Here's another United Nations University (UNU) piece: my paper on resilience and the indigenous communities of Guyana, written last autumn (2011) for the Global Change and Sustainability intensive course. I am posting it here in case it is of any help for those currently taking that course, but also for general interest, especially as concerns Guyana.
The text is as it was when given to the UNU, though I've added a few pictures here to make the columns of text less terrifying. And as before, for those writing in a similar capacity now, this is here to assist and encourage thinking, not to substitute for it. Plagiarizing my stuff is a very fast way to get put in hospital. Please attribute it properly if you use anything from here, okay?
Enchancing resilience against climate and ecosystem changes in Guyana's North Rupununi region
Ai Chaobang (a.k.a. John Ashton), UNU-ISP MSc Sustainability, Development and Peace
12 October 2011
1) Resilience, Change and Sustainability
2) Enhancing resilience against climate and ecosystem changes in the North Rupununi communities of Guyana
Reducing and coping with climate change, significantly influenced by human activity, presents one of the supreme challenges of our era.1 It is a manefestation – perhaps the foremost – of the sustainability crisis humanity must urgently address.
A frequent concept in the sustainability discourse is that of resilience, and here I seek to explore what it means in that context, as well as how we might measure and enhance it. I then apply it to the specific case of the indigenous communities of Guyana's North Rupununi region, and consider what resilience means in their circumstances and how it might be improved.
1) Resilience, Change and Sustainability
Resilience is the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop.2 It is thus defined in relation to two reference points: the resilience of something, to something.
We speak of the resilience of humanity: resilience may be applied to any human society, from the scale of the human species on Earth to the human individual, though most frequently addresses a level in between, such as local communuites, settlements or states. This might be further concpetualized in terms of human systems: social, economic, political, ecological and so on, with combining terms like 'socio-ecological' reminding us that all of these are inseparable, interdependent aspects of the community in question's overall human experience, or journey.
In the context of sustainability, we speak of resilience to changes in the world around us, above all to shocks (that is, extremely intense and rapid changes), in particular in the climate and the ecosystems of which we are a part. This is not merely about survival but something more. A failure of sustainability need not and is unlikely to connote extinction. To 'continue to develop', for a given community, means to continue its journey: to sustain a continuity of material and normative fulfilment, resilient to changes which threaten to derail it into a condition deleterious to its members. For example, the sophisticated society of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) experienced just such a resilience failure around 1600, thought to be due to ecosystem changes – deforestation, hunting of land birds to near extinction, and migration of sea birds to islets further away – brought about by unsustainable practices and to which they could not adapt without a shift in their economic and spiritual fabric. When they eventually did, it was to face another socio-ecological change still more massive – the impacts of slave raiders, disease and Christianity – to which they were less resilient still, resulting ultimately in their diminished and struggling condition today.3 A comparative derailment in any present society – such as those Pacific islands likely to be overwhelmed by rising sea levels – with all the material suffering and loss of identity entailed, cannot be assumed as acceptable to the humans experiencing it.
Resilience to climate change is the supreme example, because climate change uniquely highlights the interdependence of human systems – and interdependence between their resource bases and underlying identities – by threatening them across all their sustainability challenges, with such comprehensive severity that impacts in each category reverberate in complex outcomes through all those connected. Sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events such as droughts and hurricanes, changes in quality and quantity of available water, to name but a handful of examples, impact on water and food security, disease patterns, migration and poverty; with all such factors increasing conflict risk due to resource competition, demographic confrontation, social intolerances, and the aggravation of existing strife in the context of an already unequitable and atomistic international order.4 Such conflict would bring associated collapses in the legitimacy and functionality of governments and social infrastructure, further devastating adaptive capacity and setting in train a feedback loop too disconcerting to contemplate – not least because, with our societies far more populated, globalized and interdependent than, say, Rapa Nui in 1600, the vulnerability of any one society affects the vulnerability of them all.
Resilience in the material sense can to an extent be quanitfied, although how far so is limited by our inherent uncertainties in predicting changes in complex, semi-chaotic systems, including the climate and ecosystems – above all at the localized level required for planning adaptation at community scale. Through scenarios and models, we can hypothesize possible storylines of changes and their impacts, and assess the vulnerability of a given community should those situations happen. Then we can measure its resilience against, say, sea level rise or more frequent storm surges – such as through the state of migration planning, or the effectiveness of early warning systems – or resilience against the projected spread of infectious disease, by measuring healthcare infrastructure or vaccination and treatment stocks. The better condition the measures are in, and the more reliable the threat information and vulnerability assessments to which they are developed, the more effectively one can measure the community's material resilience and make informed decisions on the best strategies to improve it.
Resilience in the sense of identity is more difficult to quanitfy, but more important. This is because all the material adaptive capacity and resilience in the universe is inconsequential if not for one simple foundation: will. If the will is not sufficient among key decision-makers to regard resilience as something that matters, let alone direct their resources to enhance it, resilience hits a ceiling it cannot surpass. Wealth, technology, infrastructure and institutions cannot be counted as adaptive capacity in practice if the will does not exist to apply them.
The reason this defies straightforward measurement is that will is directly rooted in a society's fundamental conceptions of what it means to be human; or as relevant in this context, of the human's relationship with the Earth and the place of sustainability in that self-conception. Many of the great dominant paradigms of the era are not conducive to sustainable outcomes: an economics which at its extremes may be considered a cult of the market, and in its mainstream with little or no concept of sustainability at all; a conception of politics encouraging confrontational "interests", short-term horizons and zero-sum conflict as the human norm; an International Relations so annihilated in real-world relevance by its occupation by Positivism and vested agendas; and ancient and powerful spiritualities positing us not as equals in a mutual relationship with the living Earth, with all the obligations mutual relationships entail, but as the Earth's superiors, entitled to dispose of the world and the life upon it as we see fit. Paradigms like these inform and influence decision-makers in governments, businesses and all sectors in a great proportion of a world's societies, and though far from absolute in domination of their fields, the magnitude of their influence is tangible.
How far this impacts on resilience is contentious, ultimately subjective; hence the difficulty of objectively measuring it. There is no shortage of potential strategies for improving identity-based resilience regardless, such as through climate change mainstreaming in education and as many policy sectors as possible; awareness-building and disseminating information; and building connections with societies either more immediately affected by climate change impacts or those with more sustainable underlying paradigms, such as to learn from both. Such measures build both skill and will to improve material resilience in whatever fields and sectors those benefiting can reach.
Just as resilience is a function of identity, identity is impacted by resilience or the failure thereof. Again, climate change will not drive us extinct; it might cause incalculable death and suffering, but whatever remains of us will likely endure and rebuild. Yet this experience would be decisive – to say the least – in the journey of how humanity conceptualizes itself as a species, and no matter what transpires thereafter, that identity would never be free of the legacy of a failure of resilience, of sustainability, global in scope. Some of the conflicts created or exacerbated by climate change impacts, such as in Darfur, have already left interminable marks on the identities of the peoples involved.
As resilience is by definition contextual, tangible methods of assessing and improving it are better demonstrated with reference to specific cases, as I shall shortly attempt for Guyana's North Rupununi communities. But at the overall human level, that at which we will ultimately discover whether or not we became resilient enough, it is demanding to envisage us rising to the challenge of mitigating climate change to reasonably non-dangerous levels, and adapting to said levels, without a fundamental transformation, even a revolution, in all those aforementioned paradigms. The climate change challenge, indeed sustainability in general, is a question of what it means to be humanity: of whether a creature born of the minerals of the Earth and energy of the sun, chooses to recognise its interdependence with the world on which it relies.
2) Enhancing resilience against climate and ecosystem changes in the North Rupununi communities of Guyana5
Guyana is a country of 800,000 humans on the north coast of South America, bordered by Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil. Formerly a British colony, 90% of the population – mostly of African or Indian descent – lives along the narrow coastal strip which comprises most of Guyana's urban centres, including the capital, Georgetown, on the mouth of the Demerara River. Aside from the western highlands and southern savanna, the great bulk of Guyana's land area is tropical rainforest, encompassing some of the largest remaining pristine rainforests in the world. Guyana's indigenous communities, of nine peoples comprising 10% of the national population, also known as Amerindians, inhabit this vast interior, often in remote areas with little or no modern infrastructure.
|Also the interior (savannah)|
Guyana's profile has much enlarged in the international climate change discourse in recent years, due foremost to the challenges of preserving its rainforests – an essential carbon sink – in the face of their rich mineral deposits and potential lumber revenues for what remains a poorly-developed country in need of money. However I will here focus specifically on the indigenous – mostly Makushi – communities of the North Rupununi river, centred around the Annai District villages in Region Nine where the rainforest and savanna converge.
Resilience foundations and local strategies
Resilience is first of all about identity: the place of sustainability therein, and fundamental relationships between humans and their ecosystems. On this, the indigenous communities in question possess the necessary foundation that industrialized or commercialized communities – including, to an extent, coastal Guyana – lack or have lost. For centuries these people have lived in relative isolation, directly dependent on their immediate ecological surroundings for all dimensions of survival and fulfilment. The rainforest provides meat and plant-based food; materials for construction of buildings (e.g. benabs), furniture (e.g. hammocks), tools (e.g. warishi for straining cassava) and crafts (e.g. fans – essential in the tropical heat), and a social and spiritual context inseparable from indigenous identity. Skills for acquiring or producing these goods and conditions can be intricate, often developed over centuries, such as the processing of the staple cassava root, which can be poisonous if prepared incorrectly. The environment is part of who these people are, in both material and identity terms; thus sustainability is not merely one policy area of many, as is often found in the back row and back corner of many governments' political concerns, but an existential keystone of these communities' human journey.
Thus the first and most vital resilience requirement is to preserve this identity, now under increasing threat. As of recent decades, the North Rupununi has become the most connected indigenous community to coastal and international influences, part due to its location on the main road from Georgetown to Lethem on the Brazilian border. The flow of people, goods, ideas and attitudes into the region is set to increase as access improves, especially with the completion of the Takutu River Bridge between Guyana and Brazil in 2009, and plans to lay tarmac on the hundreds of miles of uneven and flood-susceptible red dirt road.
This has brought development opportunities and cultural exchange, but also huge risks to communities with little to no outside contact for most of their history. Commercial influences bring with them materialistic or self-interested mindsets, something community members I spoke to – including senior village councillors – expressed serious concerns about. This is perceptible in a decline in the learning of Makushi language, and – crucially – in diminishing interest by younger generations in sustaining traditional spirituality, both of which should be further mainstreamed into school curricula.6 I did not encounter much evidence of infiltration by those globally dominant paradigms not conducive to understanding (let alone enhancing) resilience, above all in economics, but the risk thereof is perhaps the gravest concern.
Preserving this identity is inextricable from practical resilience measures, and opportunities to do so are best represented by the work of Sydney Allicock, former Toshao (chief) of Annai and now the Chairman of the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB).7 Sydney Allicock has been responsible for a multitude of community development initiatives, including conservation programmes and cultural projects supporting local knowledge and the role of women. Two major community projects, established under his leadership, exemplify this approach. The Surama Eco-Lodge, which employs a large part of the village population, offers tourists the opportunity to experience the indigenous lifestyle, conducting tours of Surama and its local mountains and river, while permitting cultural exchange between outsiders and inhabitants: an Eco-Tourism model already highly reputed and emulated across the wider region. (A similar project, Rockview Lodge, performs a similar range of work in the district under the directorship of another entrepreneurial visionary, Colin Edwards.) The other project, the Bina Hill Institute, is a secondary-level school intended to teach and train indigenous children in the key sustainability challenges facing the community, such as natural resource management, wildlife management, forestry, agriculture, and business and leadership skills, along with core subjects like English, mathematics and current affairs; thus preparing them to lead the community in what will likely be the most decisive chapter in its story. As knowledge and leadership are pivotal components of adaptive capacity, the resilience-building potential of such projects cannot be overstated.
|The Bina Hill Institute|
The success of projects like these is paramount in enhancing resilience to changes in climate, and in the rich and threatened ecosystem balance on which the communities depend. As well as developing capacity in local awareness and skills, they improve coastal and international connections and awareness on the locals' own terms, generate revenues, and most critically, help preserve the cultural heritage by which sustainability is the bedrock of human identity. If this identity is the essential skeleton of a resilience-building strategy, projects like these – and others such as the Makushi Research Unit – are the spinal vertebrae containing its central nervous system, supplying motivation, capability and will to all practical aspects of community resilience-building.
In practice, improving resilience is and should remain part of the ongoing community journey. As a community limited in material resources but vast in social and identity capacity, resilience-boosting measures might include: developing the villages' solar panel infrastructure, already the key energy source but with still greater potential due to energy abundance from the tropical sun; developing the region's communications infrastructure, presently reliant on antiquated radio systems and internet signals easily disrupted by rainfall, especially in the rainy season; further integrating of cultural heritage subjects into school curricula, as well as studies to improve students' awareness and mastery of their place in the world, such as global history; and further diversification of agriculture, to improve both food security and financial self-sufficiency through sale. The Bina Hill compound, for example, could easily support additional projects: two proposals I encountered while there were chicken farming, providing both meat and eggs; and butterfly farming, in partnership with the Kawe Amazonica Butterfly Farm in Iwokrama rainforest, which benefits from a substantial international export market and could also build capacity through enhancing eco-tourism, providing employment and training, and developing partnerships.
Regional, national and international perspectives
Moving from the local to the regional and national levels, the key vehicle for successful implementation – especially in obtaining investment for such projects – is partnerships. Sydney Allicock promotes the three-legged stool model of sustainable development, of which the three legs are the indigenous communities, the government, and investors or business; all three must be in balance to hold up the seat of sustainable development. The role of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development reflects this: in partnership with the communities, private organizations and international partners, it manages Iwokrama forest and explores how sustainable forest use can benefit all stakeholders. Maintaining and building on these partnerships will help to secure investment, disseminate knowledge and skills (such as through school field trips), and assist adaptation planning through the work of organizations like Iwokrama in climate and ecosystem monitoring and research.
|Research facilities at the Iwokrama Centre|
The North Rupununi's vulnerability – and thus its resilience – cannot be isolated from the national context. As the communities' survival and way of life relies on the rainforest and its biodiversity, the threats to those forests and the species therein are their most urgent hazards. Deforestation and forest degradation remains a major threat from logging and mining interests, Guyanese and international alike, granted contracts by the Guyanese government to extract resources from the interior; nor is the savanna safe, with prospects of oil exploration in the biodiverse North Rupununi wetlands. Rainforest biodiversity depends on many keystone species, with some such as jaguars and spider monkeys threatened by commercial poaching, habitat destruction and forest fragmentation. These risks are likely to increase as access is improved, and unless addressed at regional and national levels could set off catastrophic consequences for the region's ecosystems, and the humans dependent on them for centuries, to which adaptation might not be possible.
All this unfortunately occurs in the context of the relationship between interior communities and the national (coastal) administration, which as in many countries with indigenous populations, is characterized by divisiveness and controversy. The coast is tangibly a world away from the interior, with little culturally or civically in common, and national politics is mired in corruption, ethnic divisions and collapses in public confidence in a society struggling with common violence. While my own experience leads me to gravely question the sincerity of the Jagdeo administration's sustainability pronouncements, let alone its attitude to Guyana's indigenous people, this is likely a more deeply entrenched socio-political problem in Guyana than one peculiar to any given administration.
While the North Rupununi's partnership with the coastal authorities seems in relative health, other indigenous communities in Guyana express serious grievances about the government's regard for their welfare: these include disputes over land titling and mining or logging activities, or problems in consultation or free, prior and informed consent in climate change strategies, such as the Low Carbon Development Strategy or REDD negotiatons. Moreover the coast's own severe vulnerability to sea level rise, flooding, and impacts on food security from disruption to the tropical seasonal cycle8, might all present knock-on effects to interior communities, such as through migration or the impact on imported supplies. Considering this, the North Rupununi's climate resilience is inescapably tied to the adaptation success of Guyana's coastal communities, but also their political will and attitude to supporting resilience enhancement in indigenous areas.
This cannot be relied on; and as such, there is much that international support can do to build resilience in indigenous areas, including the North Rupununi. This includes, but is not limited to: government, business and NGO partnerships with indigneous communities or their existing partners, such as the Iwokrama Centre; support and/or funding for community projects or resilience-benefiting causes, as in the cases of international NGOs sending volunteers to work in community development or supporting preservation of indigenous spirituality, language and culture; support or investment for major capacity-building projects such as the Bina Hill Institute; raising international awareness of these communities, their challenges and the lessons the rest of humanity can learn from them; applying pressure at the national level through avenues of leverage, such as the LCDS or REDD dialogues; all bearing in mind that, given the unreliability and questionable integrity of the coastal authorities, the best way in is to make direct contact with indigenous leaders or representatives, for which the infrastructure, such as the NRDDB, certainly exists.
Resilience-building in this case must be a community-led process. With sustainability at the heart of their identity and frameworks, continuous improvement of resilience is the natural direction and inseparable crux of the North Rupununi communities' development journey. With inherited repositories of knowledge and skills, supplemented by those imported, the communites are best placed to make the decisions to maximise their resilience and reduce vulnerability – and so long as their right to do so is respected and their normative foundations remain intact, they will.
The primary resilience challenges lie in two areas. First, adaptation failures at the national level, and their threat both to ecosystem and coastal community tipping points, could devastate the material and identity security of North Rupununi communities beyond all adaptation potential on their part. Second, there is the huge challenge of managing increasing outside influences such as to make use of their opportunities to improve resilience and sustainable development, while avoiding the terminal risks those influences bring.
This latter is arguably the most decisive challenge these communities have ever faced, and in this it is protecting identity and heritage that is most important: for only from an identity that accommodates sustainability can come the will that is the primary and most essential requirement for achieving sustainable outcomes. Moreover, their resilience has ramifications far beyond the limits of their region: from their sucess may come the lessons in fundamental attitudes towards the Earth, which to overcome challenges in climate change adaptation and mitigation alike, humanity must learn as a whole.
1) As declared by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in United Nations General Assembly – Report of the Secretary-General: In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, A/59/2005 (March 2005), p.19.
2) Stockholm Resilience Centre:
http://www.stockholmresilience.org/aboutus.4.aeea46911a3127427980003326.html (accessed 21 September 2011).
3) Neil MacGregor: A History of the World in 100 Objects (London, Penguin Books, 2010), Ch.70, p.449-455.
4) For a more comprehensive analysis of the potential linkages between climate change and human conflict, see United States Agency for International Development – CMM Discussion Paper No.1: Climate Change, Adaptation, and Conflict: A Preliminary Review of the Issues (October 2009).
5) Except where otherwise specified, this section derives entirely from my personal experience of Guyana from April to July 2010, during which I received considerable exposure to sustainability issues both in Georgetown and the North Rupununi communities. Information and impression sources in the former include discusisons with coastal Guyaese people and a series of workshops held by an indigenous NGO; in the latter they arise chiefly from my tenure as a teacher at the Bina Hill Institute, and my wide range of pertinent conversations and exchanges, including with regional community leaders and specialists.
6) On traditional spirituality and its challenges, I must express exceptional gratitude to the shaman of Surama village, Malcolm Roland, for his willingness to meet with and provide me with his impressions, including inviting me into his house to witness a sample traditional healing ritual employing 'bina', specific rainforest plants considered to bear particular spiritual properties. Malcolm Roland only speaks Makushi, so my thanks are also due to my guide and interpreter in Surama, Milner Captain.
7) I am immensely grateful to Sydney Allicock for offering me the opportunity first to visit the North Rupununi communities, especially Surama, and then to live and work as part of the Bina Hill Institute here described; and also for all the information, insights and visionary impressions he imparted on me during our many conversations.
8) With so much of its urban area, agricultural production and population concentrated along the coastal strip, the vast coverage of its great rivers, and its recent history of severe flooding, Guyana is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to even a relatively small (such as 1m) rise in sea level. Intensification of storm surges also presents a critical hazard, projected to impact 100% of coastal agricultural land and 66.4% of coastal urban areas. See World Bank – Development Research Group – Environment and Energy Team, Policy Research Working Paper 4901: S. Dasgupta et al.: Sea-Level Rise and Storm Surges – A Comparative Analysis of Impacts in Developing Countries, WPS4901 (April 2009), p.33.
MacGregor, Neil: A History of the World in 100 Objects (London, Penguin Books, 2010).
Stockholm Resilience Centre:
United Nations General Assembly – Report of the Secretary-General: In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, A/59/2005 (March 2005).
United States Agency for International Development – CMM Discussion Paper No.1: Climate Change, Adaptation, and Conflict: A Preliminary Review of the Issues (October 2009).
World Bank – Development Research Group – Environment and Energy Team, Policy Research Working Paper 4901: S. Dasgupta et al.: Sea-Level Rise and Storm Surges – A Comparative Analysis of Impacts in Developing Countries, WPS4901 (April 2009).