VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
Nivedta Kowlessar The Chronicle October 1998
SHE WOWS the world - this well-endowed `green-geared' beauty.
A sun-kissed model posing in the middle of Guyana, she commands international attention through Commonwealth promotion.
Under the spotlight, man pauses to ponder her rarity.
After all, she is not just an emerald-like adornment, but a leafy, tropical leviathan breathing his air clean; quenching his thirst with meandering streams and forever bearing for his food and shelter.
Yet, his hands can rob her of life, and they depend on each other to survive.
She is a sprawling wilderness, named Iwokrama ("Aiwo" is correct) after the mountains that tower more than a thousand metres high in her one million acre spread, bordered by the Essequibo, Siparuni, Takutu and Sipariparu rivers.
Before she was christened, through the Commonwealth in 1989, Guyana's gift to the world for sustainable forest management, Iwokrama just meant a refuge for the docile indigenous Macushi tribe fleeing their aggressive Carib brothers.
Today, she is an enviable treasure guarded by the autonomous Iwokrama International Centre which is using her as a `living laboratory' to teach the world how to both use the forest and save it.
Its mission: "To promote the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of tropical rain forests in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits to the people of Guyana and the world in general, by undertaking research, training and the development and dissemination of technologies".
With the support of three successive Governments of Guyana and a growing partnership of international donors, the centre has become a legal entity. It is currently governed by a board of trustees jointly selected by the Government and the Commonwealth Secretariat, has a staff of about 40, and is expected to have a permanent management team by February.
WHAT IS THERE
A field station has been set up in the reserve at what used to be known as `Kurupukari Landing' in the Essequibo River about 274 kilometres from Georgetown.
The base is, at present, a cluster of cabins with beds, meals, medicine and other basic paraphernalia.
One serves as a classroom in which pointmen like wildlife biologist, Dr Graham Watkins and support manager/consultant, Fred Allicock introduce Iwokrama.
They say she hugs undulating plains, rolling hills and steep granitic mountains and boasts six distinct land systems - the Kurupukari Sand Terraces, the Buro-Buro River Plain, the Moco Moco Plain, Iwokrama Mountains, Iwokrama Hills and Valleys and the basic doleritic intrusion of the Pakatau Hills and Turtle Mountain.
No particular species dominate her mostly mixed woody expanse. Rather, there are changes in the relative abundance of the same suite of canopy species that commonly include commercial types such as greenheart and crabwood.
Iwokrama is also home to a wide range of habitats that support a diverse flora and fauna with an estimated 1,500 - 2,000 higher plant species, 450 species of birds, 206 species of fish, 120 species of snakes, lizards and frogs and 105 species of mammals.
And she harbours several large animals - Jaguars, Harpy Eagles, River Otters, Arapaimas, Black Caimans, Giant River Turtles - that are close to extinction elsewhere in their range.
They are assets of which the centre is justly proud and trying to show off and save.
Its mission is split into three thematic programmes - how to manage tropical forests sustainably; the conservation and use of biodiversity; and sustainable human development.
There are also two cross cutting projects - forest research and information and communication.
The centre plans to maintain approximately half of the forest in its current pristine state as a wilderness preserve to provide a reference standard of ecological processes and interactions and biological diversity.
It says traditional uses by the sparse indigenous Amerindian communities, which it will learn and document, will be permitted together with observational research.
Iwokrama is also "committed to safeguarding the intellectual property rights of these communities and individuals", the centre promises in a promotional pamphlet.
Watkins, however, notes the related legal structure has to be in place before the programme can start taking off because there is need for proper protection and equitable sharing of benefits.
The other half of the reserve forms the sustainable utilisation area which will be managed for commercial harvesting of forest products and services and for experimental research and non-consumptive uses such as nature tourism.
Commercial operations will help to make the centre substantially self-financing in the long term, using Iwokrama's own capability and/or as licencees of the private sector.
To date, some US$8.3M has been invested in the mission which Watkins said is expected to pay for itself in ten years. By then, it should support a fairly large administrative structure and provide a lot of jobs.
With a reputation of being what Watkins calls one of the "best known areas in much of South America", Iwokrama can be a big eco-tourism draw for Guyana.
"Having a place that's very well known can be a major input...and...you've got animals here that you can't find anywhere else and this is of major importance. If we can advertise that outside of Guyana people will actually come in...".
For example, the endangered Arapaima, given its status as South America's largest fresh water fish, can be one big pull.
"This is something people want to see. It's not done anywhere, but diving with Arapaima will probably have a greater draw than diving with great white shark if you sell it right", Watkins, a former eco-tourism guide in the Galapagos Islands suggests.
He shares a series of strange sounding ideas that could be developed into real things that are totally different. They are what he describes basically innovative and different ways of using the forest which, if explored, can put Guyana ahead and make the forest make much more than it does now.
"People are looking at it and saying okay, `let's count the timber trees in it,...that's the way of making money'. The only reason they're doing that is because that's the only thing they can count. Nobody goes in and looks at a piece of forest and says `how much money can we make from eco-tourism, how much can we make from carbon products'. These are the kinds of difficult things to value that you need to start counting".
Watkins admits it's very difficult work and says to help, Iwokrama is hiring an economist to value biodiversity prospecting, a social scientist to deal with the people issue, and a human resources development officer to train staff.
Iwokrama brings in about US$30,000 a year from eco-tourism with potential to increase the income to US$100,000 in five years.
"Clearly, we are ways away from making money and what it needs is innovation. And it's not probably Iwokrama that's gonna come up with these answers, it's the people of Guyana, the people that live in the forest".
At the moment, the centre's main concern is raising public awareness of the mission, still better known outside of Guyana.
It is a dream that can only become reality through partnerships.
Watkins uses a grey-painted three-legged stool to promote the idea - its top represents the future, and the legs - the Government, local communities, and non-governmental organisations. "If one is broken, the whole thing will collapse", he points out.
This is the kind of co-operation the centre is pursuing with the Government and agencies like the United Nations Development Programme which are tackling crucial issues like the link between poverty and the preservation of the environment.
Watkins stresses Iwokrama's role is merely facilitatory. "We don't actually do anything, except to bring people together or bring resources to people that need those resources".
One fruit of this sort of function is the current concerted effort to save Guyana's stocks of the which Amerindians are supplying to neighbouring Brazil at $300 a pound.
"If all the parties are not involved, often (what happens is) the platform collapses and one of the consequences of that is basically, species like the Arapaima disappearing from the area.
"If you don't get together and try and manage these animals...then the system won't work, Watkins says.
Information on the disappearance of the Arapaima, which he reports is "almost being sucked" from the North Rupununi", is a direct result of Iwokrama's management work.
The centre has been able to identify existing pockets of the fish, but Watkins notes the data belongs to the communities which can now do whatever they like.
"If they, all of a sudden, decide that they want to harvest all the Arapaima, that they can do, that's their decision. But at least they have the information...to be able to manage the system. Without the information, nobody would even know where to go to harvest them".
"There's no greater burden than a great potential" - Watkins quotes Indian biologist of world standing, Professor M.S Swaminathan who chairs the Iwokrama board.
It is advice board member, Sydney Allicock, himself an Amerindian, has taken up as a war cry because what happens to Iwokrama bears direct link to the twelve communities which neighbour Iwokrama and are now becoming a focal point.
"(It means), if they can't do it, then nobody can. (And) that's a major message to get across because if this doesn't work with all of the resources going into this and all the effort and all the ideas behind it...then what is going to work?", Watkins rhetorically asks.
Iwokrama is being used to set an example in what he describes as a "very desperate situation" in which forests are being cut the world over for a multitude of reasons.
"If all the forests disappear, we're all in trouble and hence, this massive interest from outside in (Iwokrama)".
Watkins points out how "incredibly important" and "very strategically positioned in the history of time", the project is. "If it doesn't work, what it suggests is that it's going to be extremely difficult for that to happen in any other part of the world."
"(And) if that happens, the only answer is to do what the United States and Britain did with their forests and the environmental consequences of that are disastrous for everybody - it just won't work".
At present, few Amerindians, like the seven Iwokrama employs as forest rangers, understand its long term aim. Some just see it as a means of improving their standard of life.
British biologist, Christie Allan who is doing research in the Rupununi for a three-year post graduate degree in biological anthropology, has been observing the rate of Iwokrama's 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 that they don't want to, there isn't really much resistance, but it isn't actually making any 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...".