ANNAI, Guyana — It’s 8:30 a.m. and the main school building of the Bina Hill Institute’s Youth Learning Centre is strangely quiet. The classrooms are deserted, the newly built dormitories are empty, and the football field lies still. But behind the kitchen block is a hubbub of noise: the roar of a motorbike, the hum of chattering voices, snatches of Latin music played on unseen cellphones. It’s the sound of an entire student body hard at work plucking, boiling and cleaning more than 100 white leghorn chickens.
The Youth Learning Centre (YLC) is not your average school. Surrounded by the savanna, rainforest and mountains of Guyana’s North Rupununi district, it’s the only tertiary educational institution in the country’s hinterland. And although the two-year syllabus includes English and math, classes focus on areas relevant to life in Guyana’s interior, such as agriculture, natural resource management, forestry, tourism, traditional crafts and one of the local indigenous languages, Makushi.
Pupils come here from indigenous communities across the Rupununi, and further afield. The center provides what it calls “a second chance” for those forced to drop out of high school because of financial or family pressures or who never made it beyond primary school due to a lack of secondary education in their community. As such, rather than focusing on grades, the admission requirements include enthusiasm, leadership potential and a recommendation from the prospective student’s village council.
“It offers something that not many places offer … it’s more of an experiential education,” Ivor Marslow of the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB), an umbrella governance body for the area’s communities, told Mongabay.
The YLC is part of the wider Bina Hill Institute, a research, development and training body that in turn comes under the NRDDB. A board of trustees plays an important role in the center’s management, and over the years it has received support from many national and international organizations, including the German nonprofit Eerepami Regenwaldstiftung Guyana and the Guyana-based Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development.
Incubating indigenous knowledge
The Bina Hill Institute was established in 2001, spearheaded bySydney Allicock, who today is Guyana’s minister for indigenous peoples’ affairs. Born and raised in the Rupununi, he recognized that graduates heading to the capital city, Georgetown, had a tendency to become disconnected from their indigenous roots.
When that happens, Allicock told Mongabay, “You’ve lost a person, a resource. When they return they’re not really helpful because they’ve lost the touch of nature, they’re no longer in tune of what real life means.” So, in 2002, he helped start the Youth Leadership Programme — now the Youth Learning Centre — as an “incubator” to turn out future leaders who could return to and help develop their communities.
One of the YLC’s first graduates was Norbert Salty, who now teaches computing and information technology at the center after several years working in various roles, including as NRDDB vice-chairperson. He is keen to show his students the potential of technology for capturing and analyzing environmental data to improve communities’ sustainable management practices. One hindrance to Salty’s objective is the patchy internet access on site. Sending an email, responding to a WhatsApp message or doing online research generally involves waking up around 3 a.m.
The center faces other challenges, too, often related to sparse funding. Most of the batteries that service the two high-tech solar panels are dead or running at reduced capacity, leading to an overreliance on an expensive diesel-powered generator. The school bus sits still, awaiting a spare part. And the students’ carefully planted kitchen garden has been destroyed numerous times by invading iguanas, goats and sheep, all for want of a sturdy fence.
According to people who have visited the center over the years, change has been steady but slow — and prone to setbacks. Which is perhaps not surprising given the logistical difficulties the school faces. These include expensive and restricted transportation, limited access to resources, and the need to negotiate the budgetary oversight of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs, which earmarks the bulk of the center’s income each year, about $238,000. Under the previous government things were even tighter, with the center reportedly receiving just under $2,400 per month. At one point in 2014, staff were sent home due to lack of funds. With a general election due in the next few months, the center’s income could be at risk once again.
Nevertheless, older staff members attested to the massive transformation that has taken place here. A passing cowboy, who it turned out manages the institute’s cattle herd, wistfully recalled days when students would ride around on horseback. Bina Hill’s administrator, Emily Allicock (a cousin of Minister Allicock), remembered cooking in the open air: “We didn’t have a stove and them things … we actually had a fireside, an outside kitchen.” Even current students spoke of, as recently as last year, having to collect water from the well, having no lights in the dorms, and food scarcities.
The center’s move toward modernity reflects a wider cultural shift away from traditional ways of life. It’s a generational gap that the center seeks to bridge, but sometimes struggles with itself.
“Long ago, Amerindian people never really did lumbering as a form of commercial gain, they were more in their traditional rotational farming,” said forest management tutor Frank Allicock (Minister Allicock’s nephew; having two members of a founder’s family on staff is not as nepotistic as it may sound given that Guyana’s entire population numbers less than 800,000 people). “Nowadays young people like us want lots of money and we know that if we go cut, we can maybe make this amount of commercial gain from this log.”
In his forestry class, students learn about guidelines set by the Guyana Forestry Commission, as well as local practices. Field trips are regular events: whether it’s visiting the mill site at Iwokrama’s center, roughly two hours north of Annai, or seeing a village elder demonstrate how to cut a tree with an ax. Some students also attend a 14-day course offered by the forestry commission that covers everything from tree identification to chainsaw maintenance.
Frank Allicock also teaches natural resource management, including the extractive industries in Guyana such as oil, aluminum, gold and diamonds. By learning about the impact of mining alongside classes in sustainable resource extraction and alternative livelihoods, YLC staff hope the students will be able to advise their own communities on how to mine in a more sustainable, less destructive way, or even avoid mining altogether.
Although their tuition and board are covered by the government allocation, and each gets a stipend of about $50 a month, the students are encouraged to be entrepreneurial. They are the ones who run the poultry farm, supplying chickens not only to the center’s kitchen but also to the neighboring Annai Secondary School and local residents. When the birds are ready, an announcement is made on Radio Paiwomak and orders roll in.
Students also craft products from found natural materials, and some make snacks to sell on special occasions, at local football matches and at the small school shop. This shop also stocks a range of products manufactured right at Bina Hill by Yei Winon Merisin Sepo, a group of indigenous women from different communities who make traditional medicines and soaps from local plants.
The center is located close to the central road that connects Georgetown to the town of Lethem. As such it regularly attracts passing scientists, researchers and conservation NGO staff — the school calendar even has a slot for guest speakers. When Mongabay visited, there was a talk on fish management and mercury poisoning by Deirdre Jafferally, a researcher working on a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs project titled “Integrating Traditional Knowledge into National Policy and Practice in Guyana,” which builds on the methodologies of the earlier Project Cobra.
Working on the same project is Bernie Robertson, a former YLC student. He never had the opportunity to go to secondary school, but since graduating from the center he’s worked with Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Project Cobra. Part of his current role includes collaborating with the YLC: “We’re actually trying to see how we can work with students to create small videos about their environment, their everyday life, what they want to do.”
Being in the heart of the Rupununi also means being in the center of the tourism industry, with many of Guyana’s best-known ecolodges and ranches relatively close by. Some offer internships to the students during their second-year work placement, or even jobs upon graduation. The center also has a partnership with the Guyana Tourism Authority to send two of its top students to Georgetown for six weeks to work at the tourism body.
A tourism tutor of six years, Alfonso Forde hails from the neighboring village of Aranaputa, the home of a thriving peanut farm and peanut-butter factory. As a North Rupununi tourism coordinator, he helps communities tap into Guyana’s small but growing tourism industry, and said he aims to share this experience with his students. “What we focus on here mostly is about nature-based tourism, community-based etcetera. Not the hard-core, mass tourism business,” he said. His approach to conservation and sustainability is businesslike, as he sums up with this ethos: “Conservation without benefits is what you call conversation.”
“We used to have this wildlife trade going on, bird trapping,” Forde said. “But you teach them how that one macaw could actually be sold a million times. How? Tourism.” He aims to help students recognize what attractions they have in their own communities — from petroglyph rock paintings and crafts to waterfalls and wildlife — and learn how to develop and market them.
Back to the land
While tourism seemed popular with many of the students, agriculture is where some are headed. “It has a lot of opportunities,” said student Ignatius Fredericks, who cited engineer and agronomist as two potential career choices. He said his goal is to study at the Guyana School of Agriculture and then come back to the region, perhaps to the Rupununi branch of the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute.
To instill a passion for farming in his more reluctant students, agricultural tutor Ryan Marco organizes trips to local agri-producers, from small-scale farmers to a somewhat controversial 117-square-kilometer (45-square-mile) megafarm. But getting the kitchen garden up and running is his current focus. It may be a little easier now as the invading iguanas were captured and, well, eaten by visiting building contractors. So far the crop includes bora(a type of green bean),boulanger(eggplant), cucumber, pepper, tomato and shallot.
There are big plans ahead too, said Marco. The Minister of Indigenous Peoples Affairs wants the center to do agriculture on a large scale so that in 20 years it won’t have to be asking the ministry or anywhere else for money. “[The minister] wants here to be an example,” Marco said.
Gearing up for the future
Right now, though, the main buzz at Bina Hill is about the Hinterland Green Enterprise Development Centre, which was under construction when Mongabay visited in November. Minister Allicock said he is excited about the plans for the $959,000 venture: “[It] is going to be fully equipped with the new lab, mechanic shop, I.T. — all these things will be in there. And this will help to get our young people truly rounded.”
He said he envisages a body of scientists working at the new green enterprise center who will help the country protect its natural environment; reverse growing rates of diabetes, heart disease and other health concerns; and promote medicinal plants and indigenous medicine. “The challenge now is to have those technical people who will lead us on.”
Today, the YLC has 47 pupils, slightly less than its quota of 50. Overseeing them all is new principal Laureen Pierre, who comes with a doctorate in education and a particular interest in Amerindian culture and history. She joined the center in September, after an unusually low number of students (just seven) graduated last year. This was attributed variously to financial constraints, students leaving early to take up work offers, and student misconduct.
Despite some hard times and internal dramas, the center has made a name for itself in Guyana’s conservation field and in surrounding communities. “It’s not accredited but it’s recognized within the region,” Pierre told Mongabay. “People know the quality of students that come out of here: they’re versatile … they’re confident, they can stand up and speak and direct a meeting if necessary.” (The center is seeking full accreditation, as well as vocational certification in business, tree grading, or measuring the quality of the timber, food handling, and other areas.)
“I build up confidence as I came here,” said second-year student Shaneeza Andries. “I started conducting assembly, reading articles in front of the class, just to build up myself.”
In addition to boosting the students’ self-esteem, the Youth Learning Centre aims to prepare them for the wider world, whether that’s the world of work or further study. And with oil production due to start imminently in Guyana, the work of the center could become even more urgent.
Although Minister Allicock buys into the government’s Green State Development Strategy, which seeks to combine greener living with becoming a new oil economy, he sees the promotion of indigenous knowledge and traditional skills as vital to Guyana’s success. “There is undiscovered education which we need to bring to the fore now, to share with the rest of Guyanese,” he said. “If we do not capture it we could lose it and it could cause us to abuse the natural setting.”