September 25, 2016

Indigenous women, custodians of our rainforest

BY ANNA CORREIA

The advent of policies geared towards the fight against climate change in the ‘90s did not only birth new markets, but also, forced us to rethink development strategies and ways of life. Climate change has become a problematic embroiled in the socioeconomic development of countries, some of which advance faster than others depending on their capacity and willingness to engage in promoting green economies.
In Guyana, the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) is the first initiative to have set the tone of the country’s commitment to fighting climate change. It is an exemplary stance in a region where the Amazon rainforest remains under threat, due to the immense reserve of natural resources sheathed under its green blanket. However, policies penned with climate change in mind often exclude the first victims of this global phenomenon who ironically, are the very people to hold a key role in preserving whatever green is left of the continent’s forest: indigenous peoples.
While the LCDS limits the destruction and degradation of Guyana’s forest, mining and logging are still permitted, and the impact on the environment is first felt by Amerindians. Last week, the Toshao of Tasserene, Region 7, called out to the Government of Guyana to intervene in resolving the negative consequences of mining in his community, as it relates to the pollution by miners of his people’s main water source, the Tasserene Creek. The Akawaios of Tasserene are now forced to use insalubrious water for cooking, drinking, washing and bathing. This scenario is replicated in almost every other indigenous community encumbered by mining. But because they are the ones who carry out most of the household chores, indigenous women are forced first-hand to endure the environmental destruction of their habitations.
In addition to having to cope with the pollution which invades their homes, indigenous families must also put strenuous efforts into walling out the decadence which accompanies the establishment of mining camps. The rates of prostitution and Trafficking in Persons (TIP) are as elevated in mining districts as they are in Georgetown, if not higher. In addition to constituting a thriving market for prostitution, mining districts have also become a hub for TIP. The case of Imbaimadai and its “Kaymu” (make-shift brothels generally operated by women from the city) exemplifies the increasing vulnerability of indigenous women, as families living in neighbouring villages cower under worry for the lives of their daughters. Former Toshao Alvin Joseph of Tasserene, in July 2015, had pointed out his concern that the new shops established 20 minutes away from his community, were luring young girls away from their homes. He had described alcoholism to be rampant in the camps.
Alcoholism and substance abuse plague mining camps, and the victims of TIP and prostitution are the first to succumb. A visit to Port Kaituma in Region 1 or Bartica in Region 7 would reveal the same disturbing issues. Yet, the weak policies in place limit the capacity of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) to enforce law and order and contain such illegalities in mining districts. Laxity of national institutions in this regard also bars from adequately addressing the issue.
Mining does not only affect the environment, it infiltrates the very social fabric of indigenous societies, irreversibly destroying centuries of accumulated heritage, culture and ways of life, vectored and pillared by women.
In an age where the fight for natural resources accelerates and opposes efforts to contain global warming, neglecting to factor in the importance of indigenous peoples does not only testify of the myopia of national policies, but also, of indifference regarding the empowerment of indigenous women.
Distributing “shoes that grow”, bicycles, buses and other momentary hand-outs for instance, remains a nonsensical concept, if indigenous societies continue to be destroyed by environmental degradation and destruction. What indigenous women need is the preservation of the environment in which their societies are anchored, so that their children may be able to develop and grow in pace with the rest of the country, in this regional race for development.
The indigenous daughters of Guyana are the first custodians of our rainforests, and as such, the policies we craft must alleviate the challenges thrown at them by mining. Such policies which accentuate the importance of women in promoting a green economy, will be the materialisation of the Government’s genuine commitment to fight global warming.

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