Annette Arjoon-Martins: “The grassroots people are the real heroes”

Annette Arjoon-Martins heads Guyana’s Mangrove Restoration Project

A local girl shows off some of the organic products produced in the region. Photograph by Ian BrierlyAnnette Arjoon at the mangrove nursery. Photograph by Ian Brierly

Growing up in the riverain community of Pomeroon was very instrumental in instilling my love for nature. I spent my formative years with my maternal grandmother, who was Arawak, in a very simple wooden house on stilts, surrounded by coffee trees.

We would have family excursions to Shell Beach to catch crabs. There were no roads. You had to paddle for half a mile to get to school, in dugout canoes. There was always a stalk of bamboo onboard, because bamboo floats. If you had to visit a friend who lived across the river, you simply swam.

When I was older I went to Codrington High, a boarding school in Barbados. I earned my private pilot’s licence in Trinidad immediately afterwards and started flying the length and breadth of Guyana.

That’s when I discovered the northwest – the most beautiful part of the country, in my opinion. I started flying Dr Peter Pritchard, an English scientist, to Shell Beach. I went with him on one trip and discovered the green sea turtle. Some of them are the size of a Volkswagen. I was in awe.

Dr Pritchard would employ some of the former turtle hunters as turtle wardens, but only a few people benefited. The people needed the turtle meat and eggs as a source of protein. It was a subsistence activity.

It didn’t take me long to realise that you can’t address the needs of the turtles and ignore the community. There are Warraus, Caribs, and Arawaks there. I am half Amerindian. If I had a child that needed that turtle egg to survive, I would dig it up myself.

I founded the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society in 2000. I looked for the natural resources in the area and found commercial markets for them. Guyana Stock Feeds agreed to buy every single pound of copra (the dried kernel of coconuts, mainly used as feed for livestock) the women produced. For the first time, the people of Shell Beach had cash to buy chicken eggs and meat. We got them iceboxes to store their fish for longer periods, in exchange for not setting nets where turtles were nesting.

I created a brand called North West Organics. Now the women’s cassava bread is being exported to Trinidad and St Lucia. They also sell cassareep [a thick black liquid made from cassava root that is used to flavour and preserve sauces, especially pepperpot] and organic cocoa sticks. We handed the business over to the community so that they could run it in 2009. Last year they exceeded GY$7 million (US$34,000) in sales.

You can talk about conservation until the cows go home, but if people aren’t an integral part, it isn’t going to work.

At one time the entire coastline of Guyana was covered by mangroves. A lot of people would cut mangroves down for firewood because of challenges of getting kerosene. Now Guyana is experiencing the effects of climate change as tides are higher and waves are stronger. They know that where there are no [mangrove] forests, water comes over and floods their communities. We would have to spend US$5 million to build one mile of concrete sea wall, and a lot each year to maintain the older ones, which have a life of 50 years. Restoring and protecting mangroves frees us up to spend that money in the social sector. We planted more than 65,000 seedlings over a two-mile stretch. Shell Beach has been identified as a protected area and the 100-mile coastline is now a priority site.

What I am doing with the Mangrove Project is basically linking with and supporting coastal communities. We have €4.1 million (US$5.8 million) for four years.

If you don’t get the community involved from day one, when the project funding comes to an end they will cut down the mangrove again.

There’s a group of women beekeepers who have their hives in a three-mile stretch of mangrove forest in Victoria and Hope villages. They said if we assist in the packaging and distribution of their honey, they will take responsibility for protecting the forests and sensitising their neighbours. At one of the sites, which is an enjoyable 25 minutes from Georgetown, the community has been trained to do tour-guiding, so there’s a tourism spin-off. The Ministry of Education is sending groups of school there each Saturday for educational tours. The Buxton Mangrove Committee has their steelband, which plays the mangrove jingle, and they spread the message. We sponsored another community’s cricket team.

If you want to reach certain target groups, flyers will not do. The community initiatives are out-of-the-box and pragmatic.

We’ve also had huge support from the private sector and sister agencies.  There are billboards all along the coastline, and we didn’t have to pay for one.

The Guyanese government has been instrumental in fostering environmental sustainability. In the early 1990s President Desmond Hoyte gifted the world with the Iwokrama National Park – one million hectares of rainforest – for scientific research. Then President Bharrat Jagdeo decided to put this country on a low-carbon development pathway. We have 85 per cent of our rainforests still intact – but you can’t just tell people not to do timbering and gold mining any more. Economists saw the value of putting our country in the stewardship role. The Government of Norway already advanced €70 million (US$99.5 million) towards preservation of the forests.

Guyana is an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters”, and we have huge capacity for hydro power, so the government is looking at alternative energy in terms of hydroelectricity.

Obviously we’re doing something that should be emulated regionally. There’s tons of stuff that we should be proud of and celebrate.

The thing that has surprised me the most is that the communities themselves have all the answers. We don’t need highfaluting scientists to tell us what to do. These grassroots people are so sincere and pragmatic. They are the real heroes.