“No Trespassing”: Changing and Contested Rights to Land in the Guyanese Amazon

Katherine MacDonald

Abstract

The Makushi and Wapishana peoples of the Rupununi region of Guyana have been fighting for the rights to their traditional territories since contact with European colonists first challenged them. Although Indigenous rights to territory remain unsettled within the country, in 2013, the national government agreed to lease 8,000 hectares of unceded territory to Brazilian plantation agriculturalists, claiming that savannah agriculture is an integral component of national development strategies. The Makushi and Wapishana have identified several concerns with this agricultural project. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper exposes the inherent problems that are raised when economic and political ambitions dominate environmental and social concerns.

Introduction

Travelling on the dirt trail from the interior, I watch for the signs I have been warned about. As the tropical forests that cover much of Guyana give way to the seasonally flooded grasslands crossed with small meandering creeks, the savannah landscape of the Rupununi appears, but my eyes focus instead on the unfamiliar markers rising out of the wetlands: “No Trespassing.” Glaringly separate from the bush islands (small pockets of forest), the benabs (thatched Indigenous structures), and the mountain ranges off in the distance, the modern rice farm structures, obviously out of place, reveal a foreign presence in the landscape (Figure 1).

Similarly foreign, the message “No Trespassing” is also out of place, awkwardly located on the traditionally communal, unceded territories of the Makushi peoples (Figure 2). Several people expressed surprise at ...

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