By Neil Marks
A project started by a group of head teachers of the South Rupununi to upgrade the skills of teachers but which later undertook a ground-breaking initiative by indigenous Wapichan communities to map and monitor their lands has been handed the prestigious Equator Prize.
Called the South Central Peoples Development Association (SCPDA), the organization, which has created a map of lands traditionally used by the Wapichan people was honoured as one of 20 outstanding local and indigenous initiatives that are advancing innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.
The Equator Prize is run by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and comes with US$10, 000 cash. It was handed out in Paris two weeks ago.
SCPDA is based in Shulinab, a community of 750 people, namely of the Wapichan and Macushi Amerindian nations.
The Association carries out projects in 17 communities of South Central and Deep South Rupununi.
Initially, the villages were not located in the flat savannah lands, but in the forests at points called Mirikeng – Locust Creek Mouth and Parakawitikeng – Bush Hog Creek Mouth.
But convinced by Christian missionaries of the need to go to church and school, the people set up various small villages.
Nicholas Fredericks, who now leads Shulinab village was in Paris to take part in various activities associated with the UN Climate Summit and to pick up the Equator Prize.
He said that the people still continue their traditional practices – hunting, gathering and fishing – but now they also herd cattle and sheep, raise pigs and rear poultry – as part of SCPDA’s expanded mandate to improve the diet of the people.
SCPDA provides the first pair of animals to villagers and they in return hand over the first drop back to SCPDA so the organisation could multiply its stock and then provide to other villagers who need.
The majority of people in Shulinab depend on the land for living; teachers and nurses are the only paid workers in the village.
Now, Shulinab is going back into the forests, “to open back village farms” owing to prolonged dry seasons, said Fredericks
“Right now the people are afraid to use the cassava because if they do that they would not be able to plant back the sticks and you’ll be losing all your planting material.
So we’re doing that; we are actually going back into the forest to for food security and to maintain our traditional species of crops.”
But the people of the Rupununi face other challenges – ones that threaten their way of life.
The lands legally handed to the communities take up a portion just about quarter of the land the Wapichan people actually use, Fredericks said.
The communities know that because back in 2003, SCPDA started a natural resources mapping project.
With the help of their elders, and support from international organisations, they used GPS systems to map all of the areas they use for farming, fishing and hunting.
Fredericks said the territory used by the Wapichan people is consistent with what was developed prior to independence by the British Government which had formed the Amerindian Lands Commission.
The great leader of the Wapichan people -Daniel Kinchin – is said to have taken his bicycle and rode to many of the villages in the Rupununi to meet with village leaders and together they sketched out their territory – one that resembles what GIS mapping now shows.
“We know (the) extent of use of our lands; we saw the overlap of communities, in that we share our land.
“We share our resources according to our customs.”
In 1976, the then government “parcelled” off lands and handed those to the Wapichan people as community lands. But Fredericks surmises that the leaders may not have understood what they agreed to.
And so, the large swaths of land between communities were designated state lands and are leased for commercial activities such as mining and logging, causing destruction to lands used by the Wapichan people.
This (in terms turn? form) a case study that has been presented to governmental authorities annually for the last five years so they could take action – but nothing has really been acted upon, Fredericks lamented.
He said that the government bears responsibility as a signatory to the Convention of Biological Diversity to “Protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements.”
Fredericks said that the Wapichan people have always used their territory in a sustainable way.
For example, he said that they don’t exploit one hunting area or kill pregnant or young animals. Further, he said that for farming, they occupy only the area they actually use to farm.
As a result of their historical use of the lands, the Wapichan people have developed a “living plan” and leaders from the various villages meet every four months to take the plan forward.
Together with the plan, the Wapichan people carried out three studies to determine the use of their lands. One dealt with ways to enhance crop production; another study dealt with controlling bush fires, and the third study looked at ways by which communities can improve their craft production.
After launch of the living plan however, the people started to see an increase in mining in some areas.
The problems were many – social ills such as prostitution, the pollution of creeks and rivers they use for water and fishing, and more forested areas were being cleared.
And so, the Wapichan people embarked on an environmental monitoring project of their own, with the help of Digital Democracy using satellites.
Digital Democracy said they are creating an early warning platform built on Google Earth Engine that will combine real-time satellite analysis that will alert community authorities to destructive practices with the aim of bringing a halt to such activities.
The community now operates a drone, which they helped build. Young people from the village are trained in the use of smart phones to support the project.
In addition, the villages have identified 1.4 million hectares of pristine forest for conservation purposes.
“By preserving the ecosystem – is a way of combating climate challenge – could be a model for government and international community,” said Fredericks.
With the Equator Prize, community leaders have decided to set up an internet system at Shulinab and fix faulty systems in some other key areas.
Early next year, SCPDA will be launching the Wapichan peoples own website, and the village has just received funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation to continue the work of SCPDA with a focus on helping village councils manage their own affairs.
And SCPDA is also spreading its wings, with Fredericks announcing that its widely popular monitoring programme will be taken to Region Seven.
The Wapichan people now seek a listening ear from the new government to their plight in the hopes that the government would act to remove harmful mining and unwanted development.
“We have always lived in harmony with our forests,” Fredericks said in a speech at the Equator Prize ceremony.
“We see the forest as our mother and have taken on this role to protect the forest from destruction in the name of development.
“For us the forest is not just about money, it is our life and our identity.”