Guyana: Environmental Matters on Valentine’s Day – By Dave Martins

Guyana’s recent Valentine’s Day hoopla reminded me of my first encounter with my Valentine’s lady Annette Arjoon Martins, known to Guyanese for her conservationist work.  I had come to Guyana to be the guest speaker at the Tourism Hospitality Association of Guyana annual dinner at the Pegasus and ended up bowled over by another invitee to the function who was showing photographs of her trip through the Rupununi.

The photos were mostly of places I had heard of but never seen, and I was particularly impressed by the wide knowledge of the photographer and her very professional commentary. I enquired about her and that was the first time I heard the name Annette Arjoon.           

More currently, with Valentine’s Day in the offing, Annette, who as we say is now my better half, spent Valentine’s Day brainstorming with her marine environmental colleagues looking at safeguards to protect her first love which is the marine environment. For her it was also the twentieth anniversary of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society, also known as GMCS, the NGO she founded to initially focus on marine turtle conservation of the four species of marine turtles nesting annually on the several beaches found between the mouths of the Waini and Pomeroon River.   Although initially focused on conservation and protection of the marine species, she realized very quickly that the indigenous peoples who were the traditional users of marine turtle meat and eggs could not be expected to discontinue their practice without being provided with viable alternatives. As she would often tell people “I have two children, and if their survival depended on digging up turtle eggs I would do it myself.”

Realizing that behavioral change would not happen overnight, she embarked on a national awareness and education programme whilst seeking support for a sustainable alternative livelihood programme.

In 2004 the mound in between the Umana Yana, Pegasus Hotel and Canadian High Commission was overgrown with grass under a dilapidated billboard, so she sought and was granted permission by then Minister Anthony Xavier to utilize the space, and Guyanese artist Morag Williams was contracted to sculpt the sea turtle hatchling emerging from an egg.  This was subsequently added to the list of national monuments and is now conveniently complimented by the “ I love Guyana” sign.

Partnerships have been an essential plank in her successful projects and programmes and at the same time Annette embarked on a project with the Ministry of Education to distribute several thousands of Turtles of Guyana posters which were funded by the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency, and soon after that the EPA identified the GMCS to lead the process for taking Shell Beach into protected areas status. This entailed a very comprehensive consultative process with the indigenous communities that are located within and around the Shell Beach area. The resource use of the area was mapped and the proposed area delineated, and the Shell Beach Protected Area then became Guyana’s only coastal protected area.

As the German Development Bank was one of the main funders in the Shell Beach Protected Areas process, the opportunity for grant funding for community development provided the support needed for an alternative livelihood project. Annette did an inventory of the indigenous products and selected four, namely crabwood oil, cassava bread, casareep and cocoa for development. A four-year project enabled the launch of the North West Organics line of products and product development and marketing support.  Working along the line of partnerships once again, she sought and received the support of Bounty Supermarket to retail the line of products even before they were ready. Upon the satisfactory completion of phyto-sanitary production processes these products were a standout on a specially designed wooden rack in Bounty and then later Nigel’s supermarkets.

I have heard her repeatedly tell persons that her most satisfying achievement is that not only are the North West Organics line of products  spread across several retail outlets in Georgetown but, most importantly, several of the original producers have since branched off and have subsequently developed their own brand and line of products – sustainability in motion.

Annette was then asked to Chair the Mangrove Restoration Programme and did so for several years. Even though that project did not budget for community development at the time she persuaded the powers that be to adjust the budget to include EU$50,000 of community development and alternative livelihood enterprises. This allowed for several women to be trained and equipped in beekeeping and mangrove honey production which was being sold for GY$15,000 a gallon and sometimes sold out before the crop was even harvested. A low-carbon horse-cart tour through historical villages such as Victoria, with their mangrove fringed coastline, was developed and this was complimented by cultural presentations by the drummers and masquerade bands from the area during the tours. This tour was awarded the Caribbean Tourism Authority Award for Biodiversity Conservation in 2012.

Between 2014 and 2017 due to  an inexplicable development of sperm whales washing ashore dead in our waters, she shifted her focus offshore. As Guyana did not have the marine science necessary to determine what was the cause of these events, she sought support from her colleagues in Suriname and Venezuela who were conducting marine research and it was through their shared reports that she became informed of what was passing through the migratory corridors in offshore Guyana.

With the advent of oil and the obvious impacts from increased marine activities, such as seismic surveys and supply vessels traversing from the Demerara base to the oil operations offshore, she started her advocacy for the relevant marine environmental studies to be conducted. In spite of her attendance to every meeting in Georgetown and her requests for marine mammals baseline studies to be done, this remains outstanding in a time of first oil. Annette maintains that Guyana cannot properly measure the impacts of the oil operations on the marine environment in the absence of the most elementary baseline studies. Whilst awaiting the Governments support to ensure that these studies are done, she has reached out to internationally recognized Universities such as Dalhousie, from Canada, which has a very strong Ocean Governance Programme and which has been attended by several senior Governmental functionaries. She has also reached out to International NGO’s such as Global Fishing Watch which utilizes state of the art technology in marine monitoring and management.

In her continued push for partnerships, the recent Valentine’s Day celebrations saw active participation by representatives from the relevant Governmental Agencies and other conservation NGO’s where pertinent marine matters were discussed and which culminated with an MOU being signed by GMCS,  Global Fishing Watch and Dalhousie University….nice Valentines all around

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  • Quenton R Dokken  On 02/25/2020 at 11:02 am

    Three cheers for Arnette Arjoon Martins and Dave Martins! I was shocked by how little attention was given to environmental conservation and protection in the ExxonMobil/Guyana contract. Requirements defaulted to “industry standards.” There are no enforceable “industry standards.” Each country must set the standards by which the industry will conduct business with stringent enforcement. There are plenty of models of Guyana to follow.

  • Quenton R Dokken  On 02/25/2020 at 11:07 am

    To: Arnette Arjoon Martins. You may wish to contact either or both the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. Both could contribute significantly to your quest to develop ecological and ecosystem descriptions of the marine waters of Guyana.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 02/25/2020 at 1:20 pm

    You rock Annette Arjoon Martins!

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