Realities of doing science in remote rainforests: The Karaawaimin Taawa Biodiversity Assessment

Written by on January 25, 2023

Local expert Chistopher Realine holds up a bat specimen during the Karaawaimin Taawa Biodiversity Assessment. ©FAO/Marlondag

When ecological research makes its way onto a peer-reviewed page – in the form, perhaps, of a species list or population estimate – it can be easy to forget or ignore the complex chain of things that had to happen to get it there. In the case of the recently-completed Karaawaimin Taawa Biodiversity Assessment, which sought to inventory species in a remote mountain range in South Rupununi, Guyana, that story of ‘getting it done’ was particularly elaborate.

The research was carried out by the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC) – an Indigenous organization in South Rupununi that legally represents 21 Indigenous communities – and international initiative the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme (SWM), with collaboration from a wide range of local and international experts. The work was motivated by local Indigenous communities’ concern about environmental damage, including water contamination, from gold mining in Karaawaimin Taawa – which is customary land of the Wapichan Indigenous people, but is not currently legally recognized as such. It’s one of several Indigenous-led initiatives that are working towards securing land rights to the wider Wapichan territory.

“A lot of Indigenous folks from the communities that we represent, and other communities out of our jurisdiction, depend on the area as a source of livelihoods, and large-scale mining activities contribute negatively towards the environment there,” said Timothy Williams, Project Coordinator of SRDC. “So what we’re trying to do is…gain some kind of control over [what activities take place there], to be able to balance economic income generation and livelihoods with environmental protection,” he said.

As such, SRDC deemed a biodiversity assessment combining Indigenous knowledge and Western science – the first of its kind in the area – an important step. Such a study could serve to communicate the importance of the ecosystem, and potentially help the Wapichan gain tenure rights to be able to monitor and manage the impact of activities like mining.

A selection of the team members involved in the pre-biodiversity assessment of the Karaawaimin Taawa. Many of these team members were local experts in the actual assessment alongside international scientists. ©FAO/Marlondag

“I think without numbers, it’s hard to convince people,” said Nathalie van Vliet, an associate researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and site coordinator for the SWM Programme Guyana. “If you can say things like ‘many new species were found’, or ‘that area is particularly important for these vulnerable species’, it’s easier to convince people that it needs protection, and there will be more international support for the conservation of that area.”

But to get those numbers, the team had to get the right people together – and get them to the remote area to do the work that was needed. “We took about two years to plan this activity,” said Williams. “During that time, my role was to engage other partners and researchers, mainly from the US, to help plan the proposal, the methods, budgeting and so forth, and give them a better idea of the area. I also had to get our local researchers acquainted with the concept, and bring them in as part of the planning process.” The organizers decided to structure the expedition in several teams, who would focus on various taxonomic groups: beetles, bats, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and fish. Each team consisted of community experts, or ‘monitors’ – such as fishers in the fish group, and birdwatching guides in the bird group – alongside Western science-trained specialists in these areas.