Endangered Waterworlds and the Right to Live in the Amazon

Stories from the Field

By Lise Cazzoli and Loïc Druenne

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; 

Omitted, all the voyage of their life 

Is bound in shallows and miseries

On such a full sea are we now afloat…

(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III, Lines 218-224)

For centuries, the Warrau people have navigated the mangrove swamps along Guyana’s Waini River. In the past, mangrove forests stretched further south to Georgetown; but every Sunday, as the people of Georgetown take their weekly stroll and dream along the sea defences facing the Atlantic Ocean, flying kites have replaced wild birds – the land surrenders to the sea. 

In September 2019, the Guyanese government reported that unprecedented high tides had overtopped coastal and river defenses and flooded several villages in the coastlands. In March 2018, Georgetown’s hospital had already flooded under similar circumstances, as Guyana is increasingly under threat of flooding. These events are fueling current global discourses highlighting the devastating, violent, and often dramatic effects of anthropogenic climate change, and the need to address them through 'war-like' measures. The current rhetoric of cooperation in this war against climate change eerily recalls Brutus’ call to act while the ratio of forces lies in our favour – a Shakespearean battle between free will and fate, in an era of environmental disruption and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, echoing among Northern Guyana’s mangrove swamps, the thunder of an upcoming storm shakes the coconut trees. The rainy season is lasting longer than usual, and the pathways leading to the satellite villages of the Moruca sub-district remain flooded. We are witnessing another kind of threat – one that is slow, barely visible. Like the crashing sounds of thunder, we can hear it, feel it soar in our veins before the rain runs off the earth. There truly is ‘a tide in the affairs of men’, but its violence lies in the way it washes the coast away, one wave at a time - it seems, slowly, to expose the vulnerabilities of our human condition.

Between August and September 2019, we traveled along Guyana’s coast with the hope of investigating how climate change, and sea-level rise in particular, is experienced by indigenous communities, and how this experience relates to broader patterns of inequality. Through this research trip, conducted in partnership with the Guyana Marine Conservation Society, we were hoping to show that effective climate change adaptation policies need to address environmental change in a way that expands people’s freedoms, and enables them to pursue the lives of their choosing.

Navigating Waterworlds

As is the case in many low-lying coastal nations, the people of Guyana have relied upon marine and forest resources since long before European exploration of the Atlantic coast in the 16th century. Guyana’s history has continuously been shaped and reshaped by its rivers and ocean, which have been channels for trade, colonisation, and the development of complex local economies. The country’s coastal plain, which is home to 90% of the country’s population and its main economic activities, lies between 0.5 and 1 meter below average sea levels As such, Guyana’s coastal communities can be referred to as 'waterworlds', a term coined by anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup to highlight that environmental change, beyond merely inducing the degradation of local landscapes and resource depletion, affects all aspects of life, as water can be seen as an organizing force governing local cultures, polities, economies and faith systems.

In order to understand these complex intricacies and how they are experienced by local communities every day, we first boarded a four-hour boat journey to the remote community of Warapoka. An island among mangrove swamps, Warapoka is populated mainly by members of the Warrau and Arawak tribes. Traditionally established in wall-less huts built on stilts on the banks of the Orinoco River, the Warrau, whose name literally translates into 'boat people', have a deep understanding of the river and its surrounding swamplands. Life on the island revolves around farming, harvesting products such as ité palm, crabwood oil or cassava; journeys by boat and canoe; and craft-making. Located a full 120 km from the ocean, Warapoka wouldn’t traditionally qualify as a coastal community. Given Guyana’s strong river network and low-lying lands, however, a slight rise in sea levels could have a direct and severe impact on the inland community. High tides can reportedly be felt as far as 150 km from the coast, and recent research has shown that processes of erosion and accretion can transform coastal and marine ecosystems, leading to a loss of biodiversity. This would greatly impact communities that, like Warapoka, live along rivers and rely heavily on fishing.

When asking the village councillors about their experience of climate change, however, a more nuanced image emerges, beyond these visible impacts. In recent years, they tell us, irregular rainfall has disrupted farming, traditionally pursued as another key subsistence activity, thereby increasing the community’s reliance on markets. Located in the Moruca sub-district – the largest Amerindian community in Guyana – and surrounded by wild savannahs, Warapoka is extremely remote. Its inhabitants sail to the nearby town of Santa Rosa – a two-hour speedboat ride away – to access the supermarket, the police station, the post office or the nearest hospital. Though the local health centre hosts a nurse and has access to 24-hour electricity, power in the rest of the village is only available in the evening in houses equipped with a generator. The inaccessibility of such services within the village, combined with an increased reliance on markets as a result of weather variability, puts Warapoka’s residents at risk of food insecurity and diseases. The local population, moreoever, is hardly heterogenous. While some families living along the Moruca river are self-sufficient and enjoy the proximity with nature that comes with island life, the younger generation sometimes chooses to pursue more globalized lifestyles. Climate change, combined with existing inequalities in the distribution of services and assets, makes it difficult for both these groups to pursue their chosen livelihoods.

Our research journey then took us on a five-hour boat journey to Almond Beach, a few kilometres away from the Guyana-Venezuela border. Our local counterparts had informed us that the community had been displaced by recurrent flooding in recent years, which makes it a contrasting case as the threat is much more imminent. Located on the Atlantic shore, Almond Beach, population 50, is completely isolated from other compounds and mainly composed of fishermen . Its residents also practice subsistence farming – including cassava – and harvesting – mainly coconuts. There is a primary school, and teenagers attend secondary boarding school in the nearest town, again a two-hour speedboat drive away. In 2017, the community was displaced by flooding and the entire village, including the school, had to be rebuilt a few hundred yards beyond where it previously stood. For the community and government officials, two hypotheses could explain the dramatically increased recurrence of floods: anthropogenic climate change leading to a rise in sea levels and subsequent erosion, or natural processes of erosion and accretion that has periodically shifted the coast for millennia. In the latter case, the sediments used to migrate further along the coast; however, according to community members, the coast seems to have simply been washed away. This is worrying as these sediments are integral to the functioning of the coastal ecosystem; their disappearance could lead to a loss in marine biodiversity, and hence affect people depending on fishing as subsistence activity.

 The Guyanese government and the local communities have taken steps to reduce these risks and a number of climate change adaptation policies are being implemented, with the aim to protect local biodiversity and livelihoods. Almond Beach, in particular, is located within the Shell Beach Protected Area (SBPA), one of Guyana’s three protected areas under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature . It is known to host Guyana’s largest and most intact mangrove forests as well as the nesting grounds of four endangered species of marine turtles. Established in 2011 through an extensive delineation and consultation process, the SBPA sets out to regulate the use of coastal resources. In doing so, it aims to protect marine turtles, whose eggs were traditionally harvested by local communities, and mangrove forests which act as a natural defence against high tides. The protection of mangrove forests is also increasingly popular in climate change adaptation programmes, as they also act as carbon sinks.

The indigenous communities living inside the SBPA are not entitled to the use of resources found on their ancestral lands, limiting their capacity to adapt to oncoming climate change. What’s more, discussing current challenges for the community with the Village Council that, despite having participated in the establishment of the SBPA, the community’s traditional environmental knowledge was summarily dismissed in the process. For instance, the traditional practice of setting fire to low-lying vegetation is now forbidden, despite its traditional purposes for clearing paths and curbing the rat population. Vegetation thus grows, and with it the number of invasive rats. Worse still, when fires occur naturally, thicker vegetation means flames soon reach overhanging trees, which ordinarily would be spared. The forest then takes longer to regenerate, consequently accelerating erosion because trees’ roots can no longer hold the soil against the action of the tides.