation-building but for resource-extraction, and that’s what we’ve done. The world still needs paper. Phones and laptops use an abundance of rare-earth minerals.
In 2010, then-president Bharrat Jagdeo won the Champion of the Earth due his championing of the payment for ecosystem services model for Guyana’s growing developmental needs. I have to admit, I have limited knowledge of the inner goings-on of the REDD+ situation in Guyana, but essentially, not many countries bought in, despite the global services we provide by maintaining a forest that has inherent and beautiful value without monetary incentive. Still, reality is reality, and many people live in Guyana poverty. We got money, but it didn’t lead to the massive changes, resources, and economic growth that people (many in poverty or struggling in some way) strongly felt the need for.
Conservation requires resources. People need to be paid. Equipment needs to be bought. Rugged off-road vehicles do not purchase themselves nor their fuel nor do they drive themselves across complex and difficult terrain without any means of communicating once you get going. Large privileged nations like the US and Australia have been able to employ massive teams to manage their wildlife. The Guyana Wildlife Conservation and Management Commission is bravely taking on managing the entire country’s wildlife with a fraction of the resources and people. We all operate on a fraction of the resources of many of our peers, but man do we make that money go miles. Imagine what we could do with more.
I remain on the fence about the oil industry, and I will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. Although I am cognizant of climate change and its impacts (my very home city will likely disappear under the waves), I am also aware of the struggle of many, if not most, people in my own country. Poverty is ever-present, and while I do not call the communities and people I work with “poor”, for I doubt they’d agree with me, many communities only have a few jobs at most. Exxon isn’t here to save us. No one is. We are doing as we have since 1961 – picking along our own destiny and finding our own way, having been cast out unequipped and disadvantaged, in a world that often doesn’t know that we even exist, and many only know us from our struggles.
The reality is that I couldn’t be prouder of many of us. We are a kind and welcoming people, in spite of our common struggle. I have met so many people who have overcome many things: from poverty, to generational abuse and trauma, to systematic barriers too big to overcome alone. Sometimes, all we need is a push. For me, that was so many people that I can’t name any single one. I am who I am because many people saw my potential and helped me realize my dreams in one way or another. Many people I know, not just in Guyana, just needed a small push. Maybe kind words of encouragement, the willingness to believe in them and risk a bet on us, or a fantastic cover letter to help a student from the underdeveloped world go to one of the world’s top universities and do the course of his dreams.
People of the Rupununi are among the most resilient I know. Many, if not most, people know how to repair a vehicle with minimal tools, despite no formal training in mechanics. They rely on their landscape as they have for millions of years, carefully farming, hunting and fishing to provide for their needs. They have been doing as they have for over 10,000 years – maybe as far as 20,000, if I recall correctly from the latest academic literature. Any anthropologist is welcome to recommend a reliable citation. Point is, these people (because they are people, with their own dreams, goals, worldviews, reality, and self-efficacy), have maintained this beautiful country for years. There are very few, if any, places in Guyana, that I have been to in my (now) 9 years of research experience, that there was no evidence of people having been to. I have been to some of the most remote parts of the country, and always with me, are Indigenous people, the people without whom my work would not have been possible. They have kept me safe and healthy for years. In the field, I am almost the weakest and least knowledgeable among my Indigenous peers.
We scientists ask the question of the validity of Indigenous knowledge – and it has been proven time and time again to be reliable. Why wouldn’t it be? Successfully living for upwards of 10,000 years in any landscape, much less one as unforgiving as the vast and contiguous rainforests, highlands, coastlands, and savanna of a country just slightly smaller than the UK takes a deep and unimaginable understanding of ecology, biology, ethology, and environmental science, among other things. That knowledge was just acquired through experience, and tested by life, and often, death.
In high school we learned of how Indigenous people carefully counted each animal they took from the forest.
The winds of change blow.
In what was just a fraction of their history, communities have faced a multitude of pressures, from new diseases to (likely) well-meaning missionaries and colonial powers who tried to change the very ways of doing that had led to remaining Guyana as it is now – standing against a world in an extinction crisis, not nearly as worried as many other countries and scientists. New requirements to live in a global economy, such as the legal requirement to educate children formally in schools, means that people now have to buy school uniforms, books, and supplies. In a village with only 3 jobs, wanting to pursue your wild and crazy dreams can mean having to leave your home to live the life you dream, maybe forever.
I have met people who think that people do not care for land. It is an opinion, so, it isn’t necessarily wrong or right. I just feel, based on my experience, that that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many community-members care deeply about their lands. Many people will happily describe the movements and habits of the birds and mammals in great detail. Indigenous hunters and rangers have guided me through the forest, safely every time, and have taught me more than I ever learned in the classroom – and both I and the science that I do and many others do are far far better for it.
“Chief” Tony James talks to children who have just completed the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS)’s traditional Indigenous knowledge training. Rather than coming in with bold ideas, SRCS asked the communities what they wanted to pass on, whether it be craft, or language. Communities chose both the topics and the teachers, and SRCS’s education coordinator, a Rupununi-born woman, trained the teachers, helped them to make a syllabus, learning outcomes, and all the other trappings needed to go from informal to formal education. At the closing ceremony, Chief said these words:
“What makes you Indigenous? Is it your [clothing]? [It is] our language. We have names for every tree, and fish. Our language is what makes us, because it [communicates] our relationship to the land.”
I don’t fully remember it verbatim, but I do remember how I felt. I felt pride in my own language – Guyanese creolese – one that I can hardly speak but I understand. It sounds like English, but it is certainly not just English. We just learn to speak English in the classroom.
Even though we were brought here by Europeans, we still have words for the birds around us. Maybe all we all need is a little push. I know people, like myself, who just needed to be showed their first birds and to learn that birding isn’t just something for white people. The right words, the right actions – they can make all the difference. I encourage you all to think about how others have made your life and dreams possible and to do the same for others.
As for the Rupununi, I trust that one day, when people have navigated into this difficult and strange global economy that post-colonial nations have all been hoisted into more rapidly than many other nations, that we’ll be in the position to be and act more sustainably. The reality is that many of us are struggling and cannot make sustainable decisions. Many poor people in the US cannot afford healthy food, and therefore are forced to rely on unhealthy fast food, making their health worse. Poverty makes life hard, and people cannot be expected to be and act their best when they may be stressed merely by struggling to make it by each day.
In 2013, I went to the Rupununi for the very first time. I was 19. Now I am 28. I collected many keepsakes to remember the trip, but the one I most treasure is a book written by the Wapichan people of the South Rupununi: Thinking Together for Those Coming Behind Us: An Outline Plan for the Care of the Wapichan Territory in Guyana. The actual title is in Wapichan, the language of Chief Tony James’ heritage. The entire book features Wapichan first, in big bold letters, with English in a smaller font. It is not a book written just for me, and that was likely an intentional choice to combat the same that Indigenous people have been made to feel by many others about their culture and language. The back cover of the book is the most impactful (in my opinion – it is a beautiful read), and the one I am most drawn to:
The book features many incredible products of a lot of very careful and sensitive work: agreements and plans for community development, including overarching and agreed-upon rules by Indigenous community leaders on how to interact with the Rupununi landscape so it can remain as beautiful and rich as it has always been, while remedying the issues and pressures faced by both people and wildlife.
All the South Central District Council’s toshaos and many others have been asking for, are legal rights to land that traditionally been managed by them for thousands of years, so they can continue to do the same. Since then they have done quite a bit. Many communities are still waiting on legal ownership of their traditional lands.
When do we listen to Indigenous communities and afford them the rights we fought for and received ourselves – the opportunity to navigate into our own destiny, in spite of whatever challenges stand in our way?
We’re doing well. Not always the best, but hey, we’re making it.
I think it’s (and has long been) time to truly respect Indigenous and see them as people. I encourage you to reflect on what that means to you, whether it is truth and reconciliation, or seeing people more than either perfect or fundamentally flawed and only capable of bad. Rather, notice the commonality we all share: we all have dreams and aspirations. We have all been through pain and struggle in one way or another, with no need for comparison for each person’s struggle is their own.
My focus, for quite a while, has changed. I cannot change a jaguar’s mind, but maybe I can help someone have an easier life and understand why they might be upset with a jaguar (or is it about the jaguar at all?). Much of my work is simply just listening with an open mind, and introspection on how I might be wrong or biased. Much of my work from now on will be the same, but with a greater goal – to help others along their own self-efficacy, just as others have done for me. Sometimes that might mean taking a chance, trusting with wild instinct – and truly believing in the goodness of people. It won’t always work out, but, imagine if it truly did.
That’s the world I want to live in. That’s world I will make for myself and others.