Sustainability, Biodiversity Conservation and Indigenous Peoples: Community-Owned Solutions to Future Challenges in the Guiana Shield, South America
Submitting InstitutionRoyal Holloway, University of London
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Studies In Human Society: Other Studies In Human Society
Summary of the impact
This case study concerns the development, adoption and dissemination of
approaches to the sustainable management of social-ecological systems
(SES) within the
Guiana Shield region of South America. Spanning the countries of Guyana,
Guiana and areas of Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia, this region is of
significance for carbon storage, fresh water resources and biodiversity.
Its indigenous, Amerindian
communities have a potentially crucial role to play in sustainable
conservation policy and practice.
However, local economic and cultural changes, extractive industries, and
global dynamics such as
climate change are bringing profound challenges to these local communities
and their SES.
Research at Royal Holloway has responded to these challenges by involving
indigenous peoples in
both biodiversity science and sustainability policy. The work allows
indigenous communities to
identify, through participatory research methods, the most effective
practices they have for
surviving and thriving sustainably.
The impacts of the research are of four main types:
- The use of research data and approaches in shaping local, national and
- The production of `community-owned' solutions to the socio-ecological
challenges faced by
- Intensive `capacity building' via training of local researchers, the
promotion of local `champions'
of successful best practices, and the support of autonomous action
research by communities;
- Enhancing public understanding of conservation in the region,
especially via primary education.
The underpinning research has been led by Dr Jay Mistry at Royal Holloway
Geography 1999-2006, Senior Lecturer 2007-present), working in
collaboration with other
academics, civil society organisations and indigenous communities. The
central concept running
through the work is that natural resource management should not be a
top-down implementation of
external expertise, but must involve active local participation building
upon indigenous knowledges
and practices. In turn, the research resists casting those indigenous
knowledges and practices as
part of pristine socio-ecological systems that need protecting from
external forces of
modernisation. Rather, it understands them as living, future oriented
forms of `social memory' that
can identify effective practices for sustainable development different
from those delivered by top-down
approaches. As such the work has developed through an innovative
environmental monitoring and social science methods, particularly
associated with participatory
action research (PAR) techniques.
The first phase of research (see Section 3, References 1 & 2,
Research Grants 1 & 2) involved
collaboration with indigenous people in the North Rupununi region of
Guyana to provide in-depth
spatial and temporal data sets on a complex SES. Unique baseline data was
collected on key
indicator species (fish, birds and crocodilians), their wetland / forest /
(habitat characteristics and flooding regime), and critically, the links
with local livelihoods and
cultures (e.g. fishing practices). This collaborative work combined direct
with survey of local knowledge, and provided detailed empirical evidence
for key ecological
processes determining the health of SES across the Guiana Shield.
The second stage of research, supported primarily by the DEFRA Darwin
Grants 2 & 4), focused on the sustainable management of the Rupununi
region of Guyana. The
project involved formal collaborations with key stakeholders, including:
the North Rupununi District
Development Board (NRDDB), an umbrella organisation for indigenous
communities and their
legally elected community leaders; the Iwokrama International Centre for
and Development (IIC), a not-for-profit organisation focused on managing
the 371,000ha Iwokrama
Forest; and international NGOs including WWF-Guianas and Conservation
International (CI). The
project developed the North Rupununi Adaptive Management Process (NRAMP).
NRAMP involved a systems based approach to sustainability management
Practically, rather than a plan devised and imposed by experts, NRAMP
operates as a problem-based
decision-making tool through which individuals, communities and
institutions can manage
day to day livelihood activities and natural resource management scenarios
The third phase of research developed new approaches in participatory
research, establishing new
ways of working with and for indigenous communities. An ESRC-funded
project (Research Grant
3) examined the potential of digital technologies in general, and video in
particular, for participatory
research (see also Reference 5). A British Academy funded project then
visual methods (PV) to research the `social memories' of the Makushi
people of Guyana (Research
Grant 5, Reference 6). `Social memory' refers to representations of the
past that are commonly
shared and that shape a community's understanding of present and future
research concluded that PV was an effective tool for surfacing, recording
indigenous peoples' social memories, and engaging them in natural resource
The final phase of the research has brought these approaches together in
`Community Owned Best practice for sustainable Resource Adaptive
management in the Guiana
Shield, South America' (Research Grant 6). Organisationally, led by Mistry
the project involves a
consortium of 10 partners and 30 project staff across Europe and S.
America. Within the Guiana
Shield, collaborators include not only the NRDDB, IIC, WWF and CI, but
also Brazilian based
organisations, including: APITIKATXI, which represents the communities of
Indigenous Reserve; and Equipe de Conservacao da Amazonia (ECA), through
leaders and Brazilian professionals represent indigenous peoples in the
Substantively, the project deploys a participatory research process that
combines `system viability
analysis' (SVA) of the SES and PV work on social memory, to identify `best
practices' that are
owned by the community and can be championed by local community members or
References to the research
1) Mistry, J., Simpson, M., Berardi, A. and Sandy, Y. (2004). Exploring
the links between natural
resource use and biophysical status in the waterways of the North
Rupununi, Guyana. Journal of
Environmental Management, 72: 117-131.
2) Mistry, J., Berardi, A. and Simpson, M. (2008). Birds as indicators of
wetland status and change
in the North Rupununi, Guyana. Biodiversity and Conservation, 17:
3) Mistry, J., Berardi, A., Simpson, M., Davis, O. and Haynes, L. (2010).
conservation and development projects as viable social-ecological systems:
assessing the impact
of the North Rupununi Adaptive Management Process, Guyana. Geographical
Journal, 176: 241-252.
4) Mistry, J., Berardi, A., Roopsind, I., Davis, O., Haynes, L., Davis,
O. and Simpson, M. (2011).
Capacity building for adaptive management: a problem-based learning
approach. Development in
Practice, 21: 190-204.
5) Mistry, J. and Berardi, A. (2012). The challenges and opportunities of
using participatory video in
geographical research: a case study exploring collaboration with
indigenous communities of the
North Rupununi, Guyana. Area, 44: 110-116.
6) Mistry, J., Berardi, A., Haynes, L., Davis, D., Xavier, R. and
Andries, J. (2013). The role of social
memory in natural resource management: insights from participatory video.
Transactions of the
Institute of British Geographers, early view online, doi:
These outputs were supported by the following peer-reviewed research
1) 2000, £1,750: Royal Geographical Society (Expedition Grant) (Mistry
assessment of changing land use on river ecosystems in SW Guyana'.
2) 2003-2006, £132,000: DEFRA (Darwin Initiative) (Mistry Co-PI).
`Sustainable management of
the Rupununi: linking biodiversity, environment and people'.
3) 2005-2006, £45,000: ESRC (E-Social Science Small Grant) (Mistry
Electronic / Ecological Collaborative Sensemaking Support System'.
4) 2006-2008, £106,000: DEFRA (Darwin Initiative, Post-Project) (Mistry
Co-PI). `The North
Rupununi Adaptive Management Plan: assessing the impacts and building
5) 2007-2008, £7,500: British Academy (Small Grant) (Mistry Co-PI).
`Exploring the adaptive
capacity of the Makushi "social memory", Guyana'.
6) 2011-present, €1.9 million: EU (Seventh Framework Programme) (Mistry
owned best practice for sustainable resource adaptive management in the
Guiana Shield, South
Details of the impact
A. Use of research data and approach in policy initiatives.
The unique baseline data on the Rupununi SES established in phase 1 of
research has been widely drawn upon. Examples include: i) Guyana
Agency's (EPA) National Water Quality Monitoring Plan; ii) WWF-Guianas's
application for the
North Rupununi Wetlands to be recognised as a RAMSAR (Wetland of
(see Section 5, Source 1, p.i); iii) Conservation International's (with
Guyana's Protected Areas
Commission) gap analysis identifying critical conservation areas for the
country (see Section 5,
Contact 1); and iv) significant Environmental Impact Assessments and
management plans (e.g.
Ground Structures Engineering Consultants Inc  Ground Star Petroleum
Program in the North Rupununi, Environmental and Social Management Plan).
More generally, the
collaborative nature of the research has embedded its findings with key
Guyana in particular, informing their ongoing activities. Notably, the
EPA's Fourth National Report
to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2010) not only recognises the
underpinning research as
`major projects and studies' (p.46) but, in setting out key areas of
progress made on Guyana's
National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, presents six case studies,
five of which concern the
NRDDB and / or IIC. Other organisations have taken up aspects of approach
and methods too.
Indicative is the Guiana Shield Facility (GSF), a US$2 million
transnational initiative which has
drawn on Project COBRA to shape its community engagement practice (Contact
2). The project
team has published a number of briefings for environmental organisations
on best practice for
participatory work with indigenous peoples (Source 2).
B. The facilitation of `community-owned' solutions to the
socio-ecological challenges faced
by indigenous communities.
This has been achieved by the provision of decision-making tools,
participatory processes and
`best practices'. The North Rupununi Adaptive Management Process (NRAMP)
is indicative here.
Its direct importance to local indigenous communities within the North
Rupununi region can be
confirmed by the NRDDB (Contact 3). Indirectly, it also became a model
used in other community
centred projects, including the International Union for Conservation of
Nature's (IUCN) community
based natural resource management initiatives in Guyana (Contact 4) and
the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) GSI project on ecosystem services education
(Source 3). With
reference to Project COBRA, indicative community feedback (from February
2013) on the impacts
of the participatory research process can be accessed at http://projectcobra.org/community-feedback-on-project-cobra/
(Source 2). It is notable that the respondents consistently frame the
process in terms of personal interest, cultural affirmation, involvement
and material / practical
value. This combination speaks to the community ownership of the research
process. By the end
of the assessment period, findings from Project COBRA have delivered
specific, community owned
`best practices' for wider championing. Those developed in Brazil fall
outside the REF2014
assessment period, but by the end of July 2013 the 6 key best practices
and their champions in the
North Rupununi, Guyana had been identified and communicated within the
communication took place in August 2013) (Source 2; Contact 3 can speak
further to their
significance). These range from fishing practices to community radio. They
are now being
communicated by their champions across the Guiana Shield region.
C. Intensive `capacity building' via training of local people.
The promotion of local `champions' for successful best practices within
Project COBRA builds on a
longer track record of capacity building. Capacity building courses
developed by the Darwin
Initiative projects were launched in 2008. To date over 120 community
leaders and others have
undertaken the eleven day intensive North Rupununi Adaptive Management
Course. Those trained in turn disseminate good practice to a population of
around 8000 people in
one of the most diverse and significant ecosystems in South America. The
Course has five elements that address: animal / human conflict for
resources; overharvesting; food
and water security; land rights; and livelihood enterprise development.
These included training on
collaborative natural resource management, participatory processes and
monitoring, data analysis, GIS and project management (Source 4). This has
contributed to the development of a `community of natural resource
managers' with clear career
and skills trajectories, that can be mapped as people progressed to work
in local initiatives, as
private consultants, in the university sector, in international research
projects and in civil society
organisations (Contact 4). In addition, the capacity building has helped
local community groups to
develop their own research projects and get further funding, through, for
for further caiman monitoring and Cleveland Zoo, USA for river turtle
management. The innovative
resources and approaches used in the training have also been embedded in
the local community
governance structures, as part of natural resource management planning
under the coordination of
the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs. They are also being used within the
Ranger and Environmental
Officer training courses run by the IIC and the University of Guyana.
D. Enhancing public understanding of conservation in the region,
primary education initiatives.
Teacher lesson plans and student materials developed in research grants 2
& 4 were incorporated
into the Guyana national curriculum for primary schools, grades 5 and 6
(Source 5). Since their
introduction in 2008-9 these lessons have been taught to around 40,000
primary school children.
Funding by the British High Commission in Guyana allowed these school
packs to be printed and
distributed through the Ministry of Education to over 100 primary schools
in the interior of Guyana
(Contact 5). Public understanding has also been enhanced by the production
focused ecotourism resources launched in 2008 at the end of the DEFRA
project. An ecotourism
guide book, together with tourist maps, provides key information on
and is a small revenue earning resource for the local communities / NRDDB.
Via Project COBRA,
local communities trained in participatory video have initiated the
production of films to disseminate
their stories and raise awareness. This includes short films on
human-crocodilian conflicts, turtle
conservation, local folklore myths and the importance of forests. The
films have been used to
increase awareness at local, national and international level. In March
2013, the forest film was
presented to the United Nations by the people of the North Rupununi on the
occasion of the 2013
International Day of Forests (Source 2).
Sources to corroborate the impact
1) For the use of baseline data by WWF, see WWF Guianas (2012) `Wetlands
of Guyana: an
insight into the ecology of selected wetlands with recommendations from
WWF Guianas' (WWF
Guianas, Suriname) (acknowledgement on p.i).
2) On Project COBRA see http://projectcobra.org.
Specifically, for the best practice guidelines on
participatory research with indigenous peoples see those posted at
for community feedback see http://projectcobra.org/community-feedback-on-project-cobra/;
for details of the six best practices being championed in North
Rupununi see http://projectcobra.org/best-practices/;
for the forest film presented to the UN see
3) For a wider use of NRAMP see Roopsind I et al (2010) `Ecosystem
modules', GSI Project, UNDP, Guyana. 42pp.
4) Further details on the NRAMP Community Course: http://digirep.rhul.ac.uk/file/03c9a083-d1f4-4293-dc56-f3b477449e3a/4/Community_course_2008_NRAMP.pdf
5) Further details on the primary school lesson plans: http://digirep.rhul.ac.uk/file/41ca1959-53b5-2d5a-cecf-8e292b6c04cc/4/Wetland_School_Guide_NRAMP.pdf
1) On the use of Rupununi baseline data: Biodiversity Analyst,
2) On the use of Project COBRA best practice guidelines on indigenous
Chief Technical Advisor, GSF, UNDP.
3) On the impacts of both NRAMP and Project COBRA on indigenous
communities: Chair of
4) On the contribution to the training of local researchers: Anon.,
5) On the lesson plans distributed to primary schools in Guyana: Senior
Natural Resources Management Division, Environmental Protection Agency,