Background to the formation of the Forest Department in 1925
By Tota C. Mangar
April 19, 2001
|Related Links:||Articles on history|
|Letters Menu||Archival Menu|
Guyana, the former British Guiana, lies at the heart of the Guiana Shield and contiguous to the vast forests of the Amazon Basin. Specifically its forests are some of the best conserved in the region. Of a total land area of approximately 214,970 square kilometres or 83,000 square miles, 163, 377 square kilometres or 63,089 square miles (76%) is forested. Of this amount 135,800 square kilometres or 52,432 square miles is classified as State Forest under the jurisdiction of the Guyana Forestry Commission. The remaining forest areas are classified as State Lands, Amerindian lands and private property. Today, forest areas in Guyana are primarily used for the production of forest produce, mining, agriculture, protected areas, research, tourism and for Amerindian reservations.
October 29, 1925 is considered a significant milestone in Guyana's long and chequered history. On that day the Forest Department of the then colony of British Guiana was formally established. This entity emerged against the background of the 1923 British Empire Forestry Conference, which recommended the establishment of a Forest Department independent of the Lands and Mines Department in British Guiana.
Perhaps at this initial stage it is of considerable importance to look rather briefly at the pre-1925 period as it relates to the forestry sector in Guyana. The country itself evolved from the separate Dutch colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice. Great Britain took possession following capture and the Capitulation Treaty of 1803. The colonies became a unified colony of British Guiana in 1831. It was subsequently renamed Guyana following the attainment of political independence in May, 1966.
Commercial forest exploitation could be traced as far back as the early years of Dutch settlement and colonisation of the country. As part of its activities the Dutch established several trading posts along the rivers to facilitate a barter trade with the Amerindian tribes. Among the indigenous items traded were annatto, hammocks, corials and letter-wood (Piratinera guianenisis). Letter-wood emerged as an important export item. An indication of the extent of the trade as early as 1669 was the fact that a single ship took back from Essequibo 60,000 lbs of sugar and 20,000 lbs of letter-wood. Under the Dutch the cutting and export of letter-wood completely dominated the timber trade until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In this direction the Dutch West Indian Company was the body, which granted permission to exploit letter-wood for export usage.
It was not until 1770 that a shipment of greenheart logs (ocotea rodiaei), the wood which today dominates the timber industry was first exported to Liverpool. The early decades of the nineteenth century saw an export trade in hewn greenheart and in 1824, a sawmill, water powered, was established by a Scotsman, John D. Patterson at Christianburg, Demerara river. By 1839 Governor Henry Light was quoted as saying that greenheart was being used to repair several ships involved in West Indian trade and also in the British Navy. At the same time the Governor began to issue five-year licences of occupancy to woodcutters up to a maximum of 1000 acres.
From around the beginning of the nineteenth century local usage of wallaba for shingles, staves and posts along with charcoal for cooking also emerged. As early as 1810 John Hancock was strongly advocating the colonisation of interior locations of the country. Moreover, Robert H. Schomburgk who made extensive exploratory expeditions in Guyana's interior, urged that inducements be granted to Europeans to colonise the interior to not only cultivate crops and rear cattle, but "to fell timber".
Over the years there was a gradual rise in prominence of greenheart. In 1861 exports totalled 825,084 cu. ft. while the years 1862-1865 averaged 641,000 cu. ft. annually. The industry suffered a slump in the 1870s largely because of low price for timber and competition for labour from the newly emerged balata and gold mining industries. Between the period 1889-1900 export of greenheart dipped to an annual average of 292,000 cu. ft. By the close of the nineteenth century the search for greenheart had taken woodcutters to the upper Demerara and Essequibo rivers and a number of woodcutting grants were issued in the Upper Wineperu region.
Balata was first exported in 1859 and that which was displayed at the 1862 London exhibition came in for favourable comments. In the 1880s the industry maintained an annual export level of 200,000 1bs and it rose to a high of 482,306 lbs. in the 1896-1897 period. Most of this balata extraction was confined to the Canje, lower Berbice and Corentyne rivers. With an indiscriminate bleeding of trees and an absence of a defined conservation policy balata forests became depleted and balata collectors switched operations to new forest areas on the Waini, Upper Demerara, Corentyne and Essequibo rivers at the turn of the century.
Despite these developments it was the view of Lancaster that in the immediate post-emancipation period the "interior although regarded as the healthiest and potentially the richest part of the country, remained an unconquered wilderness." The sad reality was that the powerful plantocracy and administrators combined and devised a very restrictive Crown Lands policy aimed at hindering the legal or illegal acquisition by ex-slaves of Crown Lands in the interior. They quite naturally felt that any significant interior settlement and development would deprive them of their labour force on the coastal plantations.
There was very little legal or governmental control over forest exploitation until 1887. In that year formal forestry more or less commenced with the promulgation of the Crown Lands Ordinance No. 18/1887. This Ordinance sought "to provide for the proper regulations of the Crown Lands, Forest, rivers and Creeks of the Colony." A revised version, the 1903 Crown Lands Ordinance provided the legal framework for forest administration up until 1953.
Under the 1887 Ordinance the Governor was empowered to issue woodcutting licences on behalf of the Crown and there were specific rules to be adhered to in the `bleeding' or tapping of balata. Additional regulations were implemented in 1890 and catered for the payment of royalty on forest produce extracted for trade.
The Crown Lands Ordinance and Regulations placed the responsibility for administering the forests of the country on the Department of Mines headed by a Commissioner. A Forestry Branch of that Department was established in April, 1908 following proposals made by the then Director of Science and Agriculture, Prof. J.B. Harrison. Charles Wilgress Anderson, a Department of Lands and Mines surveyor, was seconded to the Forestry Branch following special training at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and the Imperial Institute, London. Forest management was boosted in 1910 with the appointment of Mr Anderson as Forest Officer along with five Forest Rangers.
Anderson brought to his new post considerable field experience and knowledge of the interior. He had previously worked on the British Guiana - Venezuela Boundary Commission and had also surveyed and mapped the entire course of the New River. That area had never been surveyed since its discovery by Charles Barrington Brown in 1871. Initially the work of the Forestry Branch was largely confined to "inspections of the easily accessible districts" and "the collection of wood samples and botanical material for identification."
Anderson realised, however, that in addition to the foregoing activities he must have some method for estimating approximately (a) What trees occur most plentifully (b) the numerical proportion of the more numerous trees in relation to one another and also with regard to the many other varieties, which generally occur in such forests.
In short, the Forest Officer realised that for his work to have any practical value it must be supported by quantitative data. Hence his sectional surveys which basically were the earliest type of forest inventories on the country. Between 1908 and 1916 Anderson made thirty-four expeditions covering all the easily accessible forest areas in the Upper Essequibo - Rupununi area. His field surveys resulted in two published reports in 1912, one a general report on forests in the near interior and the other, a detailed report on the forests of the North West District. Anderson died in 1917 while on duty in the North West District and his successor as Forest Officer was Mr. Ludovic Smith Hohenkerk, a Department of Lands and Mines surveyor.
Hohenkerk, like Anderson before him, combined his duties as Forest Officer with normal surveying projects and it was to the credit of these two gentlemen that the first Forest Valuation Surveys were done in the colony.
In 1919 the Crown Lands Regulations were revised and were primarily designed to safeguard revenue and there was very little attempt to control woodcutting operations or to ensure proper regeneration and conservation of the forest.
The Forest Branch, with only a few forest rangers and no transportation facilities, it was manifestly impossible to do regular inspection of woodcutting areas.
While greenheart exports dropped owing to wartime shipping difficulties there was considerable increase in the production of crabwood and other species of timber for local usage. At the same time there was a steady increase in the number of steam-powered sawmills and these numbered 20 by the end of the First World War.
In 1922 the Lands and Mines Department undertook for the first time the certification of export timbers on a voluntary basis and it was not until 1937 that compulsory inspection and certification of export timber was provided by law to safeguard against exporting poor quality material.
In 1923 the Empire Forestry Conference, held in Canada, was tasked with making proposals for improvements in the Forestry sector of British Guiana.
It recommended the establishment of a Forest Department independent of the Lands and Surveys Department with fully trained forest officers under Conservation of Forests with tropical experience, two Assistant Conservators of Forests and four Forest Surveyors.
It had become apparent that the forestry investigational work required full-time technical staff. The British Guiana Forestry Department came into being on October 29, 1925 with the arrival from England of the following technical staff. Mr B R Wood, Conservator of Forests, Mr T A W Davis and Mr M S MacKay, Assistant Conservator of Forests and Mr A G S Davenport and Mr F W D Pratt, Forest Surveyors. The local staff comprised Mr L S Hohenkerk, Superintendent of Forest Surveys, Mr N B W Smith, 3rd Class Clerk and Miss A Gaskin 5th Class Clerk.
From its inception the fledgling Forestry Department occupied offices within the old General Post Office building, which was situated on practically the same site as the present Post Office building. The First twenty-five years: 1925-1950 - establishing a foundation With the establishment of the Forestry Department Mr Wood the Conservator of Forests, promptly began the daunting task of assessing the local situation and charting a course for his newly created entity.
While he brought to his office several years of Indian Forest Service experience, conditions in British Guiana were far from ideal. Of the estimated 78,500 square miles of Crown Forests only a mere 11,200 square miles of forest lands were accessible for obtaining timber. Travelling was extremely difficult and there were hardly any trails.
Access had to be made by laboriously cutting paths through the virtually unexplored forests. Moreover, food supplies and equipment had to be taken on one's back and on hazardous terrain, since there were no readily available villages where one could seek food supplies and even shelter.
Moreover, the Conservator of Forests acknowledged that many species were still unidentified botanically and there was no data on volume per acre of the principal species and no tables to convert existing data into merchantable volume.
It is little wonder therefore that he wrote describing his initial feelings in the colony "as those of a flea in a cathedral".One comforting fact for Mr Wood however, was that he had the benefit of Hohenkerk's experience and knowledge along with the limited available data of the latter and his predecessor Charles Anderson.
The Conservator of Forests lauded these two gentlemen for their accomplishment under trying circumstances and with very little formal scientific education and training in forestry.
From the outset Wood and his staff launched into their duties with great determination and enthusiasm. The Forestry Department promptly decided on a strategy to confront the problems facing forestry and forestry development. It involved the following phases: -
1. Phase of Exploration: This includes forest inventory and mapping, volume estimation, utilization research and efficient extraction of timber with the aid of foreign capital.
2. Passing of Legislation: This was necessary to constitute certain areas as Permanent Forest Reserves. These areas had to be surveyed and demarcated.
3. Phase of Forest Management: This involves working plans preparation and the regeneration of forest crop for the timber industry to be placed on a permanent self-sustaining basis (sustainable development).
During the first year of its existence 650 square miles of forest in the Bartica-Kaburi Triangle were inventorised and mapped. Over 500 trees were felled and measured and another 1,700 for defect assessment. The surveys clearly showed the rich potential of the Bartica-Kaburi Triangle especially in greenheart and wallaba.
In addition the Conservator of Forests conducted a series of lectures for police officers and surveyors of the Lands and Mines Department.
These lectures were designed for officers to report intelligently and systematically on the forests and terrain of areas they might have travelled. Personnel from the Forest Department visited all the principal timber concessions and offered advice on methods of timber extraction and timber preparation for export.
Also the Department, in its attempt to ensure quality shipments of timber products, presented a report on the usage of suitable saws and conducted a demonstration on improved methods of sawing.