Sydney Allicock: the man from Iwokrama

A member of Guyana’s First Peoples, Sydney Allicock is an advocate, environmentalist and poet. Raymond Ramcharitar profiles an unassuming visionary

  • Sydney Allicock, 2010 Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence laureate in Public & Civic Contributions. Photograph courtesy JCD Productions
  • Surama Village Eco-Lodge. Photograph courtesy Surama Village Eco-Lodge
  • Allicock delivers a speech after receiving his award. Photograph Courtesy JCD Productions
  • In the Surama Eco-Lodge. Allicock pioneered the community-based tourism drive in his home village. Photograph courtesy  Surama Village Eco-Lodge
  • At home: Allicock in his native environment in the forest in Guyana with young fellow Amerindians. Photograph courtesy Surama Village Eco-Lodge

As he stood before the large audience at the main ballroom at Hilton Trinidad in April, Sydney Allicock, clad in a simple white shirt with matching trousers, and a bright Amerindian chieftain’s ceremonial collar, seemed overcome by the moment. “I feel like singing a song,” he said, with a wide grin, to the audience.

The moment was when he was presented with the Anthony N Sabga 2010 Caribbean Award for Excellence in the area of public and civic contributions, for his work in environmental conservation, and advocacy for the Guyanese First Peoples. The self-deprecating gesture was typical of Allicock: to appear to be overwhelmed by the gravity and formality of the occasion – but to firmly say his piece anyway. At the function, as in life, he wasn’t at a loss for the right words. In his village, Allicock is known as a raconteur of some skill, and those who know him, like Dr Raquel Thomas of the Iwokrama Rainforest Centre in Guyana, on whose board of trustees he sits, speak of his humility and unfailing good nature. His poems have been published in the journal Kyk Over Al, and he has performed at the Guyana Cultural Centre.

But Allicock, 55, confesses that he is more at home in the Guyanese interior, where he was born, and has lived all his life, as a member of the Makushi Nation of First Peoples. The nine surviving nations of the First, or Indigenous Peoples of Guyana, have traditionally been at the bottom of the political and social ladder, and, until relatively recently, off the developmental agenda. Allicock remembers that in his childhood, when the church ran the schools, attitudes were practically medieval. “We used to play a game,” he recalled. “The name of the game was wirao, meaning ‘last touch’. When the teacher heard this, he called us and asked, ‘What did I hear you say?’ So I told him. “‘That is not a language,’ he said. ‘You have to stop talking that gibberish’ – and whipped me.”

This was not an unusual experience for a child from such a background. But it had a profound effect on the way Allicock saw the world. He was the eldest of 12 children, and from an early age, was a kind of surrogate parent. He started working young, married young, and had nine children of his own (and 25 grandchildren), while working as a cattle herder, a balata (tree-gum) trapper, and with the military. His work took him across Guyana, and what he saw was not encouraging. The Indigenous Peoples “were in a bowl of stagnation, and we were waiting for the government to do everything,” he said. To do anything about it, he knew he would have to become involved in politics, and he was elected Toshao (chief) of the Annai, in Region No. Nine, the North Rupununi in 1989. He is also today the chairman of the North Rupununi District Development Board.

It was around the time of Allicock’s entry into politics, the early 1990s, that environmental conservation began to become an issue of global importance. The Iwokrama Centre in Guyana is a nature reserve which was established in 1996 for the purpose of developing “methods and techniques for sustainable management and utilisation of the multiple resources of the tropical forest”. The reserved areas were traditionally the territory of 18 communities of Makushis, who partnered with the Iwokrama project.

Before Iwokrama and the new paradigm of development, Allicock remembers, the life of the native people was “hard but sweet”. They derived a living from the forest, but did not destroy the forest to do it. With the growing interest in a sustainable lifestyle, and the non-invasive exploitation of natural resources, it became clear to Allicock that some mutual benefit could be derived from those who wanted to find out about conservation, and those who knew and lived it.

But even with the native regard for the environment, there were other signs of impending change from within the community. The need for a change in the way of life became apparent, he says, when “we missed the golden parakeet” – a previously common bird, which had disappeared as a result of excessive hunting. The same applied to over-fishing: indigenous species of fish were close to disappearing as human populations increased and outside interests encroached.

The tourism thrust began with an experiment in Allicock’s native village of Surama. Now, there are tours, nature-watching, jungle-survival courses, boat trips. They started in 1998 with 38 people. In 2009, reports Allicock, there were more than 500 visitors, and next year is already booked out. Some 70 per cent of the villagers derive incomes from the tourism effort, known as “community-based tourism”. They are able to operate largely without the native/expatriate frissons that come with the “resort” model of tourism development, where large hotels are placed in the middle of a pristine area, and create a separate ecology and sociology.

Allicock’s advocacy is not limited to the environment, and extends to the people who live in it. “When I was in school,” he recalls, “there was this little girl who could not learn English, and every day she got licks. That stayed with me.” When he became Toshao, he saw an opportunity, in 1991, via a UNDP initiative, to record and preserve the Makushi language. He found Makushi women to participate and today, there is a Makushi dictionary, books on the Makushis’ traditional way of life, and books written in Makushi dealing with health and lifestyle issues.

Education is an important part of Allicock’s agenda. In 2002, he was one of the key parties in setting up the Amerindian Institute, now called the Bina Hill Institute for Research, Development and Training. The institute provides training in the areas of natural resource management, cultural preservation, economic development, locally relevant research. The institute runs solar-powered computers, provides Internet access, and hosts a radio station which broadcasts part of the time in the Makushi language. Training is provided in effective agriculture, financial management, computer skills, survey techniques, map-making skills, and animal husbandry.

But as admirable as this was and is, Allicock is still more ambitious. He never had the opportunity to attend secondary school, but has been instrumental in setting up a secondary school in the North Rupununi. The school started eight years ago with 43 children, and today, more than 300 are enrolled.

The secondary school has produced some students who have gone on to tertiary education. The worry with all this, as with everywhere else, is how to keep the educated people in the region. Indeed, the clash of worldviews is one of the more pressing issues facing traditional communities who try to keep their children interested in their own way of life.

Allicock is one of those rare people who can reconcile tradition and modernity. In his acceptance statement at the Sabga awards ceremony, he said: “This evening is opening up a way for us to meet the demands of change and development. We [indigenous peoples] cannot remain in the same old ways. For us to survive, we need to get on board.”

This pragmatism is reflected in a statement attributed to him about the road that now connects Guyana and Brazil. Reacting to concerns that the road would bring the outside world in to displace the indigenous communities, Allicock responded, “The question is, do we use the road, or do we let the road use us?”

Recently, with the help of Conservation Guyana, the first Indigenous Peoples’ lawyer began working with the communities. And Allicock plans to use some of his Sabga award to help some promising young people in Guyana to attend medical and law school. The benefits of modern life to these communities are evident. But what is becoming more evident, through the efforts of Allicock, and the few people like him, is the benefits that these communities bring to modern life.


The Anthony N Sabga Awards

The Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence are the first regional awards to canvass the English-speaking Caribbean for outstanding scientists, artists, and public and civic activists. Administered from Trinidad, they have been in existence since 2005. The awards are an initiative of the ANSA McAL Foundation, which was set up by the ANSA McAL Group of companies, one of the largest conglomerates in the Caribbean, with activities in banking, manufacturing, media, financial services, construction, and automotive.

Awards were initially biennial, but as of 2011, will be made yearly in three categories: Arts & Letters, Public & Civic Contributions and Science & Technology. They consist of a cash award of TT$500,000, a medal, and a citation. Anyone of Caribbean origin may be nominated or nominate him- or herself. The awards are intended to stimulate the production of new and original work by people who are in the mature phase of their careers; they are not intended to be “lifetime achievement” or “recognition” awards.

The first laureates were named in 2006. They were Trinidadian filmmaker Robert Yao Ramesar, Jamaican epidemiologist Terrence Forrester, and Fr Gregory Ramkissoon, a priest from Trinidad & Tobago who works in Jamaica.

Subsequent laureates were named in 2008 and 2010. They included, in 2008, Prof David Dabydeen (Guyana), Claudette Richardson-Pious (Jamaica), Annette Arjoon (Guyana), and James Husbands (Barbados); and in 2010 Adrian Augier (St Lucia) and Prof Kathleen Coard (Grenada), as well as Sydney Allicock (Guyana). Nominees are selected independently of the ANSA McAL Foundation.

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