Preserving Amerindian Legacies through Agro-Ecotourism in Guyana’s Rainforest
According to the Arawak Indigenous tribe, the lush, dense rainforests that cover Guyana’s territory hold timeless secrets, traditional knowledge and healing powers passed on through the generations of today’s Amerindian communities.
The leaders and community members of Mainstay Whyaka Village are gatekeepers to these secrets enshrined in the bark of their trees, in the nests of ant colonies, throughout the waters of their lakes and rivers, and beyond. For this reason, the Amerindians of Mainstay Whyaka Village care deeply about preserving their traditions, language and culture, which are closely connected to the natural world around them.
Village Chief Yvonne Pearson takes her responsibility as a community leader very seriously when it comes to land resource management and securing a strong future for her community while preserving their cultural heritage. She is very aware that the present generation of youth, particularly young men, are increasingly lured away from this community, as there are fewer job opportunities for youth in the village.
Gone are the days when Whyaka villagers solely lived off the land, whether it was traditional farming, hunting or logging. Village youth have less interest in pursuing these traditional practices as the modern outside world evolves at higher speeds. As the youth increasingly look outward, the village chief, or toushau (Amerindian word for captain), is also concerned about a waning interest in and loss of traditional knowledge, history and customs. In turn, youth are losing their connection with their elders’ wisdom of their land and sense of pride in their rich heritage.
Wrestling with these challenging realities, Pearson and her village council reached out to USAID-funded Partners of the Americas’ John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program over a decade ago. During this partnership, Pearson has provided innovative ideas and a spirit of resourcefulness on how to bridge these changing world dynamics, namely through agro/ecotourism. In turn, F2F expert volunteers have brought the technical know-how on how to help her village fully turn her agro/ecotourism ideas into a new reality.
A vision through the rainforest and farmlands
Mainstay Whyaka Village is home to one of Guyana’s many vibrant Amerindian communities, which lies inland about 40 minutes from Guyana’s most important and largest river, the Essequibo River. Whyaka is home to approximately 760 Amerindians of Arawak descent. They are a small, but proud and hardworking, community with a rich history connected to their lands, which originally served to feed families through subsistence farms of crops such as cassava.
Where most see thick jungle, Captain Pearson sees opportunities for income generation, traditional knowledge educational transfer across generations, ecotourism, wildlife education, agrotourism for visitors, youth engagement and cultural celebration. She understands that introducing modern best practices, innovation and technology can usher new prospects for up-and-coming generations within the village while reinvigorating cultural pride and appreciation to be shared with visitors.
In 2022, Mainstay Whyaka village council developed a dynamic agro/ecotourism project to generate interest and raise awareness of the hidden charms and beauty from the rainforest and lake settings of their territory. Under Pearson’s leadership, this project now garners support from the Canadian High Commission and the Guyanese government with the proposed development of a nature trail, a guesthouse and a shade house project engaging youth.
Essentials of an ecotourist destination in the Amerindian rainforest of Guyana
Recent visits by an F2F family volunteer team, the Peplers, in late 2022 and 2023, identified and prioritized objectives and goals and ensured their implementation. The Peplers are a family who run their own agro/ecotourist project in the United States and have a wealth of experience and knowledge in these types of start-up projects.
Ruth Pepler first carried out an F2F volunteer assignment in late December 2022 when she provided comprehensive recommendations as part of an action plan. Her plan included points such as setting up agritourism and cultural heritage activities menus for visitors, designing educational options, providing food safety training, setting up formal business operations and integrating village youth in projects. Ruth worked hand-in-hand with Pearson, the village council and youth to highlight opportunities previously unnoticed or undervalued and helped develop an action plan.
With a follow-up visit by the Pepler family (Thomas, Ruth and Grace Pepler) in March 2023, ongoing support was provided in developing the necessary tools to reinforce momentum from the initial planning stages to increase the implementation of set objectives. Together with youth volunteers, the Peplers assisted in designing and developing a project website as well as email and social media accounts (Facebook and Instagram). With these in place, project staff can more easily manage future reservations and organize with guests in preparation for their visits.
The Peplers also helped break down hospitality fundamentals, like pre-stay expectations, processes for welcoming guests and creating an aesthetic ambiance for guests. Training included menu planning and developing a guide for the kitchen staff to follow with dishes and ingredients sourced from the village. Facilitated dialogues aided in developing administrative and implementation frameworks, enhancing authority delegation and organizational capacities.
Further capitalizing on the natural beauty of their village, Captain Pearson and the village council plan to expand ecotourism activities by building nature trails through their rainforests. To bolster this idea, F2F volunteer, Sai Bhargav Reddy Vootkuru, a geographic information specialist (GIS) specialist, spent time in the village in March 2023. Vootkuru worked with villagers to map and better understand the land use features within their boundaries. These exercises were fundamental to prepare, plan and make informed decisions about the new nature trail project and others. GIS mapping is a critical tool to understand how to use their resources most efficiently, as well as secure funding for the development projects.
Beyond this, Vootkuru ensured the construction of trail bridges over marsh areas throughout the rainforest park area. Together with the guidance of F2F sustainable forestry expert volunteer, Megan Andrews, villagers created a tree inventory of the Mainstay Whyaka Village nature park to evaluate the biodiversity of the area and to develop an informative, guided tour of the area.
Through these efforts, the villagers and Megan identified and tagged 65 tree species. This volunteer project engaged 14 participants, including 4 women and 10 youth. While the older village generation and loggers are very familiar with the local names of trees and their cultural purpose, most young people are not familiar with the subject.
For this reason, this project worked with a local logger who shared his vast knowledge of local tree species and explained their uses. Youth reported that they learned about their own heritage through this identification process and gained new knowledge through the scientific names of the trees. They also felt more connected and enthusiastic about their heritage in their discovery of the powerful, medicinal values from the plants in the wild. Youth said they now feel empowered to continue identifying and tagging plant species using learned resources, such as specialized mobile apps.
The rainforest nature trails currently remain under construction, but show exciting promise as the villagers are also carrying out animal movement research. Thus far, they have identified movements of wild animals, such as jaguars, monkeys, ocelots, ant eaters, deer, endemic species of tropical birds and wild hogs. Captain Pearson’s vision is to create an animal safari tour as part of the park experience. In the meantime, training for youth tour guides on the trails, rainforest and projects will be shared and enjoyed by visitors.
Whyaka female bosses trailblaze leadership in Amerindian communities
Elected into office, Pearson has served as the chief of Whyaka villagers for over 18 years, cumulatively. She also serves as a member of Guyana’s parliament and previously served as the advisor for the Minister of Amerindian Affairs from 2010-2015.
“The majority of the 212 Amerindian villages in Guyana are male dominated,” Pearson said. “I don’t know if, of the 212 villages, there are even a dozen female toushaus (captains) serving. Most other Amerindian villages cannot believe that we have such strong female leadership and that the men have allowed that.”
Whyaka’s village council is comprised mainly of women. The council also elected a female deputy chief, Shaundell Fernandes, whose primary role is to step in for Captain Pearson when she is not available. These two female leaders uphold a common vision for their community. They both believe that their village strength stems from their cultural heritage and can successfully be reinvigorated through their youth, modern technology and innovation.
Both Pearson and Fernandes are not sure why Whyaka is so forward-thinking when it comes to leadership, other than the women are not afraid to step up and assume leadership. Pearson said that she likes action and does not want to “sit on the back bench.”
“Women here feel that they have this ability to do something for the village and, personally, I feel that there are more things that I need to do and things that I can help with,” Fernandes added. “I always love my village and my people. I encourage other women to do what is right.”