Digital Democracy, Part II: Guyana

Guyana is one of the most densely biodiverse countries on the planet. And this month I spent two weeks in its southern savannah working with forest monitors to document indigenous land claims.

First, a primer. Where is Guyana? That’s a fair question. I had to Google it, too. Here’s a map.

guyana-map

It’s amazing how many people can hear the sentence “I’m going to Guyana” and will correct you to say some other similar-sounding country. Nope, not west Africa, and not the one that’s part of France, though technically it is one of “The Guianas,” or was “the English Guiana,” so partial credit for knowing it’s at least in South America. Anyway, Guyana: one of the most beautiful countries you’ve never heard of.

Two territory monitors repairing their drone.

Territory monitors repairing their drone.

The Wapichan have been mapping their territory since at least the 1960s, when the British were ending their occupation and the new government had to draw new lines on the map. The indigenous people were in the process of moving from the jungle to the savannah, so the government assumed they didn’t want the jungle anymore, or… something? The communities received part of their land claim, with a promise for more later. That later is happening now, and with a combination of hand-held GPS devices and cameras, gas-generator powered ArcMap, and drone photography, this negotiation will be based on hard evidence.

Laptops and hammocks are fairly comfortable.

Laptops and hammocks are fairly comfortable.

The first week was fairly busy. Monitors from all over the region came to meet us in Shulinab, and we helped them fix their phones, digitize new map symbols, and build new tools to make their data collection and reporting smoother.

Me, explaining #FridayDiscoBackup to the monitoring staff.

Me, explaining #FridayDiscoBackup to the monitoring staff.

For the second week, the rest of Dd’s staff, its whole board, and its most active contractors flew out to join us for a planning retreat. One of these advisors was a certain Mr. Levinger of SpaceDog.

#PowerCouple

#PowerCouple

Walking to the creek for a dip during our retreat at Saddle Mountain.

Walking to the creek for a dip during our retreat at Saddle Mountain.

As always, it was great to see technology being used for good. But I was more impressed with the organizational capacity, patience, and strategic intuition of the Wapichan monitors. I’ve never meetings in Oakland run so smoothly, or people so eager to listen and collaborate. It was easy to feel like we were only there because we were useful to them, not because they were enamored with shiny tools. That’s one of many lessons I hope to carry forward.

Internet ahead.

Internet ahead.