No doubt many Guyanese are now aware of the recent damage wrought by fires at Waikin Ranch. This is a grievous act of deliberate ecological destruction that should be deservedly condemned. Sadly it was neither the only nor largest of this dry season’s fires. We have received reports at Visit Rupununi of this form of reckless, late season burning from across the region and this year’s events seem to be worse than in previous years. There have been major fires across the Savannahs in both the North and South and in the Kanuku linked to human recklessness; at Karanambu there was one fire that lasted over two weeks in one of the largest and most critical bush islands in the region; along the Hunt Oil stretch fires that were deliberately set have destroyed a bridge along the main access path used in the wet season which if not repaired in time could leave an entire sector of the region cut off from access to Lethem for food, fuel etc. In other areas persons have lost homes, property, farms and crops.
To paint all acts of burning as barbarous or of human origin is both unfair and untrue. Some fires do result from the combination of heat and the dryness and controlled burning (with its roots in both the Indigenous as well as Ranching culture) when used properly has been scientifically shown to have positive impacts. Sadly there is a growing culture of reckless, malicious and unregulated burning which has evolved in modern times. This has led to wanton destruction of the kind witnessed at Waikin and signals the loss of the knowledge and understanding of the use of burning as an effective traditional land management tool. What is irrefutable is that uncontrolled burning is injurious to wildlife, promotes the spread of savannahs and habitat loss, which in turn robs animals and birds of shelter, food and protection. Uncontrolled burning is injurious to people, Eco-systems and agriculture: destroying useful and endemic species and allowing for growth of species such a razor grass which have neither economic nor ecological value. Uncontrolled burning is injurious to tourism because it compromises the quality, integrity and beauty of our product which just won Guyana international accolades as the #1 eco-tourism destination in the world and therefore has a direct impact on the local and national economy.
It is not enough to quietly commiserate and share sad faces online, it is time that we as a region and nation take seriously the ecological and economic consequences of such acts which threaten human life, damage crops, cause injury to domestic animals, destroy habitats, kill wildlife and threaten economic activities like tourism and agriculture. It is time to have serious discussion at the regional and community level about the need for education and working together to reduce and censure wanton destructive actions. Because of climate change we are seeing longer and hotter dry seasons, a trend that is likely to become increasingly worse in coming years. The damage caused by burning on the Rupununi landscape is a problem therefore that if not addressed seriously now will continue to get worse both in magnitude and frequency. As a society we can no longer duck our heads in the sand, to do so risks that what will be left will be a lifeless and ugly wasteland strewn with the stories of “when we were young” and the tears shed over the opportunity lost when a simple change in behaviour was all that was needed to avoid disaster. We must be willing to call out in our villages, communities and families, persons engaged in such reckless acts and work together with regional authorities to bring censure and with local stakeholders to promote education aimed at relearning a more responsible use of fire based on the traditional practices that do work. Education and collaboration are the key.