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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Iwokrama: Guyana’s green gold

Peter Rickwood finds Guyana’s Iwokrama forest and wildlife reserve full of riches and hope for the planet’s future

  • Morning mist in Annai. Photograph by Katrin Egerer
  • Greenheart and purpleheart logs. Photograph by Katrin Egerer
  • Down on the Essequibo. Photograph by Katrin Egerer
  • Feeding time for the macaw. Photograph by Katrin Egerer
  • Road from Iwokrama to Surama. Photograph by Katrin Egerer
  • The Essequibo River winds through the Iwokrama forest. Photograph Katrin Egerer

In the shade of the forest, out of the burning heat of the sun, toucans are yapping to each other as shrilly as puppies. Vitus Antone cleaves his cutlass through a wrist-thick vine, stretching like a fallen power line above the forest floor. There are tapir footprints in a muddy patch below the buttressed might of a mora tree. Paca, agouti, peccary, capybara and deer are among a bestiary of mammals here; jaguar and five other cat species also occupy the forest and savannah surrounding it.

The denizens of the forest canopy, nearly 40 metres above, include the Harpy Eagle and the world’s largest scarlet macaw. More than 450 bird species have been identified in the forest. They are sleeping now, but 80 species of bats roost in Iwokrama, making it the richest site for bats in the world. This part of Iwokrama is shared by four of the forest’s eight different monkey species, and the banks of the Essequibo are the domain of giant otter, river turtle and caiman. An extraordinary 420 different kinds of fish have been identified in a brief assessment of the rivers flowing through Iwokrama, several of them new to science; the whole of North America has 700 freshwater species.

Antone, a member of the Wai Wai people from the south of Guyana, is a diploma graduate in forestry from the University of Guyana and a ranger in the Iwokrama forest. He slices off a short length of a vine, tips it at a sharp angle, and clear, sweet water trickles from it into his mouth. It’s a gesture as dramatic as a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Kapadula rope, the water-bearing vine, is a good example of the concealed riches of the Guyanese rainforest and the skills of Amerindian people in finding them. Not every vine in Iwokrama bears water, and tapping the forest’s natural wealth without exhausting it is the challenge that stewards of the forest, such as Antone, must meet.

For at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, Amerindian traditional knowledge and western science are confronting one of the toughest issues of our time: how to use the planet’s natural wealth without using it up. Earth’s natural vitality is stretched to its limit by a human population whose numbers spiral ever upwards, and whose appetite for resources is so voracious that some, like tropical forests, could soon be only memory.

As well as scuttling a natural Noah’s Ark, tropical forest destruction confronts us with other dilemmas. It tramples on the rights of the people who live in the forests. It wipes out knowledge that may be locked in the leaf of a plant or the tissue of a fungus from millions of years of development. And, perhaps most compelling of all, tropical forests absorb the gases, mostly from fossil fuels, that are heating up Earth’s climate. There can be no solution to the warming of the Earth unless we halt the destruction of forests, the World Commission on Forests has declared.

Once, it was El Dorado’s fabled gold that lured Spanish conquistadores and British privateers up Guyana’s Essequibo River into the country’s heart. Manoa, the imperial city of El Dorado, was never found, and in fact never existed.

But as the fever for El Dorado raged in the 17th century, the consequences of a harsher reality struck the Makushi, one of Guyana’s indigenous people of the Essequibo: their shaman lost the secret for distilling curare. Without the poison to tip their arrows, the Makushi were vulnerable to the powerful Caribs. Legend has it that the Caribs fell on them at a feast, ostensibly to make peace, but slaughtered and devoured them. The surviving Makushi fled to the interior of Guyana and the remote Iwokrama mountains. Four centuries later, Iwokrama’s green peaks and the great wet forests gathered at its feet remain a critical place of refuge.

Guyana has not had a good press in the last few decades. Once ranked among the more prosperous English-speaking Caribbean nations, it was later plunged into debt that turned it into one of the poorest. As many Guyanese now live outside as within its boundaries. Among them are many of its brightest and best.

Against this background, as alarm bells began ringing loudly in the late 1980s about the global pace of tropical rainforest destruction, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, Guyana took a bold step. One million acres (360,000 hectares) of undisturbed Amazon rainforest in the heart of the Guyana would be offered as a reserve, Guyana’s prime minister Desmond Hoyte told Commonwealth leaders at a conference in 1989. But it would be up to the international community to demonstrate the economic and social benefits to Guyana and the world from alternatives to cutting down the forest and selling its lumber.

It was not an empty offer. Cash-strapped Guyana could have converted the mora, greenheart and other commercially valuable lumber in the forests of Iwokrama into hard dollars to help pay its debts.

There was a caveat, however. After ten years, Iwokrama had to pay its own way. It would either sink or swim.

The two-lane road south from Georgetown, along the east bank of the muddy Demerara River, is a confusion of small villages, rum distilleries, factories and wharves. Georgetown’s ubiquitous horse- and donkey-pulled drays wheeze through the traffic. It provides a foundation course in the social geography and economics of Guyana, population 800,000, a country as big as the United Kingdom whose population is nearly 60 million.

Most Guyanese live on the coast and rarely venture to the interior. Nearly 85% of the country remains covered in forest, most of it undisturbed. Away from the banks of the Demerara, the road lopes across undulating terrain marked by white sand and lined with shrubby Dakkama and fat pork, whose fruit is as exciting as damp cotton wool, towards Linden, the dusty centre of Guyana’s depressed bauxite industry.

It may not look it, but the road south from Linden was cut in the mid-1990s, following the route of a cattle trail through the heart of the Iwokrama reserve and out onto the Rupununi Savannah. It goes on to Lethem, on the border with Brazil. The 36-hour marathon from Georgetown to Iwokrama has been cut to an eight-hour slog. Logging trucks trailing great clouds of dust, a tanker or two from the Omai gold mine, and ex-British military four-wheel-drive Bedford trucks — the mules of Guyana’s interior transportation system — sweep north to the coast.

Forest cover begins rising beside the road, but there are still patches of white sand. This is Precambrian, nearly 600 million years old, some of the oldest surface of  Earth: the sand is the bed of a prehistoric sea. It is remarkable that anything grows on it. The southern interior of Guyana owes its vitality to the trade winds that blow off the Atlantic; they deliver two rainy seasons a year, when the great Essequibo and its tributary, the Rupununi, burst their banks, flooding forest and savannah.

As the water drains away, pools remain on the savannahs, providing nurseries for infant fish, relatively protected from predators, until the cycle begins again. In heavy rains, the headwaters of the Amazon and Essequibo unite. Think of it as a giant hydroponic system, says Guyanese-born agronomist Valdiki Kempadoo: lots of water, not much fertiliser. As a result, says David Cassells, a World Bank forest advisor and the Australian-born director-general of the Iwokrama Centre, the growth rate of the Guyana forest is snail-paced, ten to 15 times slower than in Malaysia or the foothills of the Andes. But by default and good luck, the forests have survived relatively undisturbed.

For example, Guyana’s commercially-prized greenheart and purpleheart trees, hard as iron after growing for 200 to 1,000 years, are limited in distribution, and the cost of hauling them and other lumber out of Guyana’s forest is double the price in south-east Asia. Another feature of the Guyana forest is the small variety of tree species and its reliance on animals to disperse their seeds. As a result, the wildlife population, well nourished by an abundance of fruit-bearing trees, flourishes. “And if you remove the wildlife there will be radical change,” Cassells says.

A forgetful rodent, for example, the red-rumped agouti, is one of Iwokrama’s most important gardeners, says Racquel Thomas, an Iwokrama forest ecologist whose doctoral thesis was about the relationship between the rabbit-sized rodent and trees that can grow to 40 metres, such as the mora. When the fruit of the trees is abundant, the agouti bury them to store for future use. “They don’t collect all the seeds, and of course some of them germinate,” says Thomas.

Robert Frederick Allicott, better known as Uncle Fred, used to be a trapper, killing jaguar, caiman and other wildlife for a living. But in 1968, alarmed by Brazilian hunters decimating the wildlife population, he joined Guyana’s wildlife protection service and has become a powerful voice for conservation. He’s an Arawak, proud that his great-grandfather was a botanist, and his uncle a shaman.

Uncle Fred built the first generation of palm-thatched houses at the Iwokrama field station on the banks of the Essequibo River. Now he’s as much a patron of the project, marshalling local forces in support, as Britain’s Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who became its official patron late last year. “We got a lot of criticism at first,” says Allicott, whose son Sydney is chairperson of the north Rupununi district and also a champion of Iwokrama. “But we started to ask, is it as easy to get turtle and arapaima [a giant and commercially prized Amazon fish found in the Essequibo] as it was 30 years ago?”

It is Iwokrama’s Amerindian neighbours who have most at stake in the programme, he says. They are foregoing a livelihood from the sale of river turtle and arapaima, macaws and sun parakeets to customers in Brazil. “But people have learned a lot about the conservation of natural resources and about the dangers of over-harvesting. We are starting to overcome some of those old habits, and that’s very very good for people. Because if we had continued along the same path that we were on, killing turtle and arapaima, they would have become extinct.”

The name Iwokrama could soon be in a store near you. David Cassells believes it could become a market label identified with rainforest conservation. It’s just one strategy the rainforest centre is considering as it works to be self-supporting. Eco-tourism will have a major role; small groups of travellers are arriving already in the centre’s field station on the Essequibo.

One half of the Iwokrama forest has been set aside as a wilderness reserve, open to increasing international scientific interest; the other half is for cash crops and for showing how forest systems can be protected and sustained. There will be controlled tree felling and vine harvesting — vines have a commercial value in the manufacture of wicker furniture. Plants such as the cabbage palm provide thatch for roofing, fertiliser and edible hearts of palm. Traditional Amerindian knowledge is supplemented by bio-prospecting for plants with medicinal uses. “It’s like a lottery,” says Cassells. “The rewards can be very high, but the cost of bringing something to market is also high.”

Now the search is beginning for commercial partners, and ground rules are being set. Intellectual copyright will ensure that the Amerindians enjoy a share of any benefits from the forest. Small loans, known as micro-credits, will be available for local ventures to be developed by the 3,500 residents in the 13 communities around Iwokrama. Millions of dollars are being provided by international funders for such projects. “We face the same challenge as other forest users. If we can survive and sustainably manage the forest and meet core needs, it is a very powerful message we are sending,” Cassells says.

Near the Pakari Rapids, a little upstream from the Iwokrama field station on the Essequibo River, stands a rock bearing a series of carved undulating lines. This is one of the hundreds of petroglyphs found in the reserve area; it is 7,000 years old and records the Amerindian presence here. The picture warns travellers on the river of the dangerous rapids ahead.

Step ashore close by, over the pink-flowered Paku cabbage plants at the water’s edge, duck under the tin canopy beside Rachel Edwards’s house,  walk along a broad grassy path, and you enter the village of Fairview. Errol McBirney is the village chairperson, and he’s a man of quiet passion, determined to make Fairview a model community.

Rachel Edwards is his grandmother and the elder in the community. She’s Arawak, and settled here before the Second World War with her husband, when the cattle trail from the Rupununi Savannah through Iwokrama to the north was abandoned. For years the community functioned marginally, without recognition, scratching out a living, subsisting on poaching and a little farming.

But, says McBirney, the establishment of Iwokrama and the nearby field station has been a boon. There’s now a school and a teacher, solar panels, and McBirney and the community have developed a 20-year plan for Fairview, clearing land, making provision for a health centre and village market, another school, more homes, better amenities. “Our aim within the next year or two is to open a guest house. It would be the property of the village, administered by the village council. We will develop it in a way that creates jobs.”

The chairman of the village council was among the first people to work for the Iwokrama Centre when surveys began in 1991. “Since Iwokrama came here they held workshops, and our representatives brought back information and we discussed the message and we got to recognise what we were really doing. From there, everyone realised what mistakes we were making and we came together, we came together by ourselves. And it is a fact, we never used to value any of our resources, looking at the forest, not knowing what it is really.”

Research at Iwokrama has had a different emphasis from the conventional and rigid approach that has characterised much scientific fieldwork. It’s an approach that appeals to Kristin and Barth Wright, young, married doctoral students from Colorado who are studying primates from an isolated camp at the foot of Turtle Mountain in Iwokrama. “The way Iwokrama is doing it, researchers are expected to contribute to the conservation of an area,” says Kristin. “You help educate and train local people so that they can do research themselves.”

Iwokrama sees clearly that people cannot be left out of conservation programmes. People’s livelihood is linked to the forest’s survival.

The major threat to Iwokrama comes not from large-scale commercial logging or mining, says Cassells, but from the thousands of small-scale Guyanese miners, known as pork choppers, who dig for gold and diamonds using very destructive methods. However, together with wildlife traders, they too are stakeholders in the future of Iwokrama. Says Iwokrama wildlife expert Graham Watkins: “We are trying to build linkages. We are in a sense managing by talking to people. The key is to build [a consensus] so that the stakeholders, the gold miners, the wildlife traders, get benefits.”

Is this wishful thinking?

Uncle Fred Allicock has the practical nature of his people, honed by a long life of keen observation and struggle. Although the treatment of Amerindian people by the European colonists who arrived after Columbus has been hardly reassuring, Allicock is positive about the future. “I’m optimistic. I think there’s a possibility things will change. We know the forest and the things you can get from it.”

El Dorado was a hypnotic and unfulfilled yearning. Iwokrama, which may not be far from the fictional 16th-century site of Manoa, is no less fabulous than the imagined imperial city of El Dorado, and much more real. We humans are slowly recognising that its wealth is more precious than gold.