The Linden-Lethem trail is one of the most legendary roads in South America, and traveling its 276 miles transecting Guyana’s expansive interior is a rite of passage into the country. This gritty land artery is currently the only affordable transport link between urban Georgetown and the remote stretches of the Brazilian border. An overwhelming 80 percent of Guyanese territory bisected by the Linden-Lethem road is classified as wilderness, much of it only accessible by plane or boat. A variety of Amerindian populations dwell and work in these bioregions, which are home to black caimans, giant otters, tapirs, and harpy eagles. In recent years, global investors have promised to construct a new asphalt road to help move agricultural and mineral products from Brazil to international markets through Guyana’s ports. Supporters of such infrastructural investments see them as easing Guyana’s poverty by overturning decades of isolationist policies. But others argue that if the Linden-Lethem trail is paved, more than two million acres of South America’s pristine tropical rainforests and savannahs will be harmed, as will the livelihoods of those Amerindian communities who first settled this region. Guyana’s economic growth in general and the Linden-Lethem road in particular exemplify the age-old question of how best to balance development with conservation, particularly in the Iwokrama forest and Rupununi savannah regions, whose cultural biodiversity continues to astound scientists. In 2017, the author traveled the trail with a group of fourteen undergraduates from the University of Northern Colorado in order to study conservation and development in Iwokrama and Rupununi. This photo essay traverses the fabled, potholed trail from Georgetown to the Brazilian border illustrating the numerous geographic challenges and opportunities facing Guyana today.
The road begins as a paved highway in the capital city of Georgetown, Guyana. Some 90 percent of Guyanese citizens reside within or in close proximity to this bustling capital. A combination of Amerindian, Dutch, Indian, and West African settlement gave rise to the eclectic mix of mosques, temples, churches, and structures that pepper the city today. After Christianity and Hinduism, Islam is the third largest religion in Guyana, and according to the Guyana Islamic Trust and the 2002 Guyana Census, some 7.3 percent of the country practices Islam. Mandingo and Fulani Muslims were brought from West Africa to labor as slaves in Guyana’s burgeoning sugar plantations, and today, South America’s largest mosque can be found in central sector of Georgetown. Setting out from Georgetown, travelers head toward the town of Linden some 103 kilometers away, where the asphalt becomes a dirt trail leading to Lethem and onward to the Brazilian border.
The many potholes on the inland Linden-Lethem road seem like a metaphor for Guyana’s modern day development trajectory. The region was named after Sir Gordon Lethem, who served as governor of British Guiana from 1941-1947. Today, politicians and investors from Brazil and China want to dredge a port near Georgetown and lay asphalt on the trail in order to provide Brazil with a port to export agricultural and mineral resources. Amerindian groups in the interior are concerned that their community-based livelihoods will change and often cite how logging roads have already altered rainforest livelihoods for communities in neighboring Brazil.
Reagan, a Rupununi driver and self-described naturalist, holds a three toed sloth and emerald boa while standing on the dirt trail to Lethem. Because the Linden to Lethem road bisects Guyana’s rainforest and savannah, animal sightings range widely and include species such the pale throated three toed sloth, emerald boa constrictor, and the tapir. Many of these species are victims of the 4WD vehicles and Bedford trucks that navigate their way across one of Guyana’s only terrestrial transportation corridors. While species mortality is high along the road, some drivers often stop to remove wildlife from the trail to prevent injury from cars and trucks. Many Guyanese consider themselves to be naturalists or citizen scientists though the role they play in conservation initiatives is often undervalued.
Bedford military trucks are seen frequently between Linden and Lethem, and are one of the few vehicles that can negotiate the rough road during the inland rainy season, running from April to September. The Bedfords are used for a variety of purposes. They provide Amerindian communities with a vital link to Georgetown and Brazil. They are also used by substantial mining operations that have created moonscapes made visible during aircraft flyovers. Our five-hour trip by Bedford truck from Iwokrama to the Rupununi region gave us ample opportunity for wildlife spotting.
The drive between Georgetown and the Brazilian border takes between sixteen hours and two days depending on the automobile and time of year, so junctions like Kurupukari that offer fuel, food, drinks, toilets, and hammocks are essential. In contrast, it is only a one hour flight between Georgetown and Lethem, but travel costs currently range upwards of US$200 each way. Consequently, air travel is a luxury available only to those international tourists seeking to explore Guyana’s interior or for government officials working in the remote south. Changes in the energy landscape may dramatically alter the country’s transportation patterns, should recent offshore oil discoveries make air travel more affordable.
Photo by Jane Allen.
The 1,430-square-mile Iwokrama Forest is located in the Guiana shield and can be accessed via the Linden-Lethem road. Along with the Amazon, Congo and New Guinea ecosystems, Iwokrama represents one of the last pristine tropical forests in the world. Located in an ecotone between Guyana and Brazil, Iwokrama also contains high species diversity that includes 420 species of fish, 90 species of bats, and 500 species of birds, extraordinarily high statistics given the forest’s small size.
A new amphibian species that can survive on land without nostrils, lungs, or legs, a worm-like creature known as a caecilian was discovered in Guyana as recently as 2009. Caecelita iwokrama was identified within the boundaries of the Iwokrama Rainforest, the largest protected reserve in the country. Our group spotted a caecilian in the Essequibo River during our visit to Iwokrama Research Station.
Photo by Casey Miller.
While the human settlement of Georgetown is well documented, the nation’s vast expanses of wilderness, biodiversity, and its commitment to scientific conservation are underappreciated. This may be due to the fact that few travelers visit Guyana at all in contrast to other ecotourism destinations in South America. The country receives 3,000 tourists per year, the same number of visitors Peru’s Machu Picchu sustains in one day, and thus people are less familiar with Guyana’s striking physical landforms, endemic species, or the development challenges it now confronts. These university students and their field course to Iwokrama and the Rupununi are working on expanding knowledge of the country’s rich ecological endowment.
The Iwokrama International Center for Rainforest Conservation and Development, a research center and ecolodge set on one million acres of rainforest, sits on the edge of the Linden-Lethem road. It represents a partnership between the state of Guyana and the Commonwealth Development Corporation. The Center’s focus is on sustainable use of natural resources, scientific research, and the importance of traditional knowledge in protecting biodiversity.
One of the Iwokrama Center’s key initiatives is to promote and pursue logging operations within the Iwokrama Forest Sustainable Utilization section of the reserve in partnership with local Amerindian communities. Currently the annual timber harvest yields around 20,000 cubic meters including greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei), a tropical hardwood known for its durability, especially valuable for wood products exposed to salt water. In 2016, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) formally certified the timber practices of Iwokrama, and today the United Kingdom imports FSC greenheart from the reserve for use in sea defenses along England’s south coast at Dawlish Warren. The council, an international organization devoted to the responsible management of global forests, ensures that all timber products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. Guyana’s alignment with FSC initiatives illustrates its ongoing national commitment to community-based sustainability.
In a moment of serendipity during our class, an ExxonMobil helicopter touches down at the Iwokrama Rainforest Lodge so that company executives can visit with the directors of the field station. Exxon Mobil Corp has also agreed to spend $4.4 billion to develop the Liza oil play off the coast, a project approved at time when the global oil industry has focused largely on lower-cost shale. In an interesting twist, Guyana’s media reported that the government had secretly accepted an US$18 million signing bonus for agreeing to contract with the U.S. oil company, and many residents oppose these agreements. Exxon has pledged US$300 million in support to the Iwokrama Research Station for scientific conservation projects, which some see as an attempt to assuage concerns over the lack of corporate transparency.
Leaving Iwokrama and heading south toward the Brazilian border, the group reaches the paradise of the Rupununi savannah, deep within Guyana’s interior. This unique biome lies within the Takutu-Upper Essequibo region and is home to more than 9,000 species of animals. Known for its startling beauty, the area also gives way to extractive economies for the Wapishana, Macushi, Wai-Wai, and Patanoma peoples, including cattle ranching, rubber tapping, fishing, farming, and leather and bead crafts.
Surama Ecolodge, cooperatively owned and managed by the Makushi people, typifies Guyana’s efforts to advance community-based tourism in the Rupununi savannah. The goal is to maintain a small scale business model in line with their ecological vision for the savannah. After years of political and economic isolation, community-based tourism is being touted as a sustainable alternative to other large scale commercial industries like mining and commercial logging. Surama sits along the Linden-Lethem trail, but receives only several hundred visitors each year.
In 2017 a joint expedition led by World Wildlife Fund Guianas and Global Wildlife Conservation uncovered thirty species that were considered new to science, including the electric blue tarantula. While these organizations recognize the role of Amerindian people as citizen scientists, more often nongovernmental groups working in the region do not confer with these non-academic naturalists. Yet Amerindian naturalists in Iwokrama possess a tremendous amount of traditional ecological knowledge that has yet to be understood.
Photo by Jane Allen.
The annual Surama fútbol tournament draws hundreds of young Amerindian people together in Surama village, a community of 287 people residing in the North Rupununi. The tournament is the premiere athletic event in this sparsely populated region. As the photo illustrates, the landscape is composed of savannah plains surrounded by forests, hills, and the Pakaraima mountain range, collectively referred to as “South America’s Serengeti.” This fútbol competition differs from others across Guyana which are larger in scale, the teams of which primarily include players of Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyana descent. The Rupununi teams pride themselves on their unique regional identity and longstanding Amerindian diversity.
Multi-day canoe trips from Surama village along the Burro Burro River allow opportunities to fish for piranha and view caiman, bush rodents, or emerald boas. Community-based tourism is still in its incipient stages in this region of Guyana. However, the industry is providing new livelihood strategies for Amerindians that jibe with Guyana’s new Low Carbon Development plan, which is funded with US$250 million in support from Norway.
Returning from the Rupununi savannah takes careful planning and an entirely different form of transportation in order to reach Georgetown by nightfall. The Kurupukari ferry allows Linden-Lethem travelers to traverse the serpentine Essequibo River, Guyana’s longest waterway and the third longest river in all of South America. The ferry, which can carry up to ten vehicles, first leaves port at 6:00 am, and a snackette– a small store selling snacks, cigarettes, and groceries– may sometimes be seen tied to side of the ferry, supplying food for early morning travelers.
The Linden-Lethem road is not the only geographic corridor in Guyana. The country’s extensive river system also plays a critical role in transportation, while also providing nutrients for crops such as wheat, bananas, coconuts, coffee, cocoa, peppers, and pumpkins. Decaying tropical vegetation allows tannins to leech into the water, creating darkly stained, acidic “black water” that features prominently into Amerindian mythology across the entire country. These waterways are vulnerable to seasonal fluctuations, and during the rainy season water levels may rise by thirty feet, hindering reliable transportation.
This photo essay highlights the ways in which the small nation of Guyana faces large challenges and opportunities in its struggle to develop and conserve its unique geographic landscapes. The Linden-Lethem road, which bisects the nation’s vast wilderness, traverses both tropical rainforests and dryland savannahs, the latter of which have been likened to Africa’s Serengeti due to their immense biodiversity. Tapirs, emerald boas, sloths, jaguars, anteaters, and arapaima can be found in the untrammeled bioregions of Iwokrama and the Rupununi, often considered South America’s hidden jewels by ecotourism standards. The Linden-Lethem road – called a “trail” locally due to its unpaved, red dirt status – provides a metaphor for the choices that government officials and community leaders in Guyana must now navigate. On one hand, the country’s “Low Carbon Development Strategy” may enable Guyana to protect forest reserves and its occupants, serving as a model for other developing nations. Yet with the recent discovery of offshore oil, increased mining opportunities in the interior, as well as the state’s plan for a new road funded by both China and Brazil, Guyana’s long term conservation plans and the needs of its Amerindian populations are being tested. Despite these inevitable changes, community-based ventures such as the Iwokrama Research Center and the Surama Lodge in Rupuni show that Amerindian groups will continue to structure and protect Guyana’s frontier region in the manner they see fit. At some point the road to the Rupununi may be paved by external forces, but for now, communities are working to define their own local geographies through small scale, sustainable initiatives such as tourism and forestry.
Karen Barton is a Professor of Geography at the University of Northern Colorado. In 2017.
she ferried fourteen intrepid students to Guyana in order to study conservation and
development in the Iwokrama forest and Rupununi savannah as part of an undergraduate
geography field course. In 2018, she will be traveling with an expedition team of ten students
to Nepal in order to map natural hazards risk. This effort is part of an ongoing collaboration with
the Institute for Crisis Management Studies in Kathmandu and maintains support from the
Fulbright Specialist program.