North Rupununi plotting 'smart' development of Wetlands
-stakeholders see road access, forestry and oil exploration as threats
By Johann Earle
Stabroek News
May 6, 2007

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The bank of the Rupununi River showing signs of erosion. Trees can be seen falling into the river because their roots are loose.

"The Wetlands is our supermarket. Whenever we want something we can get it there. If I don't have sugar at home I could use honey which I can get in the Wetlands," a North Rupununi resident said of the habitat of Guyana's richest biodiversity and many of the country's Indigenous Peoples.

Through an initiative called the North Rupununi Adaptive Management Plan (NRAMP) stakeholders in the Rupununi Wetlands project are identifying hindrances and coming up with programmes to sustainably manage the rich ecosystem found there. It is being funded by the Darwin Initiative and seeks to manage the ecology found in the Wetlands and to address residents' economic concerns through sustainable use of that ecosystem.

Sustainable Development is not only about the sustainable use of flora, fauna and forestry resources, but also about the economic development of persons closest to these resources through sensible projects managed by the communities themselves. And from the reports on the ground, the efforts are paying off in the various communities.

Getting there

Since I wanted to understand what the Wetlands were all about, I boarded a bus to Annai on March 20. The bus left Georgetown at around 9.30 pm and I arrived at Annai at about 8.30 the next morning. What a drive! I slept for most of the journey.

Armed with a list of resource persons and a vigorous work plan, I dropped my bags at the guesthouse, hopped on the back of a motorcycle as a pillion-rider (I'd rather be riding myself!) and took off on a motocross-like bike ride on a grassland nature trail for what turned out to be a two-and-a-half hour ride to Rewa.

The ride was hard on the posterior… lots of bumps and grass-track chicanes; loose earth or gravel threatening to toss the bike and tall reeds and bushes hitting you in the face. Many times the rider and I had to get off the bike and push it across huge patches of dried mud and craters in rough-hewn jungle trails not wide enough for a vehicle to pass. But eventually we reached a landing where we had to cross the Rewa River into the village which comprised 35 households with a population of 209 people.

Soon after I arrived, Toshao of Rewa, David Haynes, told me that villagers depend on the Wetlands for wood and other material to make their houses and for all their sustenance. Haynes said timber, wildlife and fishing resources are all being conserved within the Wetlands. Rewa resident Levi Edwards said visitors to the area, mostly foreigners, come to see the sights and to go mountain climbing. He said that some visitors also go bird watching; some do a bit of sport fishing and caiman watching now more than before. The community encourages this for its economic sustainability.

One of the coordinators of the Wetlands project, Calvin Bernard said: "What we are trying to do is work with the communities on livelihood [ventures] in order to enhance communities' implementation of the NRAMP process." He said the major threats to the Wetlands are the Linden/Lethem road, potential oil exploration and forestry. Bernard said the road brings with it open access to these communities and many times one can see vehicles coming from the coast with "hunting racks" on top of them.

Residents in the Rupununi have echoed these complaints. They have said that while the road is a good thing, if it is not well managed it could cause problems for the communities. The road, which is maintained by Mekdeci Mining Company Inc, has been significantly developed over the past few years, allowing for more vehicles to frequent the carriageway to and from Lethem. There is an almost daily throng of Brazilian nationals in minibuses and pick-up trucks on the road.

Bernard said too that oil exploration - activity for which is ongoing - is a possible threat because of the geography of the area. He said that if there were to be any spills or mishaps, the geography of the communities would allow the pollution to spread throughout the North Rupununi since the area floods easily. Some of the communities are also tapping into forestry, which Bernard sees as another threat. He said he is also concerned about the 'talk' of including outside partners in the logging ventures in partnership with the communities.

Rodney Davis, Executive Director of the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB) said that in addition to the threats forestry and mining pose to the Wetlands, fires, both natural and man-made, can also do a lot of damage to ecosystems and human settlements. But, like Bernard, he is of the view that one of the biggest threats will come from increased accessibility from all the new roads being built. "Now there is access to Rewa and this makes it easier for the Rewa people to have access, but who is going in and who is coming out?" he asked. Davis said in some communities access is very restricted. "You have to pay to go in," he said.

Davis believes that commercial forestry activities and potential oil exploration threaten the already fragile ecosystems of the Wetlands. "Would these activities be done in a sustainable manner?" he asked, adding that at least one oil company was in the community informing residents of its activities. "If you commercially log the area what is going to happen with it? We found this place like this and we want to keep it for our children…to make it a better place," he said. He also said that forestry for most of the communities means community forestry, nothing on a large scale; "But when we talk about this, government treats us as a commercial entity."

Davis posited that the Wetlands of the North Rupununi are still intact and have not yet suffered any degradation from man-made activities and that is why it is important to protect them. He said there had been a proposal to list the area on the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands and, if this happens, it would mean a lot of resources for the country.

According to its website, the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which "provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources." The site said that there are presently 154 contracting parties to the convention and 1,669 sites which total 151 million hectares designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

However, Bernard said that the process to get Guyana on the RAMSAR list is still with the government, as it has been for a number of years. He said that the issue might be one of delineation and boundary definitions. If Guyana's wetlands are placed on the list Guyana could be put in a better position to attract funding for conservation activities.

Davis emphasized that only Guyana's North Rupununi has such rich biodiversity, and he might be right. "The North Rupununi is home to the Giant River Otter, the Black Caiman, the Spectacled Caiman, the Arapaima, the Anaconda, the Armadillo, the Tapir, the Harpy Eagle, the Cock of the Rock, some of the largest insects in Guyana and many species of bats," he said.

Logging negotiations

The Wetlands team, in their April bulletin, stated that there is a logging company that is attempting to negotiate with the Annai Village District on a Memorandum of Understanding. The team warned that negotiations of this type should be done with the utmost care, with the village coming together and making decisions that will be equally beneficial to all members of the community. "In developing strategies and arrangements with private sector entities, communities should ensure that these are in keeping with the development plans of the village, so as to ensure that the resources continue to be available for use by every member of the community and that access to resources is not limited."

Over the period of February and March, the Wetlands project team has been visiting the communities working with villagers on the NRAMP. "We have been able to work with communities to further develop strategies for better management of various livelihood activities in their communities using the NRAMP process," the bulletin said. "We must say that we are extremely excited about the enthusiasm in some communities to actively use the NRAMP process for better management of their livelihoods," it continued.

Wildlife conservation

"We had the Wetlands team tell us how to conserve the natural resources. The situation is now far better than before," Haynes said. "We used to kill River Turtles, Giant River Otters. This all changed when the teams come and told us not to do so," he said, adding that because of the efforts at species conservation, there are now enough natural resources to benefit future generations. "We can harvest sustainably and we have the tourism business benefiting from it," Haynes said. He added that the community was now receiving tourists who come to see the species resident there, especially the Giant Otter, the Jaguar and the Giant Anteater.

He said that after the meetings with the Wetlands team, "we realize that we were finishing everything. Now we see that we could benefit and because of this we don't use them wild [meaning in a reckless manner] anymore," he said. The villages are involved in a special Wetlands project looking specifically at the conservation of the Giant River Turtle. According to Haynes, the project looks at protection of turtle eggs and nesting places. It also seeks to keep a count of the turtles and their nesting places in the Rewa community.

Matthew Allen, one of the lead persons involved in Wetlands conservation in the area, said "In March 2007, we went back and saw nests with eggs about to hatch and we have managed to collect information about them…but some of the eggs were destroyed by birds, animals and humans as well." The project began in January this year and is awaiting confirmation of additional funding to bring it fully on stream. He said in the beginning stages of the project no one in the village had heard of the concept or understood what it was. "But now we know how important it is…how it relates to our community," he said, adding that the scope of the monitoring is now going beyond the designated ponds and is now being extended to the Rewa River and the Rupununi River.

Allen said that the team had planned to collect 1,000 turtles to see how they would manage so that the next year they could perhaps collect 2,000. He said that at the moment persons are doing an inventory of the plants and the animals found on the Wetlands sites and this is being done under the supervision of the NRDDB. He added that the village first learned turtle conservation techniques through the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development.

Allen also said Rewa has had limited success with the arapaima and he hopes that things will be better now that the Arapaima Management Plan has been approved and the Ministry of Agriculture has handed it over to the North Rupununi. He said last year shortly before Christmas, he and some others found arapaima scales near the river. "We told our villagers not to use large hooks that are likely to trap the larger fish like the arapaima when they fish in the ponds," he said.

Haynes said that the Wetlands team would tell the communities what species are increasing and which are declining. "Whenever they come, they take notes and when they go back they give us their published findings," he said. He also added that people who go to the Wetlands meetings have a good grasp of what was going on.

Eslyn Simon, a Rewa resident, told me that for the most part hunting in the Wetlands was done solely for sustenance. But, she said, from her girlhood days she didn't depend on hunting and fishing, focusing instead on farming. Simon said when the Wetlands team approached the village, it asked about the projects that the village wanted to embark on and the overwhelming response was river turtle conservation.

Haynes told me that the floods badly affected the village last year and crops of cassava and other commodities were wiped out. Because of this, some of the villagers had fallen on hard times. "We are trying to get up again…sometimes it is hard, but sometimes is it easy," he said with a chuckle. Simon said too that all her cassava plants were covered with water during the floods last year. As long as the villagers could live off the Wetlands, there is no need for actual money, she posited.

Haynes said that forestry is done in a sustainable manner. "First we were never concerned about forest sustainability…we never had wood-cutting done in any order and eventually we found our trees were going," he said. The Toshao said people in the village had to find a place to cut their logs from because of the depletion of the trees. But today, the man said, they do things differently since they began to learn about conservation. The men of the village used handsaws before they were introduced to chainsaws and now they try to cut in a sustainable manner.

Davis said that after visiting the Wetlands sites, the team goes to each community to get feedback on what is happening, then a general report is compiled and given to the community leaders. He said that they are in the second phase and each community is doing a project. "The community identifies the project and goes through details of the cycle of the plan. The people do it…not the Wetlands team," he emphasized, adding that they are trained and their capacity is being built.

Davis said that most of the North Rupununi could be described as Wetlands, which he called one large supermarket. "We go to it for water…food; if I don't have sugar, I can use honey…here too we producing soap, crab oil and honey from the forest," he said. He added that the Wetlands are important to every person and are very important for the spawning of fish from May to September when the rains come. Also, when asked about the spiritual connection to the lands, Davis said some villages, like Toka, place special focus on certain Wetlands sites that represented certain customs and beliefs. "So it is very [critical] to conserve all of this," Davis said.