Living the Research - from Christie Allan's Surama base camp
Nivedta Kowlessar The Chronicle October 1998
At the edge of the towering rainforest, in the sun-kissed Rupununi settlement of Surama, a long-haired British biologist is studying the Amerinidian villagers.
Christie Allan is interested in how they live - what they farm and the kinds of food they extract from one of the world's last remaining expanses of virgin forests.
She is essentially looking at how human factors impact on the environment, how the indigenous people perceive and use the abundance of resources at their hand-reach.
Why? Well, she is doing research for a three-year postgraduate degree in Biological Anthropology from London University.
Here since June, 27-year-old Allan has settled in comfortably, with a kitten for company, at the Surama Resource Centre where the kind villagers have given her shelter.
From there, she is recording into a `lap top', the mix of the Amerindians' cultural traditions, the socio-economic pressures they face, and intellectual influences like that of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development which is sustainably managing a 1-million acre (360,000 hectares) forested spread in their `backyard'.
Next year, Allan plans to go further into the savannah to study the people of the village of Woweta, and then to Fairview, which is along the Essequibo River bank and `inside' the forest, the only settlement within the boundaries of the Iwokrama reserve.
"(That will give me) a nice spread of cultural (and) environmental factors, because Fairview is primarily Arawak, Woweta is more traditional Macushi, and Surama, a mixture of both (tribal) influences," she explained.
Surama, sitting in the shadow of the forest, is home to various waterways, while Woweta is a bit farther away, and Allan plans to look at how much of a restriction distance is to suitable farming grounds.
"...where people farm, how often they really use the same farm land (and) whether being inside or outside the forest affects use rates of different species" are some of the questions to which she seeks answers.
For example, the extent to which the villagers would go to collect leaves for thatching, or whether they would consider using alternatives.
"There are a whole bunch of reasons," Allan responds. But the main one probably is because the Guiana Shield is one of the most diverse and interesting patches of tropical forest and also one of the few areas in the world where there isn't actually a huge pressure on the forest, with logging companies on every side, as in Malaysia.
There also isn't the kind of big development one would see in neighbouring Brazil.
In Guyana, there is a kind of moderate progression of such pressures on still fairly traditional communities, an ideal transition to study.
"I hope my work is going to help clarify for people what kinds of use rates they could have for species here, whether they can continue to use things in the same way they're doing always, or whether it's going to be a question of looking for alternatives for certain species...
"Even here, where you've got a community (Surama) that lies very close to the forest, you hear repeatedly that it's more and more difficult to find the thatching leaves for the houses and certain of the wild meats that they want to catch and some of the fish species as well, are declining.
"What I'm doing is looking at actual numbers...use rates and going back and looking at what's known about the biology of these species, trying to see whether it's possible to work out from what local people know about the species and what's published on (them), whether you can say, well, `we use this many over this period of time', `we will be able to continue at that rate' or whether you'd have to have rest period or that sort of thing, seasons maybe.
Allan's work bears a similarity to that of the Iwokrama centre which is teaching local communities how to both use the forest and save it.
Although the concept was formally born with Guyana's donation to the world, through the Commonwealth in 1989, the idea is only "now taking off", Wildlife Biologist, Dr Graham Watkins, who is attached to the conservation programme says.
Even though it's almost a decade, the importance of the project is just catching on among the indigenous population, and Iwokrama is still better known outside of Guyana.
Allan has been observing the rate of its influence which, she explains, varies considerably with quite individual factors.
"There's a strong gender bias, men are more aware of and more appreciative of what Iwokrama is trying to do...(and) that's simply linked to the fact that they are more likely to get employment there.
"...there's a separation between the individuals who have had more exposure to things outside of this area and (those who know) just the traditional way of life. (Those who) can sort of see what Iwokrama is trying to talk about, in terms of the possibilities for alternative employment, and (those) people who have had just this one lifestyle and lived this way their whole life.
"They can't really see where Iwokrama is going and it's not they don't want to, there isn't really much resistance, but it isn't actually making sense to them and they have had a lot of experience with external bodies such as Iwokrama, coming in and telling them things like `don't hunt, don't cut down the forest'.
"...it's a difficult thing to do, but really a long-term aim to turn around some of those perceptions..."
Allan's Guyana stint reminds her of Uganda where she spent two-and-a-half years doing baseline surveys in the game reserves.
"...it became clear to me, doing that work, that the important thing in conservation is people, and what people think, and what people do.
"It doesn't matter how many bird species there are - you can have 247 or 238...but what's going to make the difference in conservation is what the local people are doing and what they think about it."
Allan is about to leave for a period of reflection before coming back here in January for 18 months.
Until next year, she would not be able to pinpoint exactly what effects development pressures have been having on Guyana's indigenous people.
Meanwhile, the `lap top' has captured the interest of the Amerindians and Allan has been more than willing to show them how it works. She conducts regular computer, English and Math lessons for young adults from her rustic camp site.