Amerindian Guyana

Guyana’s original settlers — the Amerindians — are struggling with the intrusions of the modern world. Janette Forte looks at their dilemma

After the outsiders leave, the problem of school uniforms remains. Photograph by René Van DongenAmerindian children face a new world for which their traditional skills do not equip them. Photograph by René Van DongenBridge over the Moruca River and Kumaka market. Photograph by René Van DongenKaieteur Falls. Photograph by René Van DongenSmiling faces in expensive uniforms: 88% of Amerindian households live below the poverty line. Photograph by René Van Dongen

It’s the height of the rainy season, in July, and several Makushi women are talking about the uniforms their children need for the new school year. This is Annai Village, in the North Rupununi district of Guyana.

The women each have up to six school-age children to clothe. They calculate what they will have to save from their family holdings to finance the uniforms and send the children to get the rudimentary education available in the village schools. One mother explains how with two weeks’ labour, involving a two-day journey by canoe to the family’s cassava plot, her two young daughters can help her make enough surplus farine (the local staple) to buy a single polyester pinafore for each girl.

A year earlier, a central government programme was set up to provide free school uniforms to the country’s poorest children. None of the women in Annai have heard about it.

In Guyana, 88% of Amerindian households live below the poverty line; entire regions of the interior qualify for poverty relief. Yet most of the money voted for the free uniforms scheme was unspent in the first year. The next year the vote was repeated, and again could not be spent. Practical systems for disbursing the aid simply did not exist. The Ministry of Finance tried to transfer the funds directly to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, but bureaucracy was still a problem.

Amerindian parents face extraordinary hardships as they try to provide their children with the necessities of a new world for which their traditional skills do not equip them. They fervently believe in formal education, even though it has enabled few of them to grasp the advantages of “modern” life — as a community, Amerindians still rank low in the national society.

Guyana’s city-dwellers rarely think about the privations of Amerindian life, where each material necessity is measured in miles walked or paddled, in days of labour needed to produce an item to be sold, like wildlife, or processed with the most rudimentary tools. There has been a mining boom in the hinterland, but it has not resulted in much new employment for the Amerindians. Of the tens of thousands employed in gold mining, Amerindians are a small minority in menial positions. The timber industry, which is steadily increasing its harvest in the Guyanese rain forest, employs relatively few Amerindians (at the low end of the pay scale), though Guyana’s logging concessions are larger than all the Amerindian lands put together.

The very arrival of wage labour, exploiting Amerindian skills on Amerindian territory, has trapped hundreds of families in a new dependence on a cash economy. They buy imported food from the company store instead of growing it for themselves as they have done for centuries. Many families now suffer what has been termed the “Development Paradox”, where the availability of money leads to a narrow range of processed foods, poorer nutrition, no defence against inflation or shortages, and — worst of all — no farm to fall back on when the money runs out.

In the process, much is lost and destroyed. The Amerindians’ ancestral understanding of their ecosystems is exchanged for boom boxes and dancehall tapes. Their world is invaded by mineral and forestry prospectors, and now there is biodiversity prospecting too. Peanuts (their only cash crop) face stiff competition from American imports, and their complex world is discussed in terms of Intellectual Property Rights.

The new order brings new tensions into small villages. Different religious orders compete for Amerindian souls; different NGOs, following their own mandates (“the nurturing of civil society” or “gender empowerment” or some other concept from the development debate) by-pass the traditional male elders, who can appear inarticulate (at least in English).

Outsiders come and go, more often in the dry season than the wet, always in aeroplanes, four-wheel drive vehicles or motor-powered boats, never on foot or by canoe. Their visits spark off a whirlwind of talk and movement, whose urgency is underlined by the waiting plane or boat. After they leave, the problem of school uniforms remains.

Perched on the shoulder of South America, a land of vast rivers, mountains and sav-annahs, Guyana is still largely virgin territory. Visitors flying into Timehri airport for the first time are often struck by the Amazonian rain forest below. But few of them will venture beyond the populated coastlands where a Dutch colonial past endures in the architecture, the sea defences and drainage canals, some of them transformed into tree-lined avenues.

Guyana’s Amerindian population is separated by more than space and time from the Western-oriented “coastlanders” and from any putative pan-Caribbean link. It is the only significant one in the Caribbean — close to 50,000, compared with 6,000 in Dominica, 3,000 in St Vincent and a few hundred in Trinidad and Tobago. Amerindians are the fourth largest ethnic group in Guyana (after the Indians, Africans and “Mixed”); in many interior regions they are a majority. Except on the coast, most Amerindians still speak their own languages and enjoy some measure of self-rule in their remote villages.

While most Guyanese live huddled close together on the swampy coastal plain, looking northwards to the United States and Europe, Amerindians are spread out over a vast landscape with little in common with the Caribbean apart from the sun. They look instead to South America. All the nine surviving tribes have cross-border relatives in Venezuela (Arawak, Carib and Warau, Akawaio and Arekuna), Brazil (Makushi, Wapishana, Waiwai and Patamona) and Suriname (Arawak and Carib).

Links with the continent are taking more permanent shape — a road to Brazil’s Roraima State and a ferry link with Suriname. At the same time, resource-hungry investors are anxious for a piece of the action in Guyana’s hinterland; and elections — in which regional voting may prove decisive — are around the corner. The interior and its peoples are moving into prominence.

The attention is as calculated now as it was when Dutch ships first weighed anchor off these muddy shores nearly 400 years ago.

The Dutch who settled on “the Wild Coast” traded peacefully with the native populations they found there. They treated Amerindians as business partners, suppliers of goods (including local slaves) and services (such as recapturing runaway African slaves). Immunity from slavery was granted to some of the Amerindian nations, and there were annual “presents” for favoured tribal groups.

A century later, however, the balance of power had shifted and the original “lords of the soil” were no longer partners and allies. Now, they were subjects, with no recognised rights to their customary lands, not even the right to elect leaders of whom the colonisers disapproved.

The British inherited and maintained many elements of Dutch administration, including land law, and modified them as colonial needs changed. The end of slavery changed their policing role, and “Pax Britannica” proclaimed the protection of minorities. The labour needs of the all-powerful sugar industry meant deliberate discouragement of new settlement in the hinterland, and the need to settle borders with Venezuela and Brazil focused more attention on the peoples who occupied the border lands.

But the Amerindians were never a priority. All territory, apart from that held by European settlers, was designated as Crown Land. Indigenous land was parcelled out as Mining Districts and State Forests, within which Amerindians had special rights as long as they remained Amerindian — in other words “traditional” or “other”.

In 1966, guaranteed Amerindian land rights were made a condition of independence by the departing British — almost an afterthought, and largely because of intense lobbying by the visionary Amerindian MP Stephen Campbell. Today, most Amerindian villages hold communal title to some of their customary lands; yet the colonial laws that vested control over sub-surface minerals in the State have been retained largely intact by post-colonial governments.

Daily life for the Arawak, Warau and Carib peoples of the remoter, less fertile sections of the Guyana coastal plain is often thought to differ little from that of the rest of the Guyanese people, who were mostly imported for the colonial sugar industry. But visit any of the 100-odd native villages and you will catch a glimpse of a world far removed, though conscripted now by a cash economy into an alien value system.

The Akawaio, Arekuna and Patamona peoples of the Pakaraima mountain shield in some of the least accessible parts of the country (11,000 people, spread over 40 villages) are among those most affected by the mining boom. The cash economy has disrupted their shifting agriculture system, evolved over thousands of years, which alone could support human populations from infertile rain forest soils. It has challenged traditional social structures, weakening resistance to prostitution, alcoholism and other degradations.

The Wapishana and Makushi of the vast Rupununi savannahs of southern Guyana have had to cope with the destruction of the cattle industry following a 1969 uprising which immigrant ranchers led on their territory. Some 7,000 Wapishana in 20 villages south of the Kanuku mountains, and about 8,000 Makushi in 30 communities in the north savannahs, share strong links with neighbouring Brazilian settlements, which provide wage employment as an escape from slash-and-burn agriculture, which is now failing under population pressure.

It is perhaps the Rupununi region that has most promise of alternative economic development, if new and sustainable ways can be found to make money from natural resources; but bureaucracy has undermined even the best-intentioned programmes and policies. Amerindians are still too low in status to be trusted with their own development.

The Amerindians embody the myth of an unknown, untapped hinterland. In the popular imagination, indigenous peoples are both the guardians and the symbols of an immense unrealised potential, mysterious in detail but alluring in outline, difficult of access, demanding vigorous, even brutal, efforts by hardy pioneers to bring them into the economic mainstream. The appropriation of natural resources even extends to Amerindian symbols, emblems and notions, which are freely used in attempts to create connections to a Guyanese past through art.

At one level, these borrowings soothe a collective insecurity about the definition of nationhood. Yet they entrap Amerindians in a false Eden. This positioning of Amerindians in the national psyche does not require knowledge or understanding of the true facts of Amerindian life. Lip service is paid to the romantic image of the Amerindian, but the real people and their demands — for land rights, or for consultation about the fate of ancestral lands — are largely disregarded.

Some Amerindians respond to the popular image by rejecting the stereotype, some by playing it up for the visiting tourist or official. Either way, they reap few lasting benefits. Increasingly, Amerindian people are challenging the choice offered to them — to remain innocents of the forest or to abandon tradition for modernity. They insist on the right to retain the best features of their heritage, while assimilating the positive aspects of national progress. New leaders are emerging, forming pan-Amazonian and global alliances, and there is a deeper understanding of the operations of world systems in their midst.

Recognition of Amerindian rights and respect for their demands will not be won easily, but the gains will be the gains of all the world’s peoples. The resilience and endurance of indigenous peoples will in the end symbolise Guyana’s survival as a viable territory, both Caribbean and South American.