GEORGETOWN, Guyana (Alertnet) – A group of Guyana’s indigenous people have unveiled a digital map of their territories as part of a project aimed at protecting 1.4 million hectares (5,400 square miles) of the country’s rainforest and preserving the community’s culture and language.
The 10-year mapping project is part of a longstanding campaign to gain legal recognition of Wapichan rights to their traditional lands. But by protecting the pristine rainforest, the community also aims to play its part in environmental conservation and efforts to curb climate change.
“In a very quiet way, the way of life of the Wapichan people is about fighting climate change,” said Kid James, a member of the tribe involved in the project.
“Recognition of our rights to control and manage our traditional territory would be one of the best ways of helping Guyana to tackle climate change and meet its obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity,” said Anglebert Johnny, a Wapichan toshao or leader.
The Wapichan are one of Guyana’s nine indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities live mostly in the south of the country in Region Nine, which is home to 20 tribal communities.
Their traditional land includes ecosystems rich in rainforests, mountains, wetlands, savannah grasslands and tropical woodlands. Communities have made their living for generations from small-scale farming, hunting, fishing and gathering.
The area also has an abundance of wildlife, including endangered species such as giant river otters, jaguars and bush dogs.
The Wapichan are careful in their exploitation of natural resources, James said.
“We say when we should be fishing and when we should not be touching them,” he said.
But indigenous leaders are fearful for the future of their community because of impending large-scale road and dam projects as well as plans for logging, mining and large-scale agro-business ventures.
In recent years there has been an upsurge in mining using water pumps and excavators that rapidly destroy large tracts of land, according to James.
Leaders fear that the Wapichan communities are vulnerable to the exploitation or seizure of land because they lack secure legal title over much of their traditional territory.
“We want to secure our traditional lands so that our customs and traditions could continue,” said Toshao Patrick Gomes.
The new digital map was created by members of the tribe using GPS technology to plot the location of key livelihood, spiritual and cultural heritage sites that hold deep importance to the people and sustain their way of life.
More than 80 community consultations, workshops and public meetings were held between 2008 and 2011, building on community research which documented traditional knowledge and customary land use.
The events were held in both English and the Wapichan language. Gomes said people felt more comfortable speaking in their native language and provided more information as a result.
The consultations generated proposals for sustainable land use, supporting local livelihoods and protecting Wapichan territory against harmful development. These were fed into a territorial plan, entitled “Thinking together for those coming behind us.”
The plan details customary laws for caring for the land and includes over 40 community agreements to secure community land rights, safeguard and sustainably use resources, and conserve cultural heritage and wildlife sites under community controlled reserves.
“Once ownership rights are secured there is potential for economic benefit as there are some development actions, such as ecotourism and non-timber extractive reserves, identified for different parts of the area,” said Kid James.
Another tribal leader, Laurentino Herman, said his people were very supportive of the plan.
“With the project there could be better planning to earn an income. Everyone can feel responsible for the things around them,” Herman said.
James added that communities have the option of making their lands part of Guyana's Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) process, which could bring additional economic benefits.
“But at the moment there is no clear process for how communities can opt into that process,” James said. There have been delays in responding to applications, a concern that has been raised by other Amerindian communities around the country, he said.
Anglebert Johnny said that the process had given Wapichan members a new awareness of their role and responsibilities as stewards of the land.
“We never knew that we were the managers of the mountains and their ecosystems,” said Johnny. “We had our customary laws for centuries but now we have them written in a document.”
The toshaos said the project still needs assistance from donors, government and conservationists to ensure that it is sustained over time.
“We call on the government and national and international allies to help us take this plan forward. Let us work together to have our land title extensions recognised in full and let us put our community agreements to work for the benefit of the Wapichan people, all the citizens of Guyana and the international community,” Gomes said.
Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.