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In Guyana’s Indigenous Villages, Gender, Livelihoods and Nature Intersect

Far from my creature comforts in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, I found myself jostling around in a 4×4 SUV over the rough terrain of the Rupununi. Red dust billowed behind us as we moved across the savanna toward the village of Sand Creek, in the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains.

My colleagues from CI Guyana and I were on our way to learn about how the indigenous men, women and youth of this region interact with each other and their environment. Our assumption was simple: Greater equality and equity within communities will lead to more conservation success, spur economic development and improve livelihoods.

But how do we achieve this? How can we ensure that everyone can equally participate in — and benefit from — our projects?

We figured a good first step is to ask them. We needed to learn what activities each group conducts, how they use natural resources and how they can be better engaged in sustainable agriculture and tourism.

On a personal level, I studied gender theories while completing my master’s at Queen’s University in Canada. I couldn’t wait to get some real-life experience to test these theories — and in my home country, no less.

A Region in Transformation

Located within South America’s ecologically unique Guiana Shield, Guyana is part of the Amazon rainforest, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. The incredibly diverse Rupununi region contains almost one-fourth of Guyana’s territory. It is also home to several indigenous groups — the Macushi, Wapishana and Wai-Wai.

The history, culture and traditions of the Rupununi’s indigenous peoples reflect an intrinsic bond with the local landscape, waters and plants and animals. Historically, their subsistence livelihoods and communal system of land ownership have both helped to sustain the region’s natural wealth. It is truly an inspiring place.

However, there are threats to the sustainable development of the country. For one, the Rupununi is increasingly accessible to neighboring Brazil via expanding infrastructure, which is spurring greater urbanization, migration and financial investments in the region. Furthermore, various public and private large-scale projects pose increased risks to the Rupununi’s resilience, manifesting in a transition from a subsistence economy to a market-based one.

Understanding Men, Women and Youth

Rupununi women play an important role in managing village and household economies, as they dedicate most of their energies to agricultural work and general upkeep of the home. Women are also at the forefront when it comes to entrepreneurship, often handling administrative tasks, banking and other business duties.

Meanwhile, men tend to conduct the more physically labour-intensive activities like clearing farms for planting.

And although Rupununi youth are critical for the future of their communities, they have become a vulnerable group. There is a growing mismatch between available village jobs and their skills and education. Consequently, many are forced to seek employment outside their villages — or even the region.

CI Guyana’s gender research is tied to an exciting new livelihoods project that we are implementing in the Rupununi. We are working closely with indigenous and local communities to enable them to have greater control over the development of their homelands and to secure sustainable livelihoods through fields such as agriculture and nature-based tourism.

The project provides access to loans to develop community-based enterprises, trains community members in business and entrepreneurship and provides them with culturally sensitive and environmentally responsible means of engaging in the growing cash-based economy. It is a pilot project that aims to illustrate that Guyana can develop while conserving its environment.

To begin our work, we crossed the north, south-central, and “deep south” of the Rupununi region — through the vast grasslands, rainforests and mountains — to reach eight indigenous communities whose members were eager to discuss their views on livelihoods, resource use, decision-making and access to information.

We were immediately greeted by the incredible warmth and hospitality of the people, who created a most supportive environment to conduct our work.

What We Learned

In each community, we worked with women and men in separate focus groups, to encourage more open conversations. Four key issues were highlighted across the communities and amongst the different groups:

  1. Women and youth do not participate fully and actively in decision-making due to lack of confidence, knowledge gaps and language barriers. (These barriers aren’t unique to Guyana; learn how they’re affecting women across the globe in Timor-Leste.)
  2. Women contribute significantly to both agriculture and tourism, though largely through their sometimes unpaid labor inputs.
  3. Education policies are constraining the ability of women and youth to maintain traditional livelihoods. Guyana’s existing education curriculum is largely uniform and not sufficiently informed by local context. Thus, the lessons taught in Rupununi schools do not adequately consider practical skills that youth require to practice traditional livelihoods. Instead, these policies equip youth for kinds of employment that do not currently exist in the villages, contributing to increasing migration.

    School hours are also inflexible and sometimes clash with traditional activities such as farming. As a result, women who would traditionally tend to their farms in early morning hours become busy preparing their children for school. It is therefore difficult for the women to maintain their traditional means of livelihoods, or to transfer their traditional knowledge and skills to their children.
  4. Underlying socioeconomic issues, including substance abuse and associated physical and emotional violence against women and children, misuse of household finances and malnourishment of children, threaten the fabric of society. These social issues are a direct threat to human well-being, and can act as barriers to sustainable development.

The Next Steps

Our team feels a moral responsibility to respond to issues raised that are beyond the direct scope of our Rupununi project (e.g., education policy, socioeconomic issues).

This sense of responsibility stems from our understanding that all these issues impact our project’s success on some level. Education policies and social issues have profound impacts on the well-being of both women — as caregivers, household managers and entrepreneurs — and on young people, on whose shoulders the future of these communities rest.

At CI, we are constantly striving to grow and deepen our relationships with local communities, whose support and collaboration is the most important factor in the successful achievement of our mission. The results of this work have inspired our team at CI Guyana to engage with new partners in the areas of education, healthcare and social services, and to better try to understand and strengthen these sectors’ linkages with our work to advance human well-being.

We are optimistic about what we can achieve with our project and beyond and we derive that optimism from the strength of our network of partners. These partners may operate in different sectors with different areas of focus than our own, but in the end, I believe we each share the same vision: a healthy, sustainable Rupununi. By combining forces, I hope we can bring the vision to life.

Dianne Balraj is the environmental policy coordinator at CI Guyana. Special thanks to Marcelle Chan-A-Sue for her extensive support during the fieldwork research and data analysis, and to René Edwards for his insightful inputs.