The Jesuits in Guyana
South America: Amazonia & Iwokrama

For much of its history Guyana saw itself almost exclusively as a Caribbean; but now this perception is beginning to change as the country looks more and more to its South American roots. The nation which once defined itself by the sea now identifies itself with the land. This subtle change in self-understanding is affecting the way it interacts with its traditional friends and neighbours: for example, the dominant links with Britain and the island-nations of Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica to the north are now being loosened and challenged by the attentive presence of Brazil in the south.

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Brazil’s new closeness to Guyana is mutually beneficial: from the Guyanese point of view, in a region where both Suriname and Venezuela cast lustful eyes on Guyana territory (Venezuela actually claims that over 50% of Guyana’s land is rightfully theirs) the Land of the Jaguar gains a muscular friend in the south. For their part Brazil will benefit enormously from this association because a co-operative Guyana will be favourable to the development of a much-needed overland-corridor for the transportation of Brazilian goods & raw-materials to the lucrative markets of North America.

Already the deals are being made and enacted. The Brazilians have put their resources into the recent completion of the bridge over the Takatu River which acts as the border between the two nations. The Brazilians have also expressed an interest in renovating the rather poor road from Lethem to Georgetown; eventually the Brazilians will also complete this opening in the north and finance the building of a deep-water harbour on the Guyanese coast.

All this, of course, will have social implications for the peoples involved and especially on the way it will impact on the delicate Amerindian communities which straddle the border between the two countries. Although there is much in common between the Amerindian communities in Guyana and Brazil, it is clear that there are also noticeable differences. In Guyana, for example, although the Amerindian communities are financially poorer, they are significantly more secure in their land-rights. In Brazil, however, the Amerindian communities and have been struggling for many years to gain legal status for their communities & land and they are far more politically engaged and battle with regional and federal government which often side with the influential Brazilian land-barons who wish to mass-cultivate the traditional Amerindian lands. A recent Brazilian Supreme Court decision seems to have given protection to the lands, but it remains to be seen if this decision is honoured in the breach and what affect that will have on the interior.

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The Jesuits in Guyana have been working along the Brazilian border for a hundred years and during that time have developed a network for pastoral and social care in the villages, but it is only in recent times that the Brazilian Jesuits have been able to significantly engage with the northern reaches of their country. In the light of the changing needs and the desire to facilitate a better response to these needs, the Brazilian Jesuits have now created a separate administrative Region for Amazonia (www.jesuitasamazonia.org) and they are now beginning to explore the apostolic needs in the district of Roraima which borders the Rupununi and the Pakaraimas in Guyana.

Although the challenges are great, this cross-border co-operation between Jesuit Regions will be very constructive. Given that the Patamona, Macushi and Wapishana peoples happily ebb-&-flow across the national frontiers – seeking employment, a barrel of petrol, a sack of sugar …or even a wife or husband! – it is logical that the Jesuits co-ordinate their apostolic work and share human and material resources. Already a community of Amazonia Jesuits has been established in the town of Bon Fin, which lies immediately across the Takatu from St Ignatius, Lethem.

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One way that Guyana is growing into being a South American country is its increasing awareness that its tropical rain-forests and rivers are an integrated part of northern reaches of the massive and complex organism that is the Amazon eco-system. As concerns grow over the alarming slash & burn policies of quite a number of the Latin American countries, the outside world is taking a greater interest in the pioneering work in the virgin forests in Guyana.

Since 1996, the year that the International Iwokrama Project became a legal entity, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation & Development has provided Guyana with an international reputation as a pioneer in research and sustainable development of rainforests. Sponsored by the Commonwealth Nations, and with Prince Charles as its Patron, the Iwokrama (www.iwokrama.org) was established in 1989 to promote both sustainable forest conservation and equitable utilisation of tropical rainforests in a manner that leads to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits.

Such broadening horizons have made the South American Jesuits draw closer together in recent years. The body that co-ordinates the Spanish and Portuguese speaking Provinces of Latin America (CPAL) (www.cpalsj.org) has helped open up new vistas for Guyanese Jesuits: whether it is the protection of poor farmers in Bolivia, the resourcing of Fe y Alegria schools in Venezuela, the development of catechetical programmes in Cuba or teaching children to pray in Nicaragua, it becomes clear that the Jesuits of Latin America are imaginatively incarnating the Good News in the lives of many. This is an inspiration for the Jesuits of Guyana and one from which we can only learn.