17th January 2001
C. Bates

Environmental Problems and Policies
Tutor: C. House
This essay attempts to highlight the plight of the Guyanese Amerindians as the Guyanese government and Non-Governmental Organizations implement policies for sustainable development in the region. Apparently those policies are not benefitting the indigenous community and appears that they are destined to go the way of countless other primal societies when faced with a development strategy designed to facilitate the enhancement of consumerism. Their only options appear to be the object of eco-tourist attraction, relegation to the rank and file of the labouring masses, whose salaries could never purchase the freedom and integrity they once had as autonomous communities, or confront the government concerning their priorities. Currently they are somewhere between doing all of the above.

The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, formerly British Guyana, is on the North eastern coast of South America, bordered by Venezuela to the east, the Atlantic coast to the North, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) to the west, and Brazil to the south. It's total land mass is approximately 84,000 square miles of some of the world's most biologically diverse tropical rainforest and savanna lands, populated by only 800,000 people; roughly 10 persons per square mile the majority of whom live near the coast. In comparison to Britain's land mass of 94,251 sq.mls., populated at 59,251,000; or 627.3 persons per sq.ml.(Britannica:a) About 51% of the Guyanese population is of East Indian descent, their ancestors having immigrated mainly from the state of Madras as indentured labourers during the abolition of slavery. The descendents of the freed African slaves now number about 35% of the population, persons of mixed race make up 7%, Portuguese, other white skinned immigrants and ex-colonials of Spanish, Dutch, and British origin, along with immigrant Chinese number about 0.4% Amerindians comprise around 6%.(Britannica:b)

There are many distinctly different Amerindian tribes, comprising any when between 50 to 1000 members each.(SDNP,1999:a) The most widely known and understood are the famous warlike Caribs whose teenagers were traditionally obligated to migrate throughout Amazonia and beyond to fresh bio-zones as soon as they were skilled in self-sufficiency. Their widespread settlement and aggressive behaviour made them the predominant gene pool in the early settlement of the Caribbean Islands which are named after them.*(About 2,700 Caribs remain.) The Arawaks *(Pop.15,000) were also familiar to early settlers as they usually lived along the coastal swamp reaches. The Warrau *(Pop.4,700), Wapisiani *(Pop.6,000), Arecuna *(Pop.475), Makusi *(Pop.7,000), and others of similar numbers preferred the rainforests and savannas inland though all were originally migratory with estimates of their first inhabiting the region over 12,000 years ago. (SDNP:b)

The majority of the general population are employed in the sugar-cane and rice growing industries or engaged in commerce in the national capital, Georgetown, on the banks of another vast Amazonian river; the Demerara, (a name we all associate with brown sugar) struggling to contend with their colonial inheritance as one of the world's poorest nations, with social-democratic ideals and a distinctly Guyanese eccentricity. The jungle literally surrounds the city, permeating it in some parts.

Apart from a bauxite mining town, Linden, further inland, and several workers settlements surrounding foreign gold mining operations and government outposts, there is little more to show in terms of industry and development though exploratory drilling for petroleum off the coast has recently begun.The country is known to have large resources of minerals, including precious metals and land-locked petroleum reserves, but it has a poor transport infrastructure and given the nature of the predominantly black market economy, the huge outlays for investment companies have limited their extraction. Some might consider this might a Godsend for the native population, but not the Amerindians themselves.

As early as 1925 deteriorating social standards among the indigenous people Were noted by exploratory ethnobioligists.(Henfry,T:a) Some of the earliest colonial exploitation was in Balata, the sap derived from a tree of the same name, used primarily in the manufacture of rubber before the invention of more synthetic petroleum based compounds. With the employment of native people on the Balata plantations and their concurrent introduction to a cash based economy,came a decline in indigenous social standards resulting in alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lower hygiene standards and increased sickness, and the loss of traditional knowledge of the natural environment, particularly regarding the use of medicinal herbs and swidden farming methods. Other early indications of European encroachment were the establishment of a 5000 sq.ml. government owned cattle ranch on the savannas, which made no provision for native people to graze their own cattle, and the influx off prospectors searching for 'Eldorado'. The latter brought further disease and degradation for which the innocent Amerindian mind was ill equipped.

Diseases foreign to the indigenous metabolism, which has also became more susceptible to disease. Sore-eyes, nausea, diarrhea, and hypertension are prevalent in areas where mining takes place.(SDNP:c) Diseases such as malaria and parasite infestation were normally surmountable by healthy individuals and native remedies, but now take their toll in significantly greater numbers. Conditions conducive to their spread are enhanced by mining practices which block natural water courses creating stagnant pools and the infiltration of unsanitary effluent and sewerage from miners encampments into traditional sources of drinking water. (Guiana Shield:a.) Present day gold mining techniques which require the use of compounds containing cyanide are the norm in large multi-national firms. Huge spills of waste chemicals have been reported as well as the ongoing, unavoidable leakages consequent with everyday mining activities, polluting groundwater and tributaries to the detriment of aquatic life. Native people who rely upon fish to supplement their diet and drinking water from polluted courses have no option but to remain where they are due to restrictive land rights policies.

These problems may not affect mining workers as they are able to buy imported, bottled water and tinned food, but villages downstream and in neighbouring areas supplied by tributaries or contaminated groundwater suffer the consequences. Indiscriminate forestry is another culprit in the disregard for true sustainability, blocking streams with dirt and vegetative matter eutrophying the water courses, driving game further away from the restricted settlements. Furthermore, habitats are lost through division by clear felling and as islands of vegetation are created making it difficult for choice species to migrate as they are fearful of or unable to traverse open ground.(Henfry,T.:b) The indigenous farming and hunting culture is being abandoned in these respects as the men-folk seek employment with firms active in the area.

The new generations are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their native ways and mothers are left to struggle with the maintenance of the village community and management of food crops, as well as taking over the roles of the men who traditionally governed by council. (SDNP:e) The men are often not seen for long periods of time and with inflationary black market prices on processed foodstuff, can ill afford to maintain their families on the salaries they receive as unskilled workers. Malnutrition is prevalent in some remote villages. Teenagers are leaving the villages in their elders footsteps, with many young girls joining the ranks of prostitutes serving the workers who may be away from home for months at a time. Some are never seen again. A large proportion of the gainfully employed workers are desperate men, living fast and dying young with a make or break get rich quick mentality, often inspired by the Hollywood movies shown regularly in remote community halls by the light of a diesel generator.(Bates.C. 2001)

The Guyanese government is operating under the weight of almost one billion dollars of foreign aid received primarily from the American government. The latter also provide them with all their wheat grain and regularly provide leadership in development projects, dictating the ways in which investment is spent.(Britannica:c) In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs published a paper for prospective investors in the region citing the difficulties in getting land deed titles, saying, ' ...those who seek to tap into Guyana's vast potential should be prepared for the challenges' because '[w]hile there is no screening of investment, the centralized process of decision making and its lack of transparency can result in delays and frustration for foreign investors.' (Britannica:d) The truth of this is certainly not due to the governments considerations for the rights of indigenous people, but is more likely a reflection of the way such matters are organized amongst the national private interest groups who are determined to get as much of any inward investment as possible.

Officially, they have granted a mere 6000 sq.mls. of land titles to native people, whereas recently a five million acre exploratory lease was granted to a Canadian mining firm;(Guyana Shield:b) All of the large scale mining and forestry operations are owned by foreign, multi-national companies. These are creating stress on the fabric of indigenous culture and the government is slow to listen to the organized efforts of native people for recognition,(SDNP:f) mainly due to harsh economic realities but also because of long standing attitudes toward native people, who have traditionally been regarded with some suspicion and even superstitious fear. Instead, a collection of N.G.O.s is entrusted with the task, perhaps in the hope that they will aid the smooth transition of native people from self-sufficiency and inter-dependence within the natural environment to dependence upon the global cash economy.

Numerous national and international N.G.Os operate in Guyana (Henfry.T:c), some are apparently self-determined, others are more directly linked to the National Ministry for Amerindian Affairs. In May 2000, the United Nations spear headed the formation of the Millennium Forum consisting of over one thousand NGOs, ,...with a strong track record in global issue areas.' ' ...to meet the challenges and needs of the world community in the 21st century.' as the '...representative of the global nature of society..." (United Nations,2000) Apparently this is an endeavour to make NGOs more accountable. The United Nations Development Program has been in operation in Guyana since 1998 and has thoroughly researched the Amerindian situation with regard to national government policy and its Structural Adjustment Program, having also '...attached an Associate Expert on Indigenous People to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs.'(SDNP:g)

In 1999 the government organized a convention between itself and tribal leaders in order to collate first-hand accounts of the Amerindian situation, whilst giving the leaders a chance to express their concerns. Protests have been heard since the convention as concerns, and ideas on how to address them put forward by tribal leaders, appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Understandably, given Amerindian ignorance concerning the organization of modern government, concerns and agendas will clash. The Pan Tribal Confederacy of Amerindian Tribal Nations, formed in response to increased feelings of tribal impotence in the face of government pressure, demands that they should be recognized as having the inextricable right to determine their own destiny. They seek the freedom to operate as equals in accordance with own culture. Tribal leaders are not naive concerning so-called non-governmental assistance; in the words the ceremonial chief of the confederacy, Damon Corrie(2001), '...the NGO's are in the Government's back pocket and speak volumes without actually accomplishing anything significant for the Amerindians.'

One project of interest to all parties might be the Iwokrama International Forest Program.(2001) Initiated by the UNDP, it is involved in a range of projects such as forest zoning, road management, carbon sequestration, wildlife inventory and management, non-timber related products, remote sensing, bio-diversity inventory and bio-prospecting. One of its key initiatives the organizing of a group of thirteen village groups fortunate enough to live in and around the program environment into a self-governing 'Development Board.' They are considered stake holders in the program, by providing local knowledge which must be adhered to by the program in fulfilling its criteria.

The problem with such seemingly altruistic examples is that the donors and supportive NGOs of this project also invest energy and capital in ventures clearly designed to bring the overall society up to competency within a global competitive market;(CIDA,2000) The resultant systematization, however, cannot benefit the Amerindian people UNLESS they give up their indigenous ideology. Given that they have had almost five hundred years to make the transition and have barely attempted to do so as yet, there is little hope that they will successfully achieve this in the time allowed by technocratic globalization.

As globalization comes into effect the large developed nations are attempting to ensure that under developed nations have the ability to include their resources in the international marketplace. The resulting effect is countries are being run ever more like commercial enterprises, with their governments as the Board of Directors. Unfortunately, with new skills required for the expansion and maintenance of infrastructure, the contribution indigenous people are able to make regarding the sustainability of these developments is often overlooked. Considering that for a very long time the Amerindians have happily and conscientiously lived closer to the environment than the policy makers, surely their concerns warrant far more immediate consideration or else what are the governments and concerned NGOs trying to sustain?


Bates, C. 2000. ( Author visited Rupununi region as a child whilst uncle was manager of Dadanawa.)
see GUIANA SHIELD/Report #6.

Britannica:a, 2000. WWW.britannica.com, SEARCH / U.K.
Britannica:b, 2000. WWW.britannica.com, SEARCH / Guyana
Britannica:c, 2000. WWW.britannica.com, Guyana / Statistics
Britannica:d, 2000. WWW.britannica.com, SEARCH / U.S. Embassy / Georgetown / Guyana / ( Report by Bureau of Economy & Business Affairs.) 1996

CIDA, 2000. ( Canadian International Development Agency).
WWW.acdi-cida.gc.ca/index-e.htm CIDA Around the World/ Americas /Guyana/

Corrie, D. 2001. damoncorrie@yahoo.com / www.pantribalconfederacy.com
(Letter to author)

Guiana Shield:a, 1999. WWW.gsmp.org/ WELCOME / Conflict & Solutions
Guiana Shield:b, 1999 WWW.gsmp.org/ RUPUNUNI / Reports # 4

Henfry,T:a (Date Unknown) ( Research Fellow/ Kent Uni.)
MSN. SEARCH/ Ethnobiology and Conservation in Guyana
1.1.5 Outside Influences; Cattle, Mining, and the cash economy.
Henfry,T:b Outside influences; Cattle, Mining, and the cash economy.
Henfry,T:c 1.1 Amerindians in Guyana.

Iwokrama International Rainforests Program, 2001. WWW.iwokrama.org
Current Research and Services.

SDNP:a,1999. (Sustainable Development Network Program)(NGO)
WWW.sdnp.org.gy UNDP Guyana, / United Nations Development Program:
Guyana; National Report on Indigenous Peoples And Development.
Vereeke. J, Mr. ( Associate expert on indigenous people).1994

SDNP:b, 1999. The Indigenous People of Guyana: Indicators and Profile.
SDNP:c, 1999. Amerindian living Conditions Per. Region.
SDNP:d, 1999. Opportunity Profiles : Mining.
SDNP:e, 1999. The Indigenous People of Guyana: Indicators and Profile.
SDNP:f, 1999. Recent Development. ( Amirang).
SDNP:g, 1999. Recent Development.

United Nations, 2000. WWW.milleniumforum.org/ Organisation and Structure.

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