The North Rupununi District is located in the South-West of Guyana Consisting of mostly forest, Savanna and an expanding length of wetland ecosystems that is considered one of the most diverse areas in South America. Located on the eastern margin of the larger savanna system which extends into Brazil and is separated by the Ireng and Takutu rivers that come together to form the Rio Branco.
The Rupununi Savannas stretches along a wide range of Pakaraima Mountains that borders Brazil and Venezuela. Across this huge plateau also stretches the Kanuku Mountain ranges that divides the Rupununi Savannas into two halves, namely the South Rupununi Savannas that is occupied by the Wapishiana and the Wai-Wai’s and the North Rupununi Savannas that is occupied by predominantly the Makushi tribe with a mixture of other tribes. Though there is a major geographical divide between the two districts, there has always been some amount of commonality of shared culture and values because of the recent intermixing of the two tribes and other tribes from either within or outside of the Region.
The Makushi and Wapishiana share similar characteristics but have minor differences that are either based on their political or religious affiliation, or simply because of the nature of their historical background. In both communities, wildlife represents a major local food source in the North and South Rupununi. Mammals and fish in particular provide the majority of the protein intake for the villagers. Fish has also been commonly known as an extremely important subsistence activity that helps generates a small income for individual homes.
Cassava is an important crop for the Wapishiana and Makushi Society. Wapishiana and Makushi women grate the cassava, extract its juice, sieve it, and then toast it on iron griddles that eventually turn into thick or sometime very thin flat breads. They make two types of cassava bread, one that is baked thin to be sold to local people and the other is usually baked thick (Arauca), that is usually consumed with hot pepper pot. They also farm sweet potatoes and other roots that are used to make their local drinks, squashes and dozens of different kinds of hot pepper, and numerous other crops. Wapishiana and Makushi men are in charge of hunting various animals, such as Deers, Peccary, Pacas, agoutis, tapir, armadillo, wild birds (Curassow) and other small birds.
Some time everyone in the family goes out fishing seasonally, mostly during the dry season when everyone are involved in catching fish and having a family outing. Wapishiana and Makushi men craft wooden stools and baskets, sieves (sifters), and squeezers (matapee) for use in the preparation of cassava by-products and other foods that is used as staple food for both communities. They also make arrow to hunt wild animals and also to catch fishes and they sometimes make traditional traps to hunt and catch the fish.
Traditionally, certain Wapishiana and Makushi men are specialist in healing the sick within the community. This is done when the health services cannot cure a certain sickness that an individual is suffering from. They men do this be beating leaves of a special tree and blew that eventually cures the sick person. They also use the same technique to make people sick or to kill them. In recent time, some Wapishiana or Makushi men admits to these rituals but only a small number of them actually follow the rituals, but a numbers of men and women still do perform a sort of curing to sick person in the community. The change in the practices is simply because of the introduction of different religious denominations that have infiltrated most of the communities with an attempt to change the mindset of the people from rituals to a more spiritual doctrine.
The Makushi and the Wapishiana speak their traditional language in their communities, in their home and with their neighbors. Parents usually speak their local language with their children as a means of sustaining and keeping it alive. They also tend to pass on their knowledge to their children as a way of preparing them to deal with some of the challenges within their villages.
Most of the communities do subsistence farming to sustain their families and to help generate income. Over the decades, most the communities practice shifting cultivation that has been considered a minor environmental problem to the ecosystem. It has proven to be environmentally friendly over the years and most communities are/have recognized the importance of their environment and the services that it provides. As such, communities over the recent years have been actively involved in programs that promote conservation practices and identifying key indicators of Natural Resources that could be of value to the communities.
Cattle and balata latex industries were the economic mainstay of the area from the 1900s to the 1980s. Since then, tourism has grown slowly as has the interest in conserving this global treasure through the work of conservation International and Iwokrama Centre, WWF and other communities based Non-governmental Organization and with support from some major governmental organization. These organizations over the years have worked in both communities to promote economic opportunities through conservation imitative, tourism being one of the most lucrative businesses that could be developed both in the North and the South Rupununi. However, the Government has recently entertained the idea of large scale agricultural initiative and small scale development in Lethem that is a main town of the Rupununi, where most of the commercial activities are done and other services are provided. The establishment and strengthening of the Georgetown-Lethem road is designed to support increase access to the areas which will also bring major development challenges for local communities. Communities of both areas are in pursuant of developing their own initiatives to “make use of the road before the road makes use of them.”
Aside from subsistence and economic value, the North Rupununi also features prominently indigenous culture and folklore through various media and has a significant aesthetic value, serving as a primary place of recreation for local residents. Although communities in the South and North Rupununi have legal title to some of their traditional lands, all of the communities currently practice customary user rights to their surrounding land and resources, which is a part of their rights and traditional heritage.
The North Rupununi may have a historical comparative advantage in Conservation and Tourism development than the South Rupununi, the challenge lies within major development in the Region. Although the impacts of Communities on Biodiversity have been relatively low, there are several growing threats to biodiversity and to the integrity of the area. Notably the construction of the cross border Takutu River Bridge to Brazil, improvement of the Linden-Lethem Road which runs through the North Rupununi and near the Kanuku Mountain, through the long stretches of the Rupununi Savannas, allowing increased access to natural resources, increased population in Lethem, the nearest town to the Kanuku, Fire, over-harvesting of wildlife in commercial quantities for sale to the coast and brazil, illegal wildlife trade and the recently renewal of the license for drilling for oil in the Takutu Basin remains a potential threat to the ecosystems and the environment. Major development in both communities can also have major impact on the integrity of the environment and the people.
COBRA is a collaborative research project that will attempt to understand the way local communities in the North Rupununi works and function as a community using the system viability analysis to develop Adaptive management of their resources to new models of development. The project will help communities understand their current situation, how they exist, flex, adapt, and how they can partner to deal with future development and challenges. This will be captured using participatory video of persons telling the real story from the community perspective. On the other hand the process will attempt to help local communities to find local solution based on their current situation focusing on future scenarios.