Forum aims at catapulting Rupununi tourism, agri on low carbon route

-difficulty in exporting to Brazil highlighted

Rupununi farmers and tourism players on Monday gathered to share experiences and suggestions on how to deal with obstacles they face as part of a project meant to improve livelihoods using a low carbon pathway.

“This forum is not a one-off occasion…it is a serious appraisal of where we are, of where we want to go and how we will get there,” Major General (retd) Joe Singh told participants at the two-day forum hosted by Conservation International (CI) at the St. Ignatius benab in Region Nine on Monday and yesterday.  The seminar is part of the US$1.6 million ‘Leveraging Natural Capital in Guyana’s Rupununi – Improving livelihoods through low carbon economic development of the Rupununi’ project being funded by Conservation International (CI) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Singh, who is the chairman of the Project Steering Committee, said that the forum will serve to alert others of the challenges and opportunities that exist in this part of Guyana. He said that the Rupununi is a wonderful place where people still live in traditional ways. The area has developed over the years, the conservationist added.  “The purpose of this forum is really to share experiences of who has been doing what,” he said, adding that issues such as what went wrong and why as well as other issues will also be examined. He noted that there are many opportunities such as a market of three million people in the neighbouring Brazilian states. “You also have the opportunity of exploiting whatever the market demands are on the other side,” he said.

Joe Singh speaking at the seminar
Joe Singh speaking at the seminar

In seeking to facilitate development of the two sectors in a sustainable and climate-friendly way, CI several months ago began consultations as the NGO starts to implement the project which, among other objectives, would see Community-Based Enterprises (CBEs) being linked with larger private sector firms, government agencies, service providers and non-governmental agencies (NGOs).  The purpose of the project is to break down Guyana’s Low Carbon Develop-ment Strategy (LCDS) to the Rupununi by designing and piloting innovative low-carbon and climate-resilient community-based tourism and agriculture business models, through training, capitalisation of ecosystem value and enhanced ability to access higher value markets and finance.

It aims to contribute to healthy and sustainable economic development of the Rupununi by strengthening and creating environmentally sustainable business models for CBEs that are focused on nature-based tourism and agriculture. Twenty-three CBEs, eight tourism and 15 agriculture-based are expected to be direct beneficiaries with 7560 persons comprising 42% of the total population of the Rupununi set to benefit indirectly, according to CI.

“There is a long tradition of agriculture and hospitality in the Rupununi,” Director of CI-Guyana Dr. David Singh told Stabroek News, in explaining why the two sectors are being focused on. He pointed out that persons have come from different places to the Rupununi and stayed and the hospitality culture is now embedded in the way of life. Furthermore, those sectors are particularly dependent on the maintenance of nature, particularly the eco-tourism promoted by the locals, he said. The conservationist added that if nature is degraded, then agriculture and tourism suffer as they are strongly linked and the project focuses on economic development and maintaining nature.

The Rupununi was chosen for the project because it is an area that CI is familiar with and where it has a strong relationship with communities. In addition, due to their earlier work in the area, there is less of a learning curve. The area was also chosen because they want to address some of the threats which regions like the Rupununi are exposed to before they develop such as the impacts that would come from the Lethem-Georgetown road. The project is divided into two components: technical backstopping during which data would be collected and training done and financing. Later this year, the Rupununi Innovation Fund through which CBEs can access financing will become operational.

The Rupununi, with the Kanuku Mountains dividing the savannah into the north and south savannah, is biologically diverse and the indigenous population has been practising subsistence agriculture for decades in the forests including at the foot of mountains or in ‘bush islands’ in the savannah. Cassava is a main crop and peanut is one of the main crops grown for sale. The Rupununi is also known for the cattle reared on the savannahs but the large scale sale of beef supply to the coast has lessened significantly.

In recent years, there has been increasing interest by large-scale farmers in the Rupununi with one, Santa Fe, owned by a Barbadian company, now involved in the large scale cultivation of rice in the savannah. There are also some community projects involving farming at a commercial level such as the rice cultivation project in Moco-Moco.

Agriculture in the Rupununi with its diverse savannah and forest landscapes poses unique challenges with poor infrastructure, limited or poor support services and facilities, high transportation costs, low productivity and efficiency levels, lack of markets, little or no expertise and labour being some of the obstacles that have to be overcome, according to participants. The poor transport links, lack of support services such as agricultural extension officers and no forward planning by the authorities has stymied agriculture in the region, according to member of the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB) Sydney Allicock. “The plans that we have are in the reverse…that is why we are in this situation,” he said.

In presentations, participants shared some of their major issues.  “We experience great difficulty in getting beef from Dadanawa…our main markets are Lethem, Georgetown and Brazil but because of the substandard condition of our abattoir here in Lethem we have stopped shipping to Brazil,” Roderick George, speaking for the Rupununi Livestock Producers Association (RLPA), said.

“The Brazilians would not buy our beef because of the insanitariness of the abattoir” another participant added. He said that there is no support from the government. “Cattle has been the mainstay of the Rupununi tradition from the 18th century and where we are now, we are at the bottom rung of the ladder,” the man said.

But, George said, the loss of the Brazilian market was a “blessing in disguise” as they have been supplying beef to the school feeding programme in the region.

Apart from cassava and peanuts, agriculture in the Rupununi is now moving to citrus, vegetables, rice, pepper as well as aquaculture which is in its infancy stage and there needs to be understanding and application of the value-chain process, Egbert Ralph, one participant, said. He emphasized that developing this value chain is important for the development of agriculture in the Rupununi. A strong value chain brings benefits such as financial support, he said.

Lethem businessman Alfred Ramsarran highlighted that for items like beef and poultry, cold-storage is important. He questioned whether there is enough electricity for this. Security is also important, he said, pointing to rustling of animals and larceny of crops.

Another participant pointed to the difficulty in exporting any produce to Brazil ranged against the easy access the Brazilians have to the Guyanese market. “Brazil is flooding us with all the stuff that they could produce,” he noted. Victor Pires of Bulls Eye Investment which is growing a wide range of crops such as cassava, vegetables, citrus, peppers among others said that in the four years since his ranch was started, he has invested $129 million to date and is not making a profit and does not expect to do so for another two years. He spoke of the diseases affecting the crops but said that Brazil is the top problem. He explained that it is very difficult to export to Brazil while it is easy to import produce into Guyana from that country. “It is not fair competition, competition has to be fair,” he said. Reliability of labour is also an issue, he said, elaborating that at times because workers have gone off “you can’t get your products out when it needs to come out.”

Opportunities were also highlighted with Randy Gilbert saying that the Rupununi can earn about $100 million from peanut production. The School Feeding Programme was highlighted as a crucial market with one participant saying that they would be significantly poorer without it. Priscilla Torres, the representative for the Wowetta Women’s Agro-Processors said that the market demand for their main product, farine, is very high and the group wants to expand and have a modern plant as well as expand into savannah farming due to pressure on the forest resources.

Following the presentations, several focus groups discussed the major issues and set out solutions and possible actions. Monday’s session focused on agriculture while yesterday, tourism came under focus.

Out of the sessions, it is expected that the findings will be used to engage in the development of a draft ‘road map’ and ‘next steps’ towards a collaborative strategic development and integrated management of agriculture and tourism in the Rupununi. The development of a Rupununi stakeholder business forum as a platform for collaboration is also envisioned.

The project contains six main components namely baseline greenhouse gases, climate change and economic assessment; facilitate a business, community and government network for climate responsive development in the Rupununi; and selection and implementation of specific interventions that target CBEs. The remaining objectives include establishment and implementation of the Rupununi Innovation Revolving Fund; securing stakeholder participation through outreach, monitoring and evaluation of results; and knowledge management.

The project ends in 2015 and in terms of sustainability, it is expected that once equipped with the proposed low carbon, climate resilient business models and relevant capacities, local CBEs will be expected to see increased profitability and increased resilience to the future impacts of climatic change. “CBEs will be in a position to access the economic benefits stemming from climate related incentives in the fields of sustainable agriculture and nature-based tourism, the importance of which is expected to grow over time as concerns over climate change and sustainability grow both domestically and internationally,” CI says.

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