When Conquistadores Finally Prevail

by Geoffrey Clarfield (August 2012)

A few short years ago I took part in a medical mission to the Indians of highland Guyana. Unlike their Amerinidian brethren in Brazil the politicians of Guyana have more or less left them alone, until the last twenty years that is. However, during the last century, missionaries have brought a variety of Christianities to them and they are more and more moving from a life of isolation to one of national integration. In some ways their future may be as much of their own making as it is of the central government. These are my observations and musings based on those two weeks of traveling by boat, from village to village on the clear highland rivers of Guyana- a land that time forgot, until yesterday.

When Columbus and the later Conquistadores landed in the Caribbean they were not the beginning of the area’s history. The Spanish explorers were soon to discover that there was a previous conflict ongoing in the Caribbean island region. This was a tribal war between Arawak and Carib Indians, the former who were in the process of dispossessing the latter of their homes, livelihoods and lives.

The arrival of the Europeans changed the dynamic between the two peoples. Soon both were enslaved by the new conquerors and forced to work on the island plantations. Having been hunters, gatherers and fisher folk they were not adapted to the stress and brutality of Spanish plantation life. Most of them died off leaving few survivors. Soon after, Europeans began to bring African slaves across the Atlantic in a wave of forced migration, much of which has given the Caribbean islands and their South American hinterland in the three Guyanas their character which endures to this day.

Although (formerly British) Guyana is a South American country it is really an Afro Caribbean country. Its character and lifestyles were established largely by African creoles who have given the country its Caribbean character, whereas the demographically dominant but later immigrants from the East Indies contributed to its political and economic growth and ipso facto its ethnic polarization. It is a society that is changing at a rapid pace.

Guyana is caught between three or even four social worlds; the Afro Caribbeans of the coastal areas, the East Indians of the coastal areas, the Amerindians of the interior and the impact of companies and governments based in North America, Western Europe and Asia. It goes without saying that the British imprint is still very largely felt as the country is still part of the Commonwealth, the British curriculum is still in evidence in the schools and all that is associated with “cricket” still lives on in Guyana.

The Amerindians of Guyana are related to the two ethnic groups who used to inhabit the Caribbean. The Akawaio, among whom various visiting medical volunteers have worked for so many years, are among the remote surviving groups of Carib Indians who were all but decimated by the conquistadores in the 16th Century. In order to understand the prospects of Amerindians of highland Guyana as well as the other Amerindian groups of Guyana, we have to look at both them and the state that they inhabit, that is modern Guyana in order to better understand them.

Guyana is a resource rich country. It has abundant diamonds, gold, bauxite, timber, water and agricultural products like rice. Yet the standard of living declines, population declines through emigration and as I witnessed firsthand, social and medical services are in poor shape, while the Aids epidemic quietly spreads through the region.

It is clear that the massive revenues from the private sector do not get translated into better social services for the majority of citizens. This in itself fuels emigration and the brain drain that affects all expertise in Guyana, including the medical profession.

Although significant numbers of Amerindians have worked with the Dutch and later the British in the supervision and persecution of the Afro Caribbean and other Amerindian peoples of Guyana, some of them also became slaves. However, most of the peoples of highland Guyana have lived lives isolated from the rest of the country until quite recently.

The Amerindians of the Guyanese interior such as the Akawayo were once under British administration and were saved by that from the evictions and massacres that occurred and have continued to occur among Amazonian Indians in other Latin American countries. Part of this is because there was, and is no demographic push from the coast, quite the opposite. So the Amerindians of the Guyanese interior have largely been left to their own devices and to those of the missionaries that have lived among them and converted most of them to various kinds of largely Protestant Christianity.

This means that these are now cultures “in transition” or what some anthropologists call syncretistic cultures; that is a culture, lifestyle or world view that takes part of two cultures-in the religious sense between Amerindian Shamanism and Protestant Christianity.

This dichotomy between an ancestral and egalitarian Amerindian religion and the hierarchical nature of Christianity and Christian missions life, spills over into other domains of Akawayo life.

There is the life of the family farm and hunting as opposed to that of a life of wage labour or working in the mines. There is modern clothing opposed to traditional clothing. There is the use of English as opposed to the Akawayo language. There is the old culture of equality and sharing and the new one of personal risk and wealth accumulation. There is a contrast between feeding neighbours and extended family members and the inequalities that come with the adoption of a money based economy. This list of contrasts between “old and new scripts” (and scriptures) and most probably between a traditional and more modern attitude towards health, disease and well being could be expanded.

This transition is complicated by an earlier form of mixed religion called Hallelujah, a mixture of Christianity and Amazonian Indian beliefs that originated in Brazil some centuries ago and is now found in the villages in the highlands. For example in Juwalla village there is an active Hallelujah community of believers who are outside of the mainstream Adventist and Anglican folds.

Much of traditional Amerindian belief about the ultimate cause of disease is caught up in religious or magico religious belief and practices centring around herbal cures, shamans and shamanism. One cannot discount the relation between taboo and its violation and the diseases that may internally be believed to have arisen from such violations. In addition there is the phenomena that we may call “witchcraft,” beliefs and behaviour which the sufferers from disease may believe to be the ultimate cause of their misfortune or affliction.

Simply put, among Amerindians and even among creole Guyanese, the indigenous etiology of a disease can often be dramatically different than its diagnosis, meaning that the sufferer may feel that spirits cause an illness or that an illness was brought on by the violation of some religious or social taboo.

Guyanans call their indigenous peoples Amerindians. They divide them into nine distinct groups. Some of these however are mixtures of remnant groups that came together because of demographic decline or decline through some other reason, perhaps disease.

It is not surprising then that the Amerindians of Guyana comprise only 7% of the population. Unlike the peoples of Africa and Europe, until 1492, the Indians of the Americas did not have the resistance to many of the diseases of the Europeans and the later Africans who have occupied their lands. As a result, there have often been massive die outs of Amerindians even before they were politically assaulted by Europeans.

For example it is believed that the ruler of the Incas before Atahualpa may have died from diseases that moved from Conquistadores to the Incas before Pizarro even led his soldiers to Peru in his war of conquest. Ultimately, disease has been the great causal factor in the demographic decline and subsequent demographic marginalization of Indians in South America and Guyana in particular.

Although Akawayo villages are administered by the government through locally elected village captains and councils, the Akawayo have been a traditionally egalitarian society without the inherited chiefdoms and the great disparities of wealth, prestige and power that go with them. That is now changing.

In Guyana the largest group of Indians speak what linguists call Carib languages. Akawai is a dialect or language in this group.

Using the word “tribe” to describe the Akawayo may actually be misleading. In many cases we are probably  dealing with a group of people who share a common ancestor and therefore constitute what anthropologists call “clans.” For those of us familiar with the Bible we must remember that the tribes of Israel were really congeries of clans. Even Joshua and the Kings of Israel had great difficulty getting them to give their allegiance to a higher and more abstract level of tribal national unity, so it goes with Amerindians.

As Amerindians make up no more than seven per cent of the population of Guyana, which is about 47,000 people, surpisingly one of the few enlightened moves of the former Burnham government, which ruled Guyana on strict authoritarian socialist principles until his death in 1983, (some political scientists call it the Burnham dictatorship) was giving opportunity to many Amerindians to get higher education and work within the administration. So unlike Canada or the United States, Guyana has a significant minority of Amerindians in various positions in government. Nevertheless, the minister for Amerindian affairs is usually a non Amerindian. And yet we note that Amerindians are still a numerical majority in much if not most of the country’s sparsely settled interior.

In essence Guyana’s Amerindians are socially, culturally and politically marginal and peripheral in a state dominated by Guyanese of Indian, African or European extraction. These cultures look north to the rest of the Caribbean and not west into the interior, except for the extraction of wealth.

As most of the modern economic activity is on the coast, Amerindians have little access to this paid work. As a result most of their economy is based on subsistence and barter. What modern economists would call “material poverty” is the norm here.

However, during my visit to the highland interior I experienced security of person and fair degree of clan and community solidarity in the Akawayo home area. There one can sleep safely at night, whereas if you read the papers each day, you hear about the daily murders and killings on the coast and in Georgetown which the authorities are unable to prevent. You also read how this violence is spreading out from Georgetown. There are now armed bands of thieves on various rivers and the newspaper op-eds are filled with letters complaining about the inability of the government, the army and the police to provide safety for the average citizen – another reason why so many Guyanese migrate to Canada and the States.

Amerindian groups have a fair measure of internal political autonomy.

Like other villagers throughout the country they have their local captains and village councils that are elected every other year. Villagers told me that traditional leaders often are elected to these positions and so, traditional authority does not really conflict with modern authority systems which have been imposed by the government in all rural areas. This may be because of the integration of small numbers of Amerindians into the administrative system during the Burnham years. 

Amerinidans have organized a number of NGOs and activist groups that represent their interests. These NGOs include The Amerindian People’s Association (APA), Guyana Organization of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), the Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG) and the National Amerinidan Council. No doubt there are others.

The APA is the most dynamic of these new political formations which are outside of the traditional party lines. They organize in local village cells which culminate in national representation in Georgetown. All of them are pressing for reform of the Guyanese Amerindian Act which used to comprise Chapter 29 of the previous constitution.

In 1998 the political parties began the reform of Guyana’s Constitution and Amerindian reps participated in this process, getting much of their agenda addressed. However the central and most explosive issue has been and remains land and land rights.

The earlier Amerindian Act had many discriminatory conditionalities, the most important one being the exclusion of indigenous control of sub surface rights. This means that groups like the Akawayo do not have collective ownership of the gold and diamonds that are to be found in their lands. The fact that by law, river banks up to sixty feet from the water are really government property, also complicates the land security of villages and their houses. At the same, time alienation of any Indian lands can be carried out unilaterally by a government minister.

The borders of lands that were clearly owned by the Amerindians during the British period have not been demarcated. This allows for encroachment by outsiders such as the group of Brazilian miners who have been working in the Juwalla area for many years now.

The Akawayo, among whom I worked, and their neighbours the Arekuna have a joint land claim, claiming exclusive ownership of 11,000 square kilometres of the Upper Mazaruni river. Not surprisingly, the area was put under the Crown during colonial times to facilitate the entrance of British miners. In Waramadong village elders talked about Percival Pitt, a British miner who opened up the area to gold exploration before independence. This land claim began in 1998 in the Guyanese courts and is still outstanding.

As mentioned earlier, Burnham, who is often thought of as a dictator, gave opportunities to Amerindians. But he also caused the massive decline in the Guyanese economy through bureaucratic overregulation during his two decades in office. As a result, few companies could legally enter the interior to do business.

However, one can easily imagine the next scenario. The cold war is long over, Cuba is in decline, local elites have given up on one party socialism and in comes the World Bank to solve Guyana’s economic and social problems. Their solution to poverty in Guyana has been to encourage massive expansion of the mining and foresty sectors with the ostensible goal of the government then getting the necessary tax dollars to improve the national infrastructure and to provide better social services to its population, in the hope of also creating a middle class with an interest in democracy.

During the last fifteen years things have not worked out that way. Since the early 1990s timber and mining industries in Guyana have expanded their operations exponentially. The government has been unable or unwilling to monitor this activity and everone knows about the major Canadian mining company that spilled a pile of cyanide on the Essequibo river. In my lowland medical travels many of the medical problems suffered by residents near this river are probably the result of the cyanide spills caused by this company.

It was the result of an accidental discharge from the Omai gold mine in Central Guyana. It is a Canadian outfit that allowed 3.2 billion litres of cyanide laced water to enter the Essequibo river system more than a decade ago. Legal action has been filed for the estimated 23,000+ people who have been affected by the case. It has been in the courts for over ten years with no sign of a settlement.

By 1999 18% of Guyana’s pristine forest had been either cleared, or through selective cutting, being turned into secondary forest. 41 per cent of Guyana’s forests are now under threat from logging companies. Timber cutting and mineral extraction are the greatest threats to Guyana’s forests. No doubt the effect on endemic plants and animals, that is biodiversity, is negative.

Mining for gold has had a long indigenous history in Guyana supported by archaeological excavation. During colonial times the gold industry was important until the decline of the local industry in the 1980s, largely for the political reasons alluded to above.

Since the early 1990s local mining has expanded in the Amerindian areas. These small operations are called “Pork knockers.” Local Akawayo now participate in this kind of mining and I witnessed gold digging dredges as I moved by boat from village to village. This  brings certain environmental threats to places like the upper Mazaruni.

For example, fish stocks have declined in the last twenty years.

Populations of wild animals are being hunted out. In a village like Kako, at least fifty men own shot guns and they claim to hunt wild animals every day. Much of the meat is sold off to local and foreign miners.

Subsistence agriculture can also suffer as local Amerindians become miners or work for other miners. The social results of all this change among Amerindians are:

  • growing economic inequality
  • the breakdown of traditional family systems
  • involvement of Amerindian women in prostitution
  • rising teenage pregnancy
  • increase in alchoholism
  • outmigration of young and married males

Many Amerindians have become small scale miners since this is their only way of joining the cash economy. At one level this is good news since it enables the Akawayo to participate in the cash economy and educate their children. In conversation with two such miners among the Akawayo they explained that in a bad year they could make as much as 24,000 Cnd through mining. This enabled one of them to send his two children to a private boarding school in Georgetown where school fees are high.

When you fly from Georgetown on the Atlantic coast to Kamarang in highland Guyana you look down on the landscape and you see endless, thick tropical forest punctuated by undulating tropical rivers. With a few exceptions you cannot see any signs of settlement. The land looks wild and pristine.

However at least 48% of the country’s natural forests have now been given out as concessions, largely to foreign logging companies. For example, 17,000 square kilometers of forest was allocated to the joint Malaysian/Korean Barama company. This deal managed to incorporate the lands of 1,200 Amerindians and four communities that actually had their title deeds, as well as many settlements that have yet to receive theirs. Obviously, in this case national economic interests overrode any other legal agreements. This is just one example.

The pattern seems to unfold like this. The government gives out concessions to foreign dominated companies. These concessions are in legal violation of earlier or even ongoing agreements with Amerindian communities. The health and biodiversity of the forest is threatened or destroyed. The environmental and social costs are then absorbed by the Amerindians. Some of them may be hired as labourers for these companies but they have little long term economic benefit from the relationship, as communal agreements are not honored by the government.

The loose regulatory framework established by the government allows for other kinds of abuses. “Exploratory logging concessions” are often turned into full scale logging concessions by the companies involved. The government is either unwilling or unable to monitor or reverse these facts on the ground.

For example the mostly Malaysian owned company called CASE-UNAMCO managed to illegally cut and sell timber from an exploratory concession that was valued at 7.5 million US dollars. It would appear that many of these abuses are correlated with companies based in the Far East as these robust economies with growth rates sometimes as high as 7 to 10 per cent a year must be fueled by cheap access to natural resources. The Amazon and Highland Guyans seems to be among these sources.

But Guyana is no longer, or perhaps it never was, an isolated, English speaking Afro and Indo Caribbean enclave on the Atlantic coast of the Amazon eco system. It is a neighbour of that “sleeping giant” Brazil, the politically explosive country of Venezuela and the tragic country of Columbia where drug lords used to run the remote interior for decades.

In conversations with a noted Guyanese journalist I was told that now that the cartels are being driven out of Columbia, they are setting up shop in Guyana since its porous borders and Atlantic coast make it an ideal transit point for drug smuggling. Indeed, one morning I awoke in Bartica to hear news of a poor woman who tried to smuggle narcotics through the airport but was caught by the security guards.

In Waramadong I was told the following story. An older Indian villager had somehow learnt to cook in European style. As a result he got a job with a Canadian mining outfit that was digging for gold and diamonds on top of Mount PiPi. From Waramadong to the mountain it is a day to three days by foot. I thought that the name must be Indian but he said it stood for Percival Pitt, a British miner who started the claim there in colonial times.

One day when the local staff had come back from the mountain to provision themselves, the Canadians were in Georgetown. It seems that the camp was empty. As there was no gold or diamonds in the camp the Canadians assumed there was nothing to lose. With precise timing bandits from over the border brought in helicopters and cranes and flew all of the equipment over to Colombia. The Canadian operation folded, but somehow the Venezuelan authorities captured and prosecuted the lot. They got thirty years each.

A month before the heist mysterious traders showed up in Waramadong with a bag full of American cash. They bought up whatever gold and diamonds local traders had for sale and asked them in detail where they had got it. It would appear that some of them had managed to get gold and diamonds from the area around the Canadian site. The mystery men disappeared. It is quite possible they had been the advance group preparing for the greater heist.

I rarely read about the Indians of Guyana in the Canadian press although Canadian companies are serious economic players in that country. I also suppose the Chinese would like to cut down all the forests and the government of Guyana would willingly oblige them, as there are only 800,000 people left in this almost empty country. When the tragedy is complete, the forest becomes savannah and we pay the environmental costs of this catastrophe, no doubt someone will turn out the lights when the last citizen immigrates or, when the Brazilians, through an exponential immigration wake up to find out that they are the majority. If that indeeds comes to pass then the conquistadores and their culture will have finally prevailed.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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