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Maxwell Perspective: Grounded in Facts

July 7, 2012

From Maxwell Perspective...

Grounded in Facts

In a major NSF study, Maxwell geographers help rural Guyanese assess the true worth of the land on which they depend.

Jane Read (left), an investigator in a large study of land use in Guyana, with Anthony Cummings, a doctoral candidate whom she recruited to the project; they’re reviewing one of the atlases created for the project (by undergraduate geography majors).

For nine months, Anthony Cummings walked sections of forest in Southwest Guyana making notes about the trees there, including fruit-bearing trees that support wildlife which is, in turn, a key food source for native populations. These trees are significant to indigenous populations for other, traditional uses, such providing material for a bows and arrows. And, raising significant concerns among the natives, these trees are of increasing interest to loggers who have begun operations in the region.

Cummings, a Maxwell doctoral student in geography, was collecting data for Project Fauna, a study funded by the National Science Foundation (one of the largest NSF-funded studies of its kind). Project Fauna is a six-year interdisciplinary project that includes data collection in 23 communities across 20,000 square miles of Guyana’s North Rupununi region. Researchers involved in the study represent at least 10 academic institutions on two continents.

“We were trying to learn how the indigenous people were impacting their environment and, in turn, how the environment was impacting their culture,” says Jane Read, associate professor of geography and one of the investigators on the project. She recruited Cummings, originally from Guyana, to assist.

“These atlases . . . help the people understand how they’re living and interacting with their environment.”
— Doctoral candidate Anthony Cummings
Cummings was a natural fit, having worked in the region since earning a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Guyana in 1999, most recently helping communities of the North Rupununi develop guidelines for natural resource management.

In addition to staff researchers, such as Cummings, the project relied heavily on Guyanese in each community to assist with weekly data gathering. “Each household was surveyed to find out if they hunted, where they hunted, and what they hunted,” he says. “There were also people walking specific areas to look for wildlife or signs of wildlife.”

Although local contributors were paid for their efforts, the investigators wanted to give something back to the communities for their assistance. In April, leaders of 23 Rupununi communities were presented with atlases that provide detailed information about the topography, vegetation, and wildlife of their land.

“These are communities in transition,” says Cummings. “Long very isolated, they now have a major road going through. There are logging and mining operations coming in.” The atlases, he adds, help natives better assess their use of their own environment, and provide concrete underpinnings to any land-use negotiations they face.

“Most of these communities have legal title to their lands,” Cummings explains. “The state has given them a portion of land that they are supposed to manage forever, and that includes wildlife. The atlases provide the people with real data, with which to make decisions about their populations and about managing their wildlife.”

The atlases were created by geography undergraduate students Phil Curtis ’10 and Paul Koster ’11. Both had been Read’s students in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems, learning technologies that were instrumental in the project’s data collection phase. Curtis had also taken a cartography course, which he put to use designing the template for the atlases. Each atlas contains maps and charts showing spiritual sites, vegetation, animal species, population information, primary food sources, and hunting patterns.

“For instance, the people would record what animals they hunted and where by creating little Xs on these photocopied maps,” says Curtis, now a graduate student in environmental science at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Paul and I would use satellite imagery to put all these points exactly where they belonged on the real map. Once this data was created, we could make the individual maps to create the atlases.”

Adds Koster, who will begin studying environmental law next fall, “Working on a large-scale project like this really helped me gain an understanding of what a powerful tool GIS is for displaying environmental data and being able to communicate scientific data to the general public.”

— Renée Gearhart Levy

Renée Gearhart Levy is a freelance writer, specializing in higher education, based in Fayetteville, N.Y.
This article appeared in the fall 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

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