The Symbiosis of People and Plants in Amazonian Guyana

Ecological engagements among the Makushi Amerindians of Amazonian Guyana

Between 2011 and 2013, I spent 14 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork on people-plant relations among the indigenous Makushi people of Amazonian Guyana. My time in northern Amazonia was the most exciting period of my life, but it was also accompanied by  risks and challenges. These included disease and a lack of biomedical healthcare, the threat of dangerous animals and plants, and the threat of dangerous humans -  particularly present in locations particularly present in locations where river and off-road travel are essential for getting from place to place. Travelling between communities – whether in a dugout canoe or on the back of an old motorbike – presents a number of risks that must be carefully considered. In a region with a ‘rum culture’ and without regular law enforcement, drink driving was an ever-present concern.

lewis culture shock image

As my research is all about the relationships between people, animals, and plants, I regularly encountered venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions and poisonous plants. In addition, mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are a constant threat. As such, I had to be extra vigilant about using insect repellent and mosquito nets – especially in a remote area where it is difficult to procure drugs or other commodities. I learnt to rely upon the ecological knowledge of my hosts, who are the true experts at navigating the dangers of the forest.

Prior to leaving for fieldwork, I visited the Occupational Health Service to receive immunisations and antimalarial prophylaxis. As well as medication, the experts provided me with information and counselling about travelling to a remote tropical region. They also provided me with a remote point of contact. Whilst in the field, after becoming ill with suspected typhoid fever, I was able to contact the OH doctor via email in order to receive advice and information. My supervisor also provided me with email support for my safety concerns while in Guyana.

One often overlooked aspect that must be considered when embarking upon long-term fieldwork in a foreign country is ‘culture shock’. Upon arriving in Guyana, and even more so upon returning to Oxford, I endured a strange transitional period of confusion, disillusionment, and loneliness as I adjusted to a different environment.

It is of paramount importance to be informed about one’s research destination, to be prepared for any eventuality, and to be willing to be flexible about one’s plans. On a number of occasions, I had to compromise on my research plans in order to mitigate a risk to my safety.

OBSTACLES

  • Diseases & access to health care
  • Dangerous wildlife
  • Transport – unsafe or limited options
  • Culture shocK

PLANNING - risk assessment

  • Vaccinations, medication, early access to medical advice
  • Knowledge & follow the advice of locals
  • Change your plans if you can’t get there safely
  • Awareness, talk to others and put in place a support network

LESSONS LEARNED

  • First and foremost it is vital to be informed about one’s research destination and to be prepared for any eventuality. Knowledge, in this sense, is as important as medicine or equipment for navigating the challenges presented in the field.
  • Be willing and have the capacity to be flexible. Your safety is the most important thing and you won’t be successful in your fieldwork if something happens to you.
  • The dual values of preparation and flexibility – although seemingly paradoxical – together provided the key to safely navigating the risks encountered during fieldwork.
  • Be prepared for culture shock both ways. Be aware this is a normal reaction. Talking to fellow researchers who have undergone similar experiences can help you gain an understanding of what to expect and help you put in place support mechanisms.  Student counselling can also offer help and advice.
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