September 27, 2021 - Comments Off on Reflecting on Guyana: Context is Key

Reflecting on Guyana: Context is Key

September 26, 2021

Dragonfly students explore Guyana by boat. Photo: Lynne Venart.

From July 1 to 10, 2021, I traveled to Guyana, South America with 14 other graduate students in Miami University’s Project Dragonfly program, our two professors, and their colleagues from the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development and Surama Ecolodge.

We came here to learn about indigenous culture and its intersection with conservation. This course piqued my curiosity for two reasons:

  1. I sought the adventure of going to a well-forested country that few people visit; and
  2. I hoped to gain insight into working with indigenous communities on shared, or not-so-shared, conservation goals.

I hoped that my learnings in Guyana would help me find ways to further connect with and understand the communities that the Lemur Conservation Network and its partners collaborate with in Madagascar.

As each day passed, I noticed more and more differences between the context of Guyana and other countries where I have visited rainforests. While I aim to be fully present and experience the unique characteristics of each place I visit, I often find myself noticing differences, allowing past experiences to help me better understand the present. Because of this, my mind processed Guyana as part of a grid of experiences including Malaysian Borneo and Madagascar.

Guyana’s Small Human Population Helps Large Forests Remain

Flying over Guyana's Kaieteur Falls. Photo: Lynne Venart.

Flying over Guyana’s large swaths of forest was eye-opening. While there were small pockets of mining, most of this land was green and covered in vegetation. This contrasts with other conservation hotspots I have visited.

In Malaysian Borneo, flying from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakhan revealed miles of palm plantations and just small pockets of forest — the opposite of Guyana’s occasional degradation. And in Madagascar, driving south or flying north of Antananarivo, one primarily sees the dry brown plains of the island’s central plateau dotted with rice paddies. Even when one gets close to a national park in Madagascar, the habitat loss due to agriculture is shockingly apparent despite the inherent beauty of the rolling landscape.

But flying over Guyana, green is the predominant color one sees.

How is this the case, and what is different about this place and the people that live here? For one, Guyana’s human population is quite low, with less than one million people and a population density of just 4 people per square kilometer. For comparison, Malaysia contains over 32 million people at 100 per square kilometer, and Madagascar is home to over 27 million at 49 per square kilometer (World Population Review, n.d.).

But why is the population so low? For one, Guyana has an unusually high emigration rate; almost 40% of Guyanese live outside the country (World Population Review, n.d.). Perhaps Guyana’s relative closeness to the U.S. has led more people to seek opportunities elsewhere, whereas most people in Madagascar do not have that opportunity.

Living off the Land Sustainably

Learning about sustainable farming in the Rupununi. Photo: Lynne Venart.

Likely due in part to Guyana’s low population density, the Makushi communities we visited were able to live off of the land sustainably. They maintain conservation areas where hunting is not allowed, and practice shifting cultivation for farming. The conservation community often considers these practices “bad”: Hunting wild animals is called “poaching” when it occurs in areas with conservation priority (Montgomery, 2020), and shifting cultivation is called “slash and burn”.

But the community here has a vested interest in ensuring that the land and its resources remain viable for current and future generations, so they are not depleting the forests. Speaking with people in the Rupununi about how they use the land challenged some assumptions about the rights to land that conservationists like myself grapple with regularly.

Who owns the land? Who has the right to use the resources of the land? Does everyone, no one, or only people whose ancestors have lived in that place for over a century?

In Guyana, Amerindian communities hold the rights to their land, much more so than the indigenous people in other countries I have visited. This ownership seems to instill a sense of responsibility but also choice. They choose to treat the land sustainably, but they could choose to bring in a mining company or to kill off a certain animal in the region if it is raiding their crops.

The Importance of Context to Understanding a Community

Surama Ecolodge. Photo: Lynne Venart.

What did I learn from Guyana’s indigenous culture that I can bring back to my work in Madagascar? The key is context. Guyana is different from Madagascar, and it’s different from Malaysian Borneo. Even the Wai-Wai people in Guyana are likely quite different from the Makushi.

The main takeaway for me was the sheer number of factors that are involved in working with communities when you come in with conservation goals, or any goals for that matter. What works in one context won’t necessarily work in another.

But, what I think does work across geographic borders is sincere listening, appreciation, and honest conversations. We must work to understand the context of a place before we can start to understand what might be a solution to any conservation problem.



Montgomery, R. A. (2020). Poaching is not one big thing. Trends in ecology & evolution, 35(6), 472-475.

The World Bank. (2021, June 30). The World Bank in Guyana. The World Bank.

World Population Review. (n.d.). Total Population by Country. Total population by country 2021. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from

September 22, 2019 - Comments Off on Furthering My Respect for Historical Knowledge in Baja California, Mexico

Furthering My Respect for Historical Knowledge in Baja California, Mexico

September 29, 2019

The group on a morning hike in the desert. Photo: Dr. Nick Jacobsen.

From July 3 to 11, 2019, I traveled to Baja, California, Mexico with 18 other first year students in Miami University’s Project Dragonfly program, our two professors, and staff from Rancho San Gregorio.

Our goals were to:

  1. learn about inquiry driven science, field methods, community-based conservation, and the ecology of Baja;
  2. sleep under the stars in the desert and by the sea; and
  3. form new partnerships in our graduate adventure.

We stayed in the desert at the remote Rancho San Gregario for the first several days, where we learned about the land from Raphael, Lalo, and Alex. We hiked in the desert, studied the plant life, and conducted line transects and quadrats in the unrelenting heat. Then, we moved west to the Vermilion Sea Station, where our classroom overlooked bright blue water filled with marine animals. Here, we ventured into the water by boat, and snorkeled with whale sharks, sea lions, and stingrays.

The experience was unforgettable. For me, these nine days deepened my respect for the historical knowledge that indigenous peoples, scientists, and animals have developed over generations.

Learning the Ranch’s History through Medicinal Plants and Storytelling

Raphael tells us about growing up on the ranch, and how he became a sought-after doctor in the region using medicinal plants.

Raphael grew up learning about medicinal plants and going to traditional healers. He had seen traditional medicines work around Rancho San Gregario. When he left the ranch to go to university in hopes of becoming a doctor, he was surprised at the disconnect between modern medicine and indigenous healing methods. Upon returning, Raphael became known as a talented traditional healer, and people from all over the region lined up to be treated.

He showed us plants that were used to treat cancer, inflammation, fever, and cholesterol. I thought, "Does this longstanding traditional knowledge inform modern techniques?". Winkelman (1986) studied 22 plants in Baja used by indigenous healers to treat human ailments. Most of the plants he studied did contain the key substances in drugs now used to treat the ailments. However, at the time of Winkelman's research, he stated that, "all of the plants lacked [previous] clinical assessments" to scientifically link the plant to the treatment.

Without respect and reverence for the historical knowledge of indigenous peoples, are we continuously reinventing the wheel?

Experimenting with Scientific Field Methods in the Desert and Sea

When looking forward to Baja, I was most excited to learn scientific field methods. In my work, I often read scientific journals and examine studies to find research that informs lemur conservation. But until now, my physical experience with field methods was nonexistent.

We learned line transects, quadrats, and social science surveys in the desert of Rancho San Gregario. In a line transect, you form a line through an area and measure a distance on each side of the line. Then, you measure abundance by counting occurrences of a trait or species on each side of the line (Scott et al., 1994). Learning by doing can be so much more powerful than reading about these methods in a book. We learned how to implement these field methods and solved issues as they arose.

Because science should be replicable, it is important to use trusted methods. Consistency is key. Learning these methods deepened my respect for the scientists that have come before me.  

Witnessing Dolphin Feeding Frenzies

While staying at the Vermilion Sea Institute, we ventured into the sea each day. The marine wildlife is like nothing I had ever experienced. We witnessed dolphin feeding frenzies, where hundreds of dolphins swim in a line a few dolphins wide, leaping out of the water as they swim. Many dolphins swim in a circle, herding fish up to the top of the water for easier catching (Reynoso, 1991). While the dolphins were feeding, birds dive head first into the water to catch the leftovers. It was quite a sight!

It's amazing how animals have learned these feeding techniques, passing their methods from generation to generation. Watching animal behaviors deepens my respect for them and their animal culture.

Beautiful Baja

Spending nine days in Baja, Mexico was the perfect way to start my graduate adventure with Project Dragonfly. The sights and educational experiences were matched by learning about my new colleagues. It was striking how we all came into the program with different skills and experiences.

We all bring ourselves to enhance the collective — open to respecting each other's knowledge and learning from each other.


Reynoso, J. P. G. (1991). Group behavior of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) during prey capture. Anales del Instituto de Biología. Serie Zoología62(2), 253-262.

Scott, N. J., Crump, M. L., Zimmerman, B. L., Jaeger, R. G., Inger, R. F., Corn, P. S., ... & Alford, R. A. (1994). Standard techniques for inventory and monitoring. Measuring and monitoring biological diversity. Standard methods for amphibians/Heyer, W. Ronald.

Winkelman, M. (1986). Frequently used medicinal plants in Baja California Norte. Journal of ethnopharmacology18(2), 109-131.