Traditional Knowledge in Guyana: Let’s talk about Wetlands!

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As we join the world in observing World Wetlands Day, let us reflect on the important role they play in supporting and maintaining healthy ecosystems that contribute to human health and well-being. We need to also recognizing the significant linkages of these unique ecosystems to the life of Indigenous peoples and their role in helping to protecting them through traditional and cultural activities.

Traditional Knowledge in Guyana: Let’s talk about Wetlands!

Guyana, as ‘Land of Many Waters’ suggests, can be aptly described as a ‘water-rich country’. A bird’s eye view would show a vast network of many rivers and creeks that spreads throughout the country. Even so, it is not only the aesthetics of our waterways that we can boast of, but rather, the intricate link to the unique ecosystems and the diversity of life they support. To that extent, wetlands are of significant importance to the world. Wetlands are land areas that are flooded, either permanently or seasonally, and are known to be rich ecological systems. These ecosystems support water purification, flood control and provide habitat for many aquatic species. Seasonally flooded wetlands in particular promote genetic diversity within fish species and provide for many other animals and plants during certain periods of the year. It is also important to recognize that Indigenous communities around the world have had a long-standing connection with wetland ecosystems. Historically, many plants and animals associated with wetlands have cultural significance and values and this is very much still the case today.

Recognizing their importance

Due to the important ecological services as mentioned above, the recognizable direct and in-direct links to human health and well-being, there continues to bean increasing call for the protection of wetlands around the world. Leading such efforts has been that of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands which is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. In efforts to raise global awareness about the value of wetlands for humanity and the planet, on February 2nd each year has been designated as World Wetlands Day.

This year, the theme selected is ‘Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future’. It seeks to highlight that though the development of cities is inevitable, we must realize the continued importance and benefits of ecosystems such as wetlands. In her official statement for World Wetlands Day, the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention, Martha Rojas Urrego stated: “Today`s current development of human settlements is a major concern for wetland conservation and wise use. As [development occurs] and demand for land increases, the tendency is to encroach on wetlands.” Recognizing the relevance of our local wetlands as a source of protection against flooding, water purification, livelihood activities including ecotourism, sets the tone for why it is so important that they be protected.

 Wetlands and indigenous peoples in Guyana

Indigenous communities are very much dependent on the natural environment to meet their local needs. The rainforest, river, creeks and associated with wetlands have beenkey to the lives of indigenous people throughout the centuries.  Our Indigenous brother and sisters have strong cultural and traditional ties to the lands they occupy. More so, it has long been recognized that they have played a vital role in protecting and managing these ecosystems, way before the implementation of conventional conservation measures such as National Protected Areas Systems.

Here in Guyana, the mega wetland area associated with the Rupununi, Essequibo and Rewa Rivers along with many lakes and ponds is known as the North Rupununi Wetlands. During the rainy season, what is usually open dry savannas, soundly becomes a part of a massive flood plain. Associated with these wetlands of the North Rupununi are the Indigenous communities of primarily the Makushi nations. They depend heavily on these wetlands as they provide clean water, food, materials to make craft, housing material and traditional medicine. What is notable, is that their harvesting techniques are for the most part sustainable and promote protection and conservation of these resources in the long-term.

The Ramsar Convention encourages the integration of traditional knowledge in the wise use and management of wetlands. To that extent, it has been observed that Indigenous communities, by means of traditional fishing, hunting and harvesting practices, have naturally engaged in the respectful use and protection of these wetlands. Many of these traditional practices are passed from generation to generation, young ones being taught by adults (elders) in the  community through a process of learning by doing. Other traditional knowledge may see the transfer of information through dance or stories. Today, due to changing dynamics within many Indigenous communities, where the youth are otherwise occupied with school and sports, there is the threat of many of these traditional knowledge being lost.

The international conservation world recognizes the important role that traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples can play in protecting and conservation efforts. As such there are specific goals and targets set out under the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Guyana is a signatory to, that call for increased efforts of countries to make efforts to recognize and incorporate traditional knowledge into national policies to promote sustainable resource management.

Guyana is working towards that very goal through the implementation of a UK-funded Darwin Initiative project entitled ‘Integrating Traditional Knowledge into National Policies and Practices”. This project will see the collaboration of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Protected Areas Commission and Environmental Protection Agency, in efforts to work with Indigenous communities associated with Protected Areas and relevant policy makers to facilitate dialogue and, as a main output, develop a relevant National Action Plan for Guyana.

Follow Jay Mistry:

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.