Forced from their land
For indigenous communities, the destruction wrought by mining has been alarming. As has the granting of forest concessions close to indigenous lands. Guyana’s laws provide for indigenous villages to obtain titles for the land they occupy and, currently, indigenous peoples own 14 per cent of the country’s land. However, the process of gaining legal ownership has been cumbersome and villages have complained of mining and forest concessions being granted on land they have customarily used for farming, hunting, and other activities, all without them being informed. With farms as well as hunting and fishing grounds being impacted – and sometimes destroyed – in some cases, people have been forced from the land, as it does not fall within the titled area.
Forests – as they have for generations – continue to sustain the lives of Guyana’s indigenous peoples, who account for 10 per cent of the population. In the rural areas, where most live, poverty rates range from 61 to 94 per cent. Jobs are scarce, and according to a UNICEF report, “for most of the indigenous peoples, poverty is not only lack of monetary resources, but it involves access to land, culture, medicine, food, education and safety.”
Forests as a way of life
Annai is perched at the edges of the Rupununi savannah, where forest-covered mountains mark the beginning of the jungle, their peaks often adorned in fleeting wisps of clouds. Like other indigenous communities, the people here turn to the forest for the necessities of life.
Forests are essentially their “supermarket,” according to Mike Williams, the secretary for the village council and member of the board of the North Rupununi District Development Board, made up of 20 indigenous villages that collectively work on development issues, including those related to the forest.
“Each one of these villages depend on the forest for many things, for food, wildlife, fish, shelter, medicine, agriculture,” he said. And this can be seen the moment you arrive in the village as palm fronds form the roofs of many houses.
At her home in Annai, while preparing to extract the toxins from cassava to make cassava bread, a staple of indigenous peoples’ diets, Zalita Moses points out that the matapee (a type of strainer used to squeeze out the “cassava water”), the sifter, and other implements used in the process all come from the forest, while the cassava is cultivated in jungle clearings because that is where the most fertile land is located.
“I feel more comfortable in the forest than at home in the village,” said Mark George, as he paused from clearing his farm of weeds. His and the surrounding farms are located on state land, which brings him some unease as a nearby non-indigenous community claims it, but they have agreed that the indigenous farmers can use the land. “This is our farming ground from very long, our grandparents were here,” he said, disclosing that his sons and other relatives all farm in the area. Farming is their rotational livelihood and main source of income as they sell the excess produce.
“The forest is important because that is how we live, we protect it, we conserve it, and we also collect food from the forest…collect materials for the house, for the craft, medicines,” said Veronica Farias, who, for the past 12 years, has led a group of women who produce various remedies for ailments.
The group, called Medicine from Trees, utilises plant materials including crabwood seeds, harvested from the crabwood trees located deep in the forest where logging companies have previously expressed interest. Crabwood is a commercially valuable timber species but is not abundant in Guyana, and Farias is concerned at the implications should logging companies succeed in gaining access to the area.
“If they touch that area where we depend on, and the crabwood trees, we would lose everything,” she said. “They will just extract the materials and where will we make ends meet for this project or for us?”