2 January 2020, Rupununi river, Guyana – Herman Phillips, 63, has lived his whole life in the Rupununi region bases on a subsistence existence. He believes that is his natural right as an indigenous person in the Rupununi.
Millions of people around the world rely on wild meat as part of their basic diet. It provides a vital source of protein, fat and micronutrients, especially for Indigenous Peoples in South America, Africa and Asia. But if left unchecked, hunting and fishing in environments that are already under pressure can damage ecosystems and threaten the people who rely on them for their livelihoods.
Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in Guyana, part of the Guiana Shield – a region of South America that has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, as well as many endemic species.
That’s why, since 2017, the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme has worked in the country to improve wildlife conservation and food security through environmental education and collaborative action.
“Wild meat in the Rupununi is very critical,” explained Oswin David, a Wapichan and country coordinator for the SWM Programme–Guyana in a recent GLF Live. “The Indigenous people in the region are dependent on both fish and wild meat. It’s our lifestyle, it’s our culture, it’s our tradition.”
But as access to the region grows and new economic activities take off, the balance between traditional livelihoods, food security, and biodiversity becomes more challenging.
“Over the years, the human population has increased; the connection between [the Rupununi], neighboring Brazil, and the coastal area has increased, with increased traffic and extractive activities from gold mining and logging in the area,” said Nathalie van Vliet, an associate researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, in the same GLF Live.
“Despite the fact that hunting and fishing is mostly practiced based on traditional methods, the pressure on wildlife has increased over the decades.”
For now, commercial fishing and hunting aren’t major drivers of biodiversity loss in the Rupununi, but they are still making an impact and are expected to worsen in years to come.
“There is huge demand for wild meat in the coastal area, the urban area,” explained van Vliet. While the wild meat currently being sold there doesn’t come from the Rupununi, an analysis of trends shows that as the road between Georgetown and the Rupunui is paved, the region could soon come under threat.
This increased pressure would likely have a significant and devastating effect on wildlife populations. According to a 2021 report on the global impact of wild meat on animals protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), 95 percent of the CMS species classified by IUCN as endangered, critically endangered, or extinct in the wild are threatened by hunting. There is strong evidence that wild meat use is a major driver of that hunting.
What’s more, the link between access and overhunting is clear: research in 2017 found that mammal populations declined by an average of 83 percent in hunted areas within 40 kilometers of an access point such as a road.
Furthermore, hunting pressures were significantly higher in areas with better access to major towns where those wild meats could be traded, as could happen after the road between the Rupununi and Guyana’s urban coastal areas is improved.
Beyond animal population depletion, growth in wild meat consumption comes with another major risk: infectious disease. The same 2021 report notes that data “suggests that 51 percent of the CMS terrestrial mammal species were known to host at least one of 60 pathogens that have been, or have the potential to be, transmitted to humans and cause disease.”
We have already seen these zoonotic diseases ravage communities in recent years, with wild meat hunting and consumption identified as the direct cause of mpox, SARS and Ebola virus in human populations, to name a few.
For the SWM Programme–Guyana, it comes down to education and grassroots collaboration.
“We support local communities in getting themselves organized and ensuring that the customary rules are enforced,” explained van Vliet. The SWM Programme supports them “in partnering with the government to ensure that visitors respect customary rules for the use of wildlife” along with the community members themselves.
“This is why environmental education and awareness raising is so important,” van Vliet continued. “It’s why we’re working with people like Kim, who’s a teacher and who’s implementing environmental education, because this is one of our major pillars for the future: preparing the kids and the youth for more sustainable ways of life.”
Hear from Kim Spencer, a math teacher at Sand Creek Secondary School and South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS) ranger, about her experience in environmental education:
Apart from environmental education, the SWM Programme–Guyana has been successful in empowering grassroots NGOs such as SRCS, where Kim Spencer works as a ranger. Operating since 2002, the South Rupununi Conservation Society has worked to preserve the wildlife, environment and culture in the Rupununi but had been limited by small budgets and a reliance on volunteers.
Now, they have a team of more than 30, a yearly budget of about USD 200,000, and the ability to raise further funding and partner with other organizations and obtain further support, van Vliet explained.
Importantly, according to van Vliet, the SWM Programme–Guyana has worked to avoid the “usual dichotomy between projects and beneficiaries” by involving all stakeholders in every step of the process. The program, she said, has involved “everyone in the decision making” – from planning the activities to evaluating and assessing progress, to agreeing on the next phase through an adaptive management process.
“I think we all sit in the same boat, and this has been very important for the success of the program, because everyone feels empowered but also responsible for the success,” van Vliet added.
This active involvement of local communities really came to the fore in what David described as the activity he is most proud of: a biodiversity assessment of the Karawaaimin Taawa in the deep south of Guyana, led by Aishalton Village Council and the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC).
“Yes, I played a role, the SWM played a role, CIFOR played a role,” he said, “but the groundwork has been completely conducted by the local persons themselves.” This not only included people from Aishalton, the village where it was based, but “almost all of the 21 communities surrounding it participated in the biodiversity assessment in different tasks.”
And, David emphasized, the people who took part have the local knowledge that is so vital to any program of this type. “Without local knowledge, the scientific community cannot have everything complete. You need local knowledge, which has a very critical role in any scientific study or assessment.”
But as David put it, “with success, there are always some sort of challenges.” For him, the most pressing issues facing more sustainable wild meat in Guyana are communication (specifically the internet), working around the seasons in a region susceptible to flooding, and community engagement. Nevertheless, he’s optimistic, hoping to perhaps “triple or double” the successes they have achieved in phase one.
The SWM Programme–Guyana and its team are working hard to keep the balance that has existed for generations between wildlife and those who rely on it. But as access to the Rupununi increases with extractive industries and commercial exploitation, it will be an ongoing battle to ensure it remains a healthy ecosystem for all.
The SWM Programme in Guyana is part of an initiative from the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM) and the French Development Agency (AFD). It is being implemented by a dynamic consortium of partners that includes CIFOR-ICRAF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). Its aim is to improve food security and the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife in forest, savannah and wetland environments in 15 countries.
In a live conversation for the Global Landscapes Forum, experts from the SWM Programme–Guyana came together to discuss the successes and challenges of running such an ambitious project in what is considered one of the world’s last great wild places. You can listen back below or watch the full interview here.
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Feature image: 20 February 2020, Rupununi river, Guyana – Leon Baird, 32, left, a villager who made his first river trip at the age of 10, and Herman Phillips, 63, use their bow near the Rupununi river. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images for FAO, CIRAD, CIFOR, WCS