The following news article was originally published in Kaieteur News on 2017/04/03. It can be viewed here.
For years, the people of Paramakatoi, Region Nine, were reliant on various “monetary” programmes for their upkeep. But these only succeeded in steering them away from a firm grasp on independence.
That is about to change significantly.
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ministries of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Social Protection, the Presidency, the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) and the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI), the residents of Paramakatoi will be able to benefit from an exciting yet transformative project that is centered on growing and processing sundried tomatoes and sundried tomato salad dressings.
Kaieteur News will be presenting a multi-part focus on this project and the culturally rich and diverse communities which are involved. This is the first installment in the series.
The project was conceptualized by the Institute of Applied Science and Technology, at the behest of Minister within the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Valerie Garrido-Lowe.
Kaieteur News sat down with Director of the IAST, Professor Suresh Narine, in an extensive interview, to learn the details of the project.
From the get go, it was clear that the inspiration for the project revolved around truly unique communities in the high Pakaraimas. It also revolves around a movement, spearheaded by Ministers Valerie Garrido-Lowe, Sydney Allicock, Amna Ali and Professor Suresh Narine. Their efforts represent a renaissance of development and rejuvenation in several Indigenous Communities by harnessing science, technology and business models which are green, sustainable and empowering.
But to truly understand the importance and impact of the project, one must understand the history of Paramakatoi and previous attempts to make it financially independent.
The village of Paramakatoi is perched on a high plateau nearly 3000 metres above sea level in the North Pakaraimas, rimmed by high verdant peaks, with the majestic Kawa Mountain reigning as a supreme sentinel. Its silhouette is as distinctive as the colossal granite prow of some majestic ship thrusting into the heavens. The village, named after the Paramakatoi Creek which winds its way down from the high peaks of the Pakaraimas, is surrounded by communities whose names are as evocative as the musical Paramakatoi: Bamboo Creek, Mountain Foot and Yawong Falls.
These remote communities are located in the Potaro-Siparuni, Region Eight. The natural beauty and pristine environment of these communities, nestled deep within the Pakaraima Mountain Range have not been experienced by the majority of Guyanese coast dwellers, as access is constrained by a road system which is extremely difficult to traverse, whilst the high cost of air transport deters the average visitor motivated only by interest.
The region’s spectacular vistas are matched by its almost untouched environment, unique climate and legendary fertility. Most coastlanders who have even heard of Paramakatoi and the neighboring village of Kato would almost certainly have heard of the fertility of the region, where agricultural produce that cannot be grown on the coast are produced with ease, such as the so called “Irish” potatoes, onions, etc.
The village of Paramakatoi and surrounding areas have a population of approximately 3,500 individuals. Almost entirely, these citizens are of the Patamona People, and the Patamona language is very much alive; the common language of communication among residents, although all residents also speak English, and many also speak Portuguese, due in large part to the proximity of the Brazilian border and the large volume of cross-border trade. The village is governed by a traditional village council, headed by the Toshao, currently Mr. Gideon John.
Every family in the three communities cultivates a small farm, on a subsistence level. The staple diet revolves around cassava, augmented by vegetables and yams. Many residents will also rear small amounts of livestock such as chickens and in some cases, small ruminants and cattle.
There is very little trade in the produce from the farms, since everyone is a farmer and therefore no local market exists for produce. Clothing, books, technology (computers etc.), footwear, medicines, other food items such as rice, sugar, vegetable oil, etc., construction materials and almost all other items are imported from either the border town of Aramatang (in Brazil), Lethem or Georgetown.
Fuel, imported from Georgetown or Lethem, is very costly, with gasoline currently sold at $ 2, 500 per gallon. Due to the lack of commercial activity and therefore employment, and the lack of trade in agricultural produce, the majority of residents cannot afford the basic necessities beyond the food they grow, and therefore a culture of dependency on government and non-governmental aid programs has developed.
The residents of Paramakatoi and surrounding communities practice organic, sustainable agriculture on the slopes and valleys of this mountainous region. No fertilizer or pesticides are used, and the locations of the farms are shifted regularly, resulting in natural reforestation.
The climate and rich soil, coupled with the rotation of farm locations results in remarkable yields of agricultural produce; far outstripping yields in other parts of the country. However, the lack of a local market, and the astronomical cost of air transportation to populated markets are barriers to the development of agriculture as an income generator.
The lack of access to power and the high cost of fuel has stymied the development of post-harvest processing industries for preservation of agricultural produce, which may have allowed the difficult but passable road system to be used to access markets.
The potential of the region as a unique and efficient producer of agricultural produce has been long recognized.
In the early to mid-1970’s, Guyana embraced a national programme: Feed, Clothe and House the Nation, spearheaded by then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. The “Feed” aspect of this plan fell under the guidance of the late Dr. Ptolemy Reid.
The North Pakaraimas was chosen as one of the regions of focus, and a massive program to grow onions, “Irish” potatoes, cabbages and other crops began, assisted by the now defunct People’s Militia. A cooperative model was embraced, and for a while the effort enjoyed significant success.
The records of crop production from that period were astoundingly high, with large volumes of particularly potatoes and cabbages produced in the area being shipped to Georgetown. The project faltered due to the extremely high cost of air transportation, especially as the world headed into the OPEC-engineered oil crisis of the seventies; oil prices soared and massive fuel shortages resulted in Guyana.
Residents of the region still remember the trauma of waiting for the aircraft to transport produce to arrive, as their produce rotted on the airstrips. To a large extent, this laudable but unfortunately failed effort paralyzed and stymied further efforts in the region to develop agricultural production for outside markets and this has resulted until the advent of the current project, in the agricultural potential of the region being limited to just subsistence farming.
Furthermore, the dampening effect that this has had on resident’s willingness to develop cooperatives has been crippling as this avenue still remains one of the most powerful potentials for bootstrapping large supply chains and distributing risk without requiring large scale investments that concentrate risk.
Given these conditions, the use of solar and biomass drying as a means of preservation presents a proven and appropriate technology for post-harvest processing of produce grown in the region. With the organic farming practiced, the potential for production of organic dried preserved fruits, vegetables, spices and flavor herbs and essential oils in the region is high.
Furthermore, the remote location, Indigenous Lifestyles and pristine environment of the Pakaraimas provide additional branding appeal to discerning customers, particularly in North America and Europe, but also in the Caribbean, especially at tourist resorts catering to European and North American tourists.
Dehydration, whilst an effective means of preservation, can also be used as a means of developing flavor, and of course for many fruits and vegetables, significantly reduces the weight to be transported. This has formed the basis for the development of the Paramakatoi Sundried Tomato Project, spearheaded by the Institute of Applied Science and Technology.
To Be Continued….