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Project Guyana: Conservation through Ecotourism
Monday, May 15 2006 @ 07:46 PM UTC
Contributed by: Paul Brennan
Views: 17326
Travel by Paul Brennan

It is just before dawn in the Kanuku Mountains of Guyana, and the sun has not yet burned away the mist that gets caught with the night beneath the rainforest canopy. As several of the Macushi villagers stand by the creek hauling in fishing nets, a frightening shriek cuts through the undergrowth from just outside the camp, wrenching me from my sleep. Two of our guides, including Dexter, instinctively grab their bows and flashlights and race off towards the screams origin.

I stumble down the steps of my thatched-roof cabin as a faint lavender hue climbs its way across the morning sky. A flock of orange-wing amazon parrots streak over head in a flash of orange and green, announcing the new day in their typical chatter; a pair of macaws pass through, concealed in the thick foliage, their unmistakable raucous calls the only evidence of their presence. Soon the red-howler monkeys will be joining the morning chorus.

The remaining locals work over their nets from the creek, culling the evenings harvest of cichlids and plecostomus, fish many Americans keep in aquariums. As I examine the booty in their 5-gallon bucket, Dexter emerges from a path in the dense greenery with the body of a twenty pound guinea pig-like rodent slung over his shoulder and a triumphant smile stretched across his face.

"A jaguar killed this agouti for breakfast about fifty meters outside of camp," says Dexter, holding up his prize while motioning down the path behind him. "He was scared of my flashlight; he dropped his kill and ran off." Dexter holds up the catch for all to see. "We'll have a good supper tonight."

It is September 2005, and I am here with the first group of visitors to the Nappi Village Ecolodge in Guyana's Rupununi region. Much more than a vacation, a week spent at the Nappi Ecolodge in the mountains of Guyana is an adventure.

The Nappi village ecolodge sprang from Marc Johnson's desire to preserve those wild places that parrots still fly free, and to protect the parrots themselves from foreign exploitation, while helping to preserve the native people's way of life.

Johnson is the founder and co-director of Foster Parrots Ltd., a 501 (c)3 non-profit rescue sanctuary and adoption center for displaced captive parrots located in Rockland, Massachusetts. Foster Parrots--known for their work in parrot rescue, avian welfare and animal rights-- hopes to employ the concept of ecotourism to protect Guyana's valuable ecosystem, while also providing an alternative income for the indigenous peoples of the region.

"The fundamental definition of an ecosystem is to have all its parts in tact and in harmony," says Johnson. "Preservation of an ecosystem can only be achieved by offering alternatives to disruptions of that ecosystem that allow the symbiotic rhythm to continue undisturbed. A proven alternative to the current exploitation of a nation's natural resources is conservation through ecotourism."

Johnson and Brian Cullity, a Board member at Foster Parrots, with their wanderlust for the remote jungle areas of the world, have opened a new avenue for conservation efforts by the avian welfare/rights community. Trips to view wild macaws and parrots in Ecuador, Chiapas, Mexico, Brazil and most recently Guyana, have served to educate them in their efforts to become involved in the preservation of parrots in their native lands and, thus, take away the argument offered by the captive-breeding industry that they are the only hope for the survival of these endangered animals.

Foster Parrots is currently the only organization with efforts dedicated to helping the fate of both captive and wild parrots.

"Parrots live in wild places--places quite inhospitable to man, until recently," says Karen Windsor, co-director of Foster Parrots. " The remote areas where parrots are still free and part of a balanced ecosystem are now under pressure from the invasion of man."

"The invaders have a single motive for making a forced entry into the parrots' homes," she says. "There is money to be made, and for the indigenous people of these remote areas a little money can motivate big changes: irreversible changes to the people, the land and to the parrots. Three things are becoming increasingly rare and, therefore, increasingly valuable: the trees where parrots live, the land that supports their habitat and the birds themselves. Laws to protect the trees and the land and the parrots don't seem to help and have given rise to a culture of poaching and illegal clear cutting of pristine rainforest; the unique place where a full spectrum of plants and animals have lived in harmony for centuries."

"There is an alternative that solves both the money problem and the invasion of the land," explains Windsor. "That alternative is ecotourism. Ecotourism provides a means for a native people to make money without wrecking the land or breaking the law; a means to place value on the pristine forest that is higher when left intact than being sold piece by piece."

When Johnson visited Guyana in 2004, he thought, "Here was this pristine country that seemed it could go one of two ways. It was right on the cusp of going to either total destruction, or it could receive some positive influence from the ecotourism industry. Project Guyana started by recognizing that this country could go either way; if youre going to have a shot at it, it might as well be now. It looked like a really good place to try to do something. "

By chance, Johnson and Cullity met Shirley Melville in the remote Guyanese town of Lethem. Melville is of Amerindian heritage and an activew member of Guyanese Parliament. She has long been concerned with the issues facing Guyana's natural resources and the indigenous people. They met at just the right time.

"Once we met Shirley, the project just took right off," says Johnson. Melville has since become a member of the Foster Parrots board of directors, Director for Foster Parrots: Guyana, and liason between Johnson and tribal leaders.

With only three percent of its 83,000 square miles inhabited, Guyana's rainforest stands untouched, hosting a diverse population of endangered wildlife. However, Guyana is one of only two South American countries to still legally export native wildlife for the pet trade and entertainment industries, actively trapping jaguars, monkeys, parrots, and more. And because of their lenient exportation laws, smugglers from surrounding countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Suriname funnel wildlife through Georgetown, Guyana's capital city on the Carribean, to be sold over-seas under pretenses it was trapped in Guyana.

On one trip earlier in the year, Johnson and Cullity managed to snap photographs of several endangered species from the CITES I list awaiting export at the Ministry of Wildlife station in Georgetown. Rows of cages containing screaming macaws, parrots, and toucans filled the wildlife station warehouse. A jaguar, robbed of his noble life, lay imprisoned on a concrete floor; a Harpey eagle, the worlds largest and most endangered eagle, perched behind steel bars, never again to feel the wind as it soared over the vast rainforest hunting for sloths.

Johnson says that when Cullity telephoned the Ministry of Wildlife to inquire about the restricted animals, he was told, "If the financial benefits to Guyana are great enough, we will export anything."

Guyana's resources also come under heavy threat from North American, European, and Asian timber and mining industries. The forested mountains of Guyana are rich in timber and deposits of gold, diamonds, and bauxite. The government wishes to open these lands to foreign exploitation, although strong opposition from the Amerindian community persists. In December, 2005 alone, outside markets were granted timber concession to 290,000 acres in Guyanas northern Rupununi region.

While there, the People of Nappi invite us to attend the annual Guyana Amerindian Heritage Celebration in the neighboring village of Shurinab.

"We need to grow as a country," says Guyana's Prime Minister, Samuel A. Hines. "Guyana needs to focus on development and becoming an economic power in the twenty-first century."

With Project Guyana, Foster Parrots is helping the Macushi Amerindians of Nappi Village in the south-central Rupununi region to construct an ecolodge in the Kanuku Mountains. Foster Parrots agreed to provide funding for all materials needed to construct an Ecolodge to accommodate groups of tourists; the tribe is providing all labor.

The $30,000 Foster Parrots raised went to purchasing timber, which was cut from the site, a gasoline-powered generator, toilets and sinks, plumbing, septic, and a propane refrigerator and stove. The tribe retains all rights to the land and lodge, receiving 100 percent of the profits from hosting visitors.

Community members working on the completed project are paid American-equivalent wages, similar to those methods employed by Fair Trade farming, for all lodging, food, and guide service rendered to tourists. With the exchange in Guyana being $135 Guyanese to $1 American, the $100-a-day ground fees for Nappi Ecolodge translate into a much higher value for people who are, essentially, not making any money.

According to Melville, "Trappers only get about $8 for a macaw." Macaws typically sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars over-seas. Those trappers will spend a month hunting these birds, destroying many active nesting sites, only to have a handful of sellable birds, and killing many more in the process. It is estimated that for every bird that makes it out of guyana alive, ten more will perish. The goal of Project Guyana is to show these people that they can make an honest income by hosting tourists who wish to see their native lands and wildlife unspoiled and natural.

"The size of the project is so small," says Johnson, "that if only eight groups of eight tourists came down every year, that would be $40,000 going into a village that right now makes nothing."

The project was started and the materials donated in exchange for an agreement with the tribe to declare their lands and the animals that live there protected from foreign exploitation. This agreement is soon to be signed into tribal law, forever protecting the 144,000 acres of faultless wilderness on which Nappi Village rests. This is the first of hopefully many villages to agree to the same bargain.

Johnson wanted to build this project from the ground up. "Because of our low budget," he says, "it was really important for us to start small. And the only way to start small is to go right to the people."

"Large non-government organizations, or NGOs, like Conservation International, World Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy have the man power and connections to work from the top down in efforts that involve the cooperation of governmental agencies," saysWindsor. "Working with local governments often results in the setting aside of vast conservation zones and national parks, but sometimes overlooks the concerns of local populations."

"Smaller groups like the World Parrot Trust and Project Bird Watch work from the bottom up and focus their efforts on smaller projects that involve smaller areas and concentrate on one or two species in highly sensitive areas," she says. "The efforts of the small conservation groups also tend to involve local or indigenous groups and are highly dependent on a strong educational component. They often rely on the concern and assistance of the local population to achieve their goals. The end result of these efforts is a much more personal connection that ultimately can influence the local and national governments as they witness the success and financial benefits to their communities."

However, true conservation does not involve only saving a single component of the land, the animals or the people; it is the convergence of these two above mentioned approaches that often result in the total coverage needed to successfully preserve not just land or endangered flora and fauna, but also the local people and their cultural heritage.

Johnson and Melville chose the site of Nappi Village because of the remote location of the Rupununi, while still having proximity to the airport in Lethem. Most villages close to the capital city and international airport of Georgetown have seemingly lost all traces of their culture. Low motivation towards the project and a lack of wildlife led Johnson to abandon the idea of working with a village so close to Georgetown.

"Wildlife in those areas was virtually nonexistent, either having been eaten or trapped and shipped away," says Johnson.

"In Nappi, the people have not been so affected by commercialized development. They still hold some vestiges of their natural heritage; they still farm and hunt for a living," says Johnson. "And they are very receptive to the idea; they already have a conservation group and a cultural heritage group."

Nappi is remote indeed. It is a three hour flight by TransGuyana Airways on a one-engine single-propeller airplane from Georgetown to the tiny town of Lethem. As far as the eye can see is thick rainforest canopy, reminding me of a never-ending field of broccoli. The jungles give way to large tracts of savannah, where grass-fires ignite abruptly at the height of the dry season, before resuming again in the interior mountains.

The plane lands on a dirt airstrip in the center of Lethem. This town of clay-brick houses with tin roofs and red dirt roads sits on the banks of the Takutu River; across the water lays the expansive rainforests of the Amazon River Basin. They have electricity for only four hours in the evening when the generator is turned on. There is no police force, however, there is a military base; two guards armed with machine guns oversee security at the Lethem Airport.

From Lethem it is a three-hour ride by Land-rover to Nappi, at the base of the Kanuku Mountains, over bumpy terrain and under a baking equatorial sun. Through the grasslands, giant anteaters roam, feeding from the termite mounds that rise up ten feet from dead tree stumps while crested caracara circle above spying for carrion.

The lives of the Macushi people are simple and uncomplicated. In the absence of electricity, lanterns cast dim light from the windows of thatched-roof dwellings when the sun goes down. Water is pumped by hand from local wells, and the cassava root, a staple food in the Rupununi, is processed by hand and cooked over open fire to make breads and porridges. Visitors are welcomed with presentations of traditional songs, dances and poems. Dressed in ceremonial garb they sing in their native Macushi tongue about their lives in the Rupununi, about their native animals, and their love for the Kanuku Mountains.

The ecolodge is nestled in the mountains several kilometers outside the village. The camp is constructed of a series of benabs: traditional thatched-roof structures which themselves are works of art. Visitors bunk, four to a cabin, beneath mosquito nets.

A Nappi ecotour consists of days filled with guided rainforest hikes, offering panoramic mountain views, waterfalls, and new wildlife at every turn. Orchids hang in the shade of the forest, giant arboreal snails creep over the lianas, and owl-eye butterflies pause in the stillness before fluttering away. Aside from numerous species of parrots, bird fanciers can hope to catch a glimpse of the colorful and peculiar cock-of-the-rock or the rare Harpey eagle. Many other animals thrive in the wildlands surrounding Nappi Lodge. Giant river otters play in the waterways while cougars stalk prey silently in the shadows. Tapirs and capybara hide amongst the thickets, and the lethal bushmaster, a ground-dwelling viper, must always be watched for in the leaf litter of the forest floor.

At camp, visitors lounge in hammocks in the shade or watch cultural demonstrations in arhery, cassava-bread making, and artisan skills. Traditional meals of curried chicken with cassava bread are served with fresh squeezed orange juice; those whose stomachs are up to it may try some of the traditional meals, such as the agouti, which tastes like potroast, or the pepper-pot, a stew made from hot peppers and the mornings harvest of fish. Evenings are spent relaxing in hammocks or telling stories around the campfire.

"This is not a meticulously manicured ecotour," says Windsor. "It is a down to earth, authentic cultural experience."

For our rainforest excursions our guides pack our supply of bottled water and cheese sandwiches into backpacks, handmade that morning from palm fronds-- another cultural demonstration visitors are treated to. One of our guides, Mathias, carries an antique shotgun.

"Is that in case we see something that looks good for dinner?" I ask Mathias.

"It is in case we see something that wants us for dinner," he laughs.

"The wildlife we saw was naturally occuring, but it was not scarce," says Windsor. "It was amazing to accidentally encounter Hawk Headed parrots during our ten-mile hike through the jungle on our way to Aquarium Lake. Having squirrel monkeys play across our path was thrilling, as was watching Amazons fly from tree to tree. Our bare-footed story-telling guide, Giles, lead us into the jungle where we were able to enjoy the spectacle of spider monkeys, who stopped in their activities high up in the trees to regard us as curiously as we regarded them."

"But nothing --nothing-- evoked as much emotion in me as witnessing macaws living their natural lives, graceful and so incredibly beautiful in flight," she says. "Scarlet macaws landed in tree branches above us as we began our hike to the lodge at Nappi. They yelled at us, perhaps not so much in welcome as in protest over our presence. But we pretended it was a welcome."

"Two days later we encountered wild Green Winged macaws in the jungle during our hike to Jordan Falls," she says. "It was a family, including fully fledged juveniles that continued to solicit feedings from their parents, and the adults fed their begging offspring, completely disregarding the presence of gawking humans below."

In addition to providing for the needs of the local people and taking the economic pressure off the land, ecotourism introduces people to the wonder and beauty of places that far exceeds the spectacle of trained animals performing tricks or what could ever be captured by a television screen.

"The experience of being there is bigger than just the experience itself. It changes people," says Windsor. "It changes how they see captive animals. It changes their point of view from looking through cage bars at cars and concrete and modern society to feeling with all senses the power and beauty and simplicity of wild animals living freely, unencumbered by space or time."

"Ecotourism is a positive step in the direction of preservation of naturally beautiful places while providing life-impacting experiences to the tourists and sustaining incomes for the people," says Johnson. "The success of the facilities presented here can be measured by people who were former poachers and are now working to protect and preserve what they had once pludered. Before, a parrot captured brought some cash, but made the next more difficult to find. They are almost gone now. By preserving the wildlife and their home, the local people have a source of income now and for their grandchildren."

"Through the development of this project, entire Amerindian communities will benefit from income derived from hosting visitors interested in observing unspoiled nature," adds Windsor. "This also provides a canopy of protection for native species, whose value as wild animals far exceeds the profits of a destructive and self-serving exotic animal trade."

"Whether or not these people will succomb to the desires for trucks and satellite television and instant financial gratification from timber and mining, I don't know," says Johnson. "I just hope we can get htis ecotourism thing going fast enough so that they will see a future in it. I really believe if the tourism industry doesnt pick up really quickly, then Guyana will go right down the tubes."

"Now we need people to come," says Johnson. "This whole thing could fail if we can't market this right and get people to come down." For information on visiting the Nappi Ecolodge please email Marc Johnson at

"What I came away with in the end," says Windsor, of her Nappi ecotour, "was an experience of a lifetime."


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