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    Iwokrama reserve: A Case for Sustainable Biodiversity


    International Trade Forum - Issue 1-2/2008 
    Click here to see the slide show 

    © Simon Rawles The Makushi people of Iwokrama fish using traditional methods. In Iwokrama, traditional life and the modern world co-exist
    Click here to see the slide show

    An ancient tribe in the Guyanese rainforest has joined forces with scientists and business to prove their forest is worth more alive than cut down

    Archer Boyes turns quickly and points to the red-billed toucan perched on a treetop in the canopy. He stares in silence, then, after a little while, bows his head. 'A part of me is sad whenever I see these beautiful birds. They are vulnerable creatures and for many years I was not kind to them.'

    Not long ago, the 35-year-old Amerindian from Guyana would trap exotic birds to sell for a few dollars to unscrupulous tourists. It was easy money for a young man with no other way to make ends meet. Today, Boyes still makes a good living off the toucan, and the other rare species found in Guyana's rainforest; only now he is helping preserve endangered wildlife and their habitat.

    Boyes' transformation is thanks to an intriguing experiment in the heart of the Guyanese interior. The Makushi tribe, to which he belongs, has joined forces with international business and leading scientists in a bid to save this vast pristine rainforest. Some environmentalists call it one of the most important sustainable forest management programmes on the planet.

    The project is run by the Iwokrama International Centre (IIC), an autonomous rainforest conservation and development organization based in Guyana, whose headquarters is in a clearing in the forest surrounded by thick canopy and winding tribituries. The Iwokrama reserve is home to some of the world's rarest birds and animal species. By day, toucans, parrots and rare swallows colour the sky. At night, the fear-inducing call of howler monkeys fills the darkness. It is here that top scientists and management consultants from all corners of the globe rub shoulders with local indigenous people. The latter are equipped with centuries of invaluable knowledge about the rainforest and its biodiversity. Together they are developing the ecoservices of the forest by blending ancient knowledge with cutting-edge science and business expertise.

    The aim is to make the forest profitable through ecotourism, sustainable timber harvesting and intellectual property. In tandem with this, they want to protect the rainforest and its biodiversity, and provide its inhabitants with livelihoods and local communities with health and education resources.

    'Iwokrama is like a broker between the local communities, who have traditional knowledge, and the private sector, who have resources like marketing, financial capital and commercial experience,' says Dane Gobin, director of the IIC. 'This relationship has often been skewed in favour of the private sector. We are saying, "Look, you both have the resources, let's see if we can do this sustainably, and share the benefits equally."'

    Victor Aying, a village chief, is one such beneficiary. Aying works for the IIC and trains in Iwokrama's management program. 'Iwokrama has taught us a better way of earning a living from our natural resources. If we can make a profit from our natural resources in a healthy way, we have no need to destroy them,' he says.

    Village elder Fred Allicock lounges on the steps of his large wooden house that nestles in the rolling hills of the savannah on the edge of the forest. 'The Makushi people accept the world is changing,' he says. 'The forest has sustained us for centuries, it is our supermarket, our bank, our pharmacy. Everything we need we get from the forest - we hunt, we use trees for timber, fruit for medicine, vines for furniture, bows and arrows to help us catch our food. But for us to survive, and safeguard our traditional way of life, we must modernize and adapt. But at our own pace.'

    The modern and the traditional can co-exist, says Samantha James, a social scientist and outreach worker for the IIC. 'The same people who know how to find, stalk, kill an animal, cook it and smoke it so that it's preserved, will tomorrow morning come to work dressed all nice and neat, turn on the computer, check their email and work on research programs,' she says. 'You'll hear people around here talk about collaborative management, sustainable development and benefit sharing. Come Saturday morning, you'll see them fishing in the river with traditional indigenous skills that are learned over a lifetime. It's quite impressive.'

    Much hinges on the outcome of Iwokrama, say experts. The very concept of sustainable development - the idea that the earth's life support system can survive the modern world - will be determined by whether or not Iwokrama succeeds, says Gobin. 'The goal of the IIC is to earn its keep - to replace donor funding with income earned from sustainable business,' he says. 'If we fail, the forest will not remain as a protected area, and one will argue that sustainable development is a myth. Succeed, and we will prove sustainable forest management works.'