The Land of Many Waters

[Note: I wrote this in Guyana in 2001 while working for Youth Challenge Guyana]

Guyana, on the northern Atlantic coast of the South American continent, has long considered itself part of the Caribbean community. On March 19 2001 this nation of less than one million people goes to the polls to elect a new President. Chris Curnow[1] focusing on the country’s northwest region, observes an indigenous movement that hopes to enshrine traditional ownership in the country’s laws. While the various political parties wage their campaigns on issues affecting the non-indigenous majority, the Amerindian Peoples of Guyana continue to focus their struggle on land rights.

Spend a week on the rivers, everglades and wetlands of Guyana’s north-west and you’ll find yourself in deep water, in a wet land beset by a noble struggle for recognition and land rights. The struggle may escape the casual sojourner, but this water-bound lowland caught between two mighty rivers, the Essequibo and the Orinoco (just over the disputed border in Venezuela), is not a place the traveller ventures, nor is Guyana for that matter. It is home to many of Guyana’s Amerindian People, as well as to Indo and African Guyanese[2]. My week, one of several so far, is spent in the company of Ivor Marslow, as we travel to remote Amerindian villages. Ivor works with the Amerindian People’s Association and it is his job to support this struggle.

Our small boat with an oversized outboard attached, navigates slowly through the mangrove-lined canals, the trees forming cathedral-like arches above, vaulted and majestic, filtering Caribbean sunlight onto the dark tannin-stained water upon which we glide. The locals call it ‘black water’ and Guyanese folklore has it that if you drink the water and eat Labba (a diurnal rodent about the size of a cat) you’re bound to return to The Land of Many Waters: Guyana’s persistent epiphany.

The aerial mangrove roots complete the religious architecture metaphor, their curving masses lining the small canal of the Moruca River, like the buttressed columns of those same vaulted arches. Suddenly the enclosed canal system, which has brought us up the Moruca from the warm and muddy Atlantic Ocean, opens into a gleaming expanse. On evergreen islands, fringed by coconut palms and dense with tropical lowland rainforest, live Caribs and Arawaks (two of the nine traditional tribes of Amerindian Peoples), in benabs[3], under troolie[4], on narrow paths and quietly living. They’ve been here and there. Their ancestors extend back 14,000 years in this same place.

Last September (2000) was Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana. The young President with a mandate only by default, visited the sub-regional ‘capital’ of the North-West: Kumaka / Santa Rosa – a couple of villages joined together by the small footbridge that spans the dark narrow Moruca. He addressed the people and spoke of his adherence to the 1967 Amerindian Act. But this Act limits an active culture’s domain to confined areas in a vast and intricate wetland-island ecosystem. People use areas far greater than that demarcated by post-colonial governments.

After another hour of open-river travel, through impressive expanses of everglades – savannahs as the locals call them – we arrive at Manawarin, an isolated community, spread along various islands of sand and granite, overlooking the Manawarin River. Today the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) has gathered with the community in the old wooden benab by the community school (over-crowded and under-resourced, with 300 students and 5 teachers) to address the villagers. As on previous days, Ivor is asking people to view, comment and correct the resource utilisation map, recently completed of the Moruca area.

The resource mapping exercise used local guides and over 3000 GPS (global positioning system) readings to construct a map depicting how the indigenous people of Guyana’s north-west utilise, depend upon and manage the many and varied resources of their land and waters. It details hunting areas, hunting rights, nature farms, cultivated areas, fishing spots, crab hollows, troolie-palm harvesting zones, heart-of-palm collecting areas, archeological sites, culturally-significant precincts and more.

People need to know the Amerindian ‘footprint’ on this planet. The APA is committed to this. People need to also know that this ‘footprint’ is ancient and continues to tread softly but surely.

The recent demise of Beal Aerospace’s satellite launching site proposal was a victory for supporters of Amerindian culture and environmental concerns[5]. Lands were under threat of being locked away from a roaming people’s access. Troolie Palm fronds – highly sought after for traditional roofing needs – were concentrated inside the proposed development application.

In Manawarin, as children arrived for school on dugout canoes, converging on the wetlands from all directions, the men and women ponder the large resource map, taped to the benab’s broken wooden slatted walls. Light from outside beams through onto the dusty floor.

The question remained: Would these people from isolated communities, separated from each other as the Savannah bird flies, by only a few miles, be able to converge together to demonstrate to the government, to the powers that be, that this resource map is a true representation and clear proof of their continued and lasting right to the lands they live and gain life from? Would they be understood when they claimed that this land goes beyond lines demarcated in a time when governments ruled lines and consulted naught?

Has much changed? The APA wants this to change. The new government portents the possibility of a new constitution. Within this lies a new hope –  an enshrining of indigenous peoples’ rights governed by an Indigenous Peoples’ Commission. The current Amerindian Act does not enshrine the rights of indigenous peoples.

The focus of talk drifts away from the map. The captain arrives late and introduces himself, in a brief interruption to Ivor and myself. People are discussing the history of threats to their livelihoods and a process toward land rights. The older men mention threats from the neighbouring community of Wakapau, who seem to be pushing ahead with renewed demarcation arguments. The old men of Manawarin see this as a threat. They are growing in population. They need to maintain their community’s resource utilisation area – a term they find hard to employ, borrowed from the vernacular of the APA.

However, it appears that all that is happening is that communities are being pitted against each other. But there are shining lights. People speak of unified resistance, combining forces.

“Look at the Chinese[6] and the Indian people. See how they band together. When one falls, they all stop to pick the fallen up. This is what we must do.”, says the Manawarin Village Captain (Touchau in the traditional system).

Another village elder speaks of feeling sad with the current climate of threats. He advocates taking advantage of the APA’s offer of assistance and regional representation.

I’m left thinking of Australia’s indigenous struggle for land, rights and recognition. Like the Amerindian People of Guyana, the Australian Aboriginal People are a minority (around 2% of Australia’s population). And I feel that the Amerindian People, like Australia’s indigenous people, will also require the mustered solidarity of their nation’s non-indigenous brothers and sisters in order to bring firmly into reach what is justly theirs.

By midday the meetings are over. I have presented to the group about the aims and offerings of Youth Challenge Guyana. We prepare to leave in our small power boat. The flat wetlands and everglades extend far off. Evergreen islands form an undulating horizon. Big thrusting clouds fill the sky. A distant rain shower passes over the savannah. White-headed brown eagles perch regally on dead branches rising out of and overlooking the mosaic of reed, rushes and river. White herons and Savannah birds are present all about. Marvelous red dragonflies zap around the bobbing dugouts canoes beside me. Soon, like last night, the red and magenta pastels will etch the twilight sky. The geckoes begin to play. Dragon lizards, their cousins, the call it a day. The frogs and crickets will again begin to dominate the nocturnal auralscape. Candle flies will share the world of night-light, scarce as it is in Manawarin and other remote Moruca villages, with the low-burning kerosene lanterns.

People are at home. But are we at peace? As we speed off across the black waters of the Manawarin River, I remember the brilliant night sky and the peace that I have found in the Moruca area. I wish that spirit further on. May this land give life, sanctuary and inspiration for generations to come. May its indigenous custodians remind us of the interconnectedness of it all.


[1] Chris Curnow worked as Field Program Director with Youth Challenge Guyana [YCG] between 2000 and 2001. Based in Georgetown, YCG works towards its three strategic goals of youth development, community development and international cooperation and runs three programs a year with youth from Australia, Canada, Costa Rica and Guyana, working in remote communities on community identified infrastructure, youth and education projects.

[2] Afro-Guyanese are the descendents of African slaves (and indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery) brought here with the Dutch and English invaders in the late seventeenth century until its abolition in 1834. Indo-Guyanese are descendents of indentured East Indian labourers, brought to work the sugar cane and coconut plantations between 1838-1917, when slave labour was no longer an accepted norm in the ‘New World’ and who chose to remain here at the termination of their contracts. Both ethnic groups, with simmering inter-racial tensions, fuelled more by traditional political affiliations and less by the younger more apolitical youth, make up nearly 90% of Guyana’s population, in roughly equal proportions. Other minorities with similar histories linked by imperialistic powers are: the Europeans (descendents of Dutch and English settlers, and Portuguese, descendents of 30,000 imported indentured labourers after 1835); Chinese descendents of 14,000 imported labourers between 1853 and 1879. Today Guyana’s cosmopolitan population reflects it’s history of invasion, slavery and economic immigration, comprising Indians (43%), Africans (30%), Chinese (0.3%), Amerindians (7%) , Europeans (0.5%) and variety of mixtures (6.2%).

[3] Open-walled traditional wooden shelters.

[4] A highly prized palm frond from the Troolie Palm used for making roofs, now found in restricted pockets along the Waini River.

[5] In late 2000, the government vowed that it would independently seek to have the satellite launching site constructed on the originally proposed site – the lower Waini River. Potential aerospace conglomerates are being sought at present.

[6] Like the Amerindian People, but for very different reasons, the Chinese immigrants make up a minority group in Guyana. However, at 0.3% they occupy an even smaller ethnic grouping than the Amerindian People’s 7%.

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