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How climate change is affecting indigenous staple in Guyana

Climate change threatens food security globally, and Guyana, especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, is no exception.

Can climate-smart agricultural practises help turn their fortunes around?

Climate change is having a huge impact on food security in many parts of the world, and Guyana is no different. In fact, Guyana is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise caused by global warming.

While significant work continues to be undertaken by the government to strengthen existing and build new sea defence structures and implement other mitigating measures, indigenous people residing in the interior region of Guyana face enormous challenges.

Cassava is a main staple crop central to indigenous farming systems and is used to make a variety of drinks and foods. But in recent years, massive flooding caused by sea level rise and unpredictable weather patterns has severely impacted the future of this crop in many indigenous villages, particularly in Middle Mazaruni, Region Seven.

The middle Mazaruni district, although known for mining activities, has some level of subsistence farming that feeds several villages.

Derrick John, Chairman of the National Toshoa’s Council (NTC), a constitutional body of elected representatives for the more than 20,000 indigenous people in Guyana, said this phenomenon is affecting subsistence activities.

“We have seen the impact climate change is having on our lives and livelihoods,” he added.

Pointing to a massive flood in 2021 that devastated several parts of the country, with the Mazaruni facing the brunt of the damage, John said these incidents pose a real threat to food security in the interior, particularly in areas susceptible to flooding.

The NTC chairman said, “A vast number of farms we depend on for our food were literally washed away. And cassava and provisions—when these things are under water, it tends to destroy the entire crop, which in effect affects our main source of food supply,” he stated.

In explaining that many of the indigenous villages don’t have storage bonds, John also reminded that cultural subsistence strategies are instrumental in the survival of their villages and the provision of food.

From planting until harvest, the entire growth period of a cassava plant takes a minimum of eight to 11 months to complete. While there are many varieties, indigenous people use traditional planting methods, using the stem of the cassava to replant.

But if a crop of cassava is inundated, it could lead to these stems being destroyed. The cassava stems could also rot from being waterlogged.

Based on discussions with toshoas from various villages, the NTC head said there is no doubt there is a shortage of cassava not only in Middle Mazaruni but in other parts of the country.

In Region Nine, people depend on ferine, a multi-usage grain derived from the root of the cassava, for food. But John said there is no longer an abundance of these products due to the shortage of cassava.

“Based on the change in weather patterns, the people can’t make their food, and this is also to say that all ten administrative regions across the country are feeling the effects climate change is having on their main staple.

Recognising the effects of climate change on this crop, the Ministry of Agriculture made significant interventions. In 2021, the government assisted farmers with flood relief grants to villages in the Middle Mazaruni, which include Isineru, Kanagrauma, and Tasserene.

Subject Minister Zulfikar Mustapha has said the government is cognizant of the fact that these indigenous villages face ten times more challenges than those on the coast, where materials and equipment are more accessible.

But he noted that significant work has been done to ensure that those affected are given the assistance they need to get back on their feet.

Climate change threatens food security globally, and Guyana, especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, is no exception.
An indigenous (Amerindian) woman peeling freshly harvested cassava from her farm in Region Seven, Guyana. (Guyana Tourism Authority photo)

In 2022, approximately GYD$4 million in tools and seeds were distributed to farming groups for agriculture advancement in Region Seven. The National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA), through the Agriculture Ministry, also carried out major drainage and irrigation works that were requested by farmers.

Further, the government has begun the development of several measures to promote climate-smart practises in the agriculture sector. Drip irrigation, greenhouse cultivation, crop rotation, and diversification are also among the measures.

There are also plans to strengthen the National Hydrometeorological Office to provide farmers with access to short, medium, and long-term weather and climate forecasts that aid the farming community in its decision-making process.

These strategies all form part of a wider plan to ensure food security and sustainability in indigenous and hinterland villages.

Despite these efforts, Chairman of the Regional Democratic Council (RDC) of Region Seven, Kenneth Williams, said the unpredictable weather and sporadic heavy showers are also creating another challenge to ensuring the sustainability of crops.

He agrees that massive floods caused by climate change are no doubt affecting indigenous villages, including those within his purview. Williams explained that there have been a series of minor floods that continue to negatively impact people.

“Some of those floods have affected all and sundry tremendously, especially indigenous villages, and many of these crops and their staple diet, cassava, a lot of it were destroyed and continue to be destroyed,” he added.

If there is excessive rain and high tide, Williams said these indigenous villages will be tremendously affected. The RDC chairman said the issue was discussed in detail at a recent RDC meeting, where they examined ways in which they could devise a comprehensive plan to tackle the issue with support from the central government and support organisations.

When the farmlands are flooded, not only does it affect the daily food supply for indigenous communities, but it also affects small business owners who produce (some in small quantities) cassava bread, cassareep, a common ingredient in Guyanese sauces, farine, and other by-products of cassava.

Williams said these challenging weather patterns also have a ripple effect on the village economy.

“When the young people see that their main staples are destroyed and there is less income for the household and food, through farming and so on, and it’s affected, they leave and go into gold mining and everything else.”

Nevertheless, the RDC chairman said his office works closely with supporting agencies like the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) and the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) to ensure that farmers are provided with planting materials and other types of support whenever their farmlands are destroyed.

In the coming weeks, the NAREI will be conducting training activities with farmers on various cropping techniques, pest control, and farm management.

Chief Executive Officer of NAREI, Jagnarine Singh, also disclosed that in the NAREI programme for this year, the Institute will supply these villages with casava planting materials and other agricultural inputs.

“In 2021, due to the flooding, there was a decrease in cassava production in the hinterland regions of Guyana; since then, the Ministry of Agriculture through NAREI has made significant interventions in providing cassava planting materials in Regions 1 and 9.”

NAREI has provided approximately 27 metric tonnes of cassava planting material, also working with villages to share planting among its farmers; this has seen a slight increase in cassava production in the hinterland region.

He said, “To boost cassava production in the hinterland region, the Institute will supply an additional 25 metric tonnes of cassava planting materials to indigenous communities urgently in need.”

An agriculture extension officer is also working with cassava farmers in various villages, encouraging them to continue sharing the surplus planting materials with other needy farmers.

But Toshao for Taserene, Alvin Joseph, is also concerned about the unpredictable weather patterns, explaining that there was another flooding in May of this year that affected Middle Mazaruni, causing major destruction to crops and livestock.

“One day it’s sunny, and another day it’s too much rain… The unpredictable weather pattern has impacted agriculture especially, and with cassava being a main staple, many people’s farms have been destroyed,” he explained.

The indigenous village leader said while other crops like bananas, plantains, and eddoes are also grown in the small village of 416 residents, those too are destroyed due to the constant flooding caused by unusually heavy downpours.

Herlinda Spencer, the Community Development Officer for Middle Mazaruni, agrees that climate change is having its worst impact on indigenous Guyanese villages, particularly their main staple.

But she notes that the issue is not just specific to Taserene but also in other indigenous villages in nearby Region Eight and Nine, among others.

“Whether it is the Middle Mazaruni or the entire Region Seven and Eight combined, residents are faced with this huge problem where their crops, especially cassava, are destroyed by flooding.”

She said many of them have even given up on farming and are instead depending on the commercial goods that are shipped from the city to the region.

Spencer said people are now purchasing “things that they grew on their farms” from these other sources, something the youth officer explained has never been done before.

As for now, the exercise of replanting seems to be a fixed routine for these indigenous people, given the unpredictable weather caused by climate change, but it is yet to be seen if the new forms of support in terms of new agricultural climate-smart practises in the agriculture sector will help to turn their fortunes around.

This story was published by Caribbean News Service with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Samuel Sukhnandan

Samuel Sukhnandan

Samuel is a Guyanese journalist, news anchor, and editor, who has worked in broadcast, print, and online journalism for over a decade. During this time, he has covered several important beats including politics, economics/finance, parliamentary affairs, and energy, among others. Samuel also had stints working in two other Caribbean countries, namely St. Lucia and the British Virgin Islands. He is a Thomson Reuters Foundation alum, and currently a student in creative writing at IGNOU.

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