Guyana’s Future in Black and Green | WWF
Guyana’s Future in Black and Green

Posted on 12 November 2018

Forests can and should continue to play a leading role in the country’s development.
By Emelin Gasparrini, WWF Forest and Climate

It is, without a doubt, the most prestigiously attended graduation ceremony I have ever seen. 

It’s the rainy season on the Amazonian savannah, so the proceedings are periodically interrupted by the drum of rain on the open-air building’s metal roof. The Bina Hill Institute Youth Learning Centre’s ceremony features familiar elements – speeches from the valedictorian and the school principal, caps and gowns in bright school colors, songs performed by the students – and some that are less common – like remarks from four Ministers of the Government of Guyana.

How did I find myself at such a high-level event? My colleague, Maria Fernanda Jaramillo, and I had traveled to Annai for a workshop with a group of Indigenous community monitors. That morning we flew south from Georgetown in a plane the size of a cargo van, planning to speak with a few monitors who weren’t going to be able to join the workshop the next morning. We just happened to arrive on graduation day.

From the stage, each student’s accomplishments are highlighted individually – a successful work study at a rice farm, perseverance while mastering difficult subject matter, or a job offer in their area of specialization. Seated together towards the back of the room are Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Sydney Allicock, Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin, Minister of Social Cohesion Dr. George Norton, and Minister of Public Affairs Dawn Hastings-Williams. In turn, each one steps up to the stage to congratulate the graduates, and as they speak I notice a common theme. They are all talking about development. 

It seems an odd subject for a secondary school graduation, but the preoccupation with development makes sense given the national context. Huge oil reserves were discovered off the coast of Guyana in 2015, and Exxon Mobile announced that they were starting post-exploratory off-shore drilling just a few weeks before our arrival. The Guyanese economy, long dependent on volatile commodities like sugar, gold, and bauxite, is poised for a $20 billion fossil fuel windfall. How so much oil money will impact this small rainforest nation is a looming question.

Development and its impacts are also on the minds of the community monitors, but they aren’t talking about oil. 

These women and men have become both creators and keepers of a particular type of knowledge, one that complements their traditional approaches to natural resource management. They measure carbon stocks to prepare their communities for potential climate finance, but they also track other resources each community has identified, ranging from fish stocks to public health. This data helps the community be better informed as they make decisions regarding the management of their resources and to take action when those resources are threatened. 

Their work is having real impact. One community has made changes to their hunting and fishing practices, another used the data when choosing new leadership, and all have established new rules and regulations based on the information gathered. 

Being able to support their communities’ decision-making and planning processes is a clear source of pride in the group. “All of us are resources, or assets, for our community now. So, anything they need us to do concerning data or monitoring, we are their asset,” says Caroline Jacobs, from Surama. 

It’s a source of pride for their communities, too. Sherwin Moses, from Kwatamang, describes his community’s reaction, saying, “We had a meeting in our village, and I told the villagers how I am working in the [data] lab, and they were so happy for me. They said I was a village asset.”

Working as a community monitor brings technical training as well, including specialized computer and analytics skills. In addition to collecting their community’s raw data, some monitors are also trained to run the lab, hosted at Bina Hill. They take the information collected by each community monitor and analyze it locally, ensuring community ownership of their own information. Crucially, analyzing their own information means that they avoid chronic dependence on external consultants as well as barriers that stem from unreliable internet access. 

Employment as a community monitor is a source of pride, new skills, and also income. For a few of the younger monitors, other job options were slim - on an industrial rice farm or in a bauxite mine – and would require them to move away from their communities or travel long distances over unreliable roads.

Monitoring their natural resources then, positively contributes twice to development. First, by supporting communities to make more informed decisions when managing their natural resources, and second, by providing employment to those who live in places where there are few other options. Unlike industrial agriculture or mining, natural resource monitoring provides the additional benefits from ecosystem services like carbon sequestration.

It’s impossible to know how oil will impact Guyana. But my conversations in the hinterland reminded me that forests can and should continue to play a leading role in the country’s development because the impacts and benefits and of forests are just as diverse as the communities and species who call them home. They’re worth the investment.
Flying over flooded savannah, Annai, Guyana. July 2018.
© Emelin Gasparrini