Covid-19 impacts on Indigenous food sovereignty, livelihoods and biodiversity, Guyana – the findings

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Our report presenting work from a Darwin Initiative Covid-19 Rapid Response grant that ran from January to March 2021 in the North Rupununi, Guyana is now available. Download it from here.

With a long-term aim to enhance Indigenous food sovereignty and agroecological knowledge that sustains livelihoods, culture and biodiversity, we were interested in exploring how Indigenous communities have been impacted by and responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. More specifically, we looked at local livelihoods, leadership, and if/how farming activities changed, and their potential impacts on forest cover and biodiversity.

The key messages of the report are:

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of traditional knowledge and Indigenous farming for food security in the North Rupununi, Guyana. More people turned to farming for survival and there was a resurgence in interest and reliance on traditional knowledge about farming.

Prior to 2020-2021, the North Rupununi was on a dangerous trajectory of increased deforestation rates. The drier weather, combined with significant development incentives, had resulted in deforestation peaking at an estimated 1,701 hectares for the 2019-2020 dry season. The radical change in political, climatic and pandemic-related circumstances of the 2020-2021 dry season results in a drastic drop in deforestation rates to an estimated 277 ha – just 16% of the levels seen in the previous dry season.

Longer term trends in farming show that fallow times have shortened and more farms are being cut in secondary forest or old farms ‘minabs’. There needs to be greater awareness raising of this trend towards short-term rotations and its long-term consequences for carbon sequestration and forest diversity.

At the same time, farmers are using fewer varieties of the staple crop, cassava, than in the past. This drop in cassava varieties has significant implications on the ability of Indigenous communities to cope with future crises events, and needs urgent attention.

Indigenous communities require greater agricultural advice and support, capacity building and help with marketing that builds on traditional knowledge, Indigenous culture and cassava diversity. Government assistance needs to be continuous and work through community structures so that farmers know what and how to get help.

Indigenous communities need more culturally appropriate information about crises events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, that aligns with Indigenous livelihoods and worldviews, and where Indigenous peoples themselves can frame their responses.

Land tenure is critical for food sovereignty and biodiversity. Having legal tenure helps Indigenous peoples to secure resources and land needed to cope with pandemics, in which sustainable land management and practices can be governed and self-determination can be promoted.

Jay Mistry
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Professor of Geography - Royal Holloway University of London

Jay has more than 22 years’ experience in teaching, researching and building capacity for natural resource management with local communities. Her particular interests include supporting local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, local environmental governance, action research using participatory video and capacity building for natural resource management.