Guyana tribe goes hi-tech to protect its land

By Gemma Handy

Image source, WWF Guianas
Image caption,
The Wai-Wais have been trained to use technology to record eco data

Eleazer Mawasha speaks haltingly. English is not his first language, and Skype not his preferred method of communication.

An elder of Guyana's Wai-Wai people, Mr Mawasha is more familiar with the sounds and rhythms of the rainforest with which its indigenous inhabitants have enjoyed a profound spiritual relationship for thousands of years.

Using the chat app during a trip to Georgetown is not the only foray into modern technology for members of the South American nation's smallest tribe.

Amerindians have been scrupulous caretakers of the environment for millennia and, as the rest of the world evolves, so too have their practices for monitoring and protecting natural resources.

GPS in the jungle

Wai-Wais in the remote southern district of Kanashen have been trained in the use of cutting-edge software, smartphones and GPS to gather data and assess carbon stocks, thanks to a pioneering two-year project by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Mobile phones are nothing new, even in this isolated area on the fringes of the Amazon Basin, a punishing six-day journey by tractor and boat from the nearest town.

But the way they are being used to navigate the forest and record eco data marks a significant departure from tradition.

"Our people used to manage the community just on our own. But since WWF came in and trained our young people, we manage it far better than before," Mr Mawasha explains.

"We did not have instruments before like GPS; we used to cut lines so we didn't get lost in the jungle," he says, referring to the practice of hacking a trail through the trees with a machete.

"We are very happy with the training. We tell our young people we have to care for our environment to keep it for the next generations," he adds.

Area of global importance

Spanning 2,400 sq miles (3,850 sq km), Kanashen is Guyana's first community-owned conservation area, managed exclusively by the Wai-Wai since 2004.

Image source, Zach Montes for WWF
Image caption,
Kanashen is Guyana's first community-owned conservation area

It falls within the Guiana Shield, one of the oldest formations on the Earth's surface and considered globally important due to its vast swathes of pristine rainforest, fresh water reserves and rich biodiversity.

Its dense forests absorb three times the carbon dioxide of their Peruvian counterparts, playing a crucial role in the fight against global warming, says WWF's Chuck Hutchinson.

The project was developed as part of an agreement with Norway which gives Guyana money in exchange for keeping deforestation low.

Participants in the 10-week training course were chosen by community leaders to function as environmental monitors.

Image source, WWF Guianas
Image caption,
The participants measure and gather carbon stock samples among other data

They learned how to use technology to measure and gather carbon stock samples, keep track of fish and food supplies, and also oversee a series of community wellbeing initiatives ranging from school attendance figures to a happiness index.

"The Wai-Wai went all over their titled land, gathering data so we can be really accurate in assessing how much carbon they have in their forests," Mr Hutchinson tells the BBC.

"That involved choosing a specific area, measuring every tree and recording the species, and collecting leaf litter samples to be sent to the US for analysis."

In search for 'ground-truth'

Because the size of the uninhabited land is so large, the Wai-Wai are pivotal in identifying precisely what is forest and what is not.

Image source, Zach Montes for WWF
Image caption,
The Wai-Wais have been the caretakers of the natural world for millennia

"Satellite images are not always accurately interpreted so they do what we call 'ground-truth'," Mr Hutchinson says.

WWF Guianas is now rolling the scheme out to more indigenous communities who, collectively, hold title to 16% of Guyana's forests.

"There are 116 titled communities in Guyana and most of them have forest. They decide what they want to monitor.

"In addition to the benefits they receive personally, they are making a valuable contribution to the overall data Guyana produces," Mr Hutchinson explains.

Saving grace

Lush forest still covers almost 85% of the country's landmass; the trees' low market value when chopped down and sold as timber has been their saving grace.

Image source, Juliana Persaud for WWF Guianas
Image caption,
The Kanashen wetlands are home to jabirus, among the tallest flying birds in South America

Guyana's economic future lies in payments it receives from other countries to maintain its forests and help reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases, Mr Hutchinson believes.

"A hectare conserved here is worth three times more than a hectare conserved elsewhere. The value of the carbon is only going to increase as climate change worsens," he continues.

Guyana's president, David Granger, has placed pursuing a "green" economy at the top of his agenda, establishing a new department of environment and describing Guyana as a "proud partner" in international efforts to protect the Earth's environment at last year's UN General Assembly.

Image source, N. La Cruz
Image caption,
Kanashen's wetlands are home to numerous species and play a crucial environmental role

"Guyana has enormous opportunity with its resources and small population," Mr Hutchinson adds. "It's vital to hold on to these forests.

"If we don't, it's the poor people that suffer. There's a saying, when elephants fight it's the grass that suffers. They are the people who will bear the brunt."