Image: Tati Nova/Shutterstock
The 3 G Network conference, ‘Imagining the Guyanas: ecologies of memory and movement’, is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history, culture and peoples of the three Guyanas – Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana. Sonya Rahaman, whose heritage is part Guyanese, has long been inspired by, and curious and intrigued about South America’s only non-Latin-American countries.
As a little girl I used to browse the bookshelves of our family living room and flick through my father’s books on Guyana, written by English explorers and travellers. I would look at the images of Amerindian children fishing, hunting and travelling by canoe on serene rivers with a backdrop of beautiful lush vegetation and surrounded by exotic wildlife. It seemed to me a wondrous life with nature and man living in harmony, and where adventure was never far away. But I was also full of questions: Who were these peoples? Why did they live in the rainforest? Where in Guyana could they be found? How did they learn the skills needed to survive in that environment?
I did not think that my childhood inquisitiveness would turn into a PhD research proposal inspired by the plight of the very people whose lives I had spent countless hours daydreaming about on rainy afternoons in London. It was not until I completed my studies as a barrister, that I learnt about how the lives of indigenous peoples around the world are dominated by the fight for land rights and natural resources. Moreover, that far from the romantic lives of my imagination, they endure deplorable poverty.
In a quest to know more about the rights of indigenous peoples I chose the LLM programme at the University of Essex precisely because of its speciality on minority and indigenous rights. My dissertation focused on whether Guyana was effectively implementing its international obligations towards its indigenous population. A visit to Guyana, which was an amazing experience and an opportunity to see the static landscape of those old photographs come to life, included interviews with the communities, government officials, Amerindian lawyers, NGO activists and even the country’s president. These conversations threw up even more questions.
One of the issues that emerged from these interviews was the impact of mining on Guyana’s indigenous women. When the mining industry enters Amerindian lands, traditional work and ways of life alter. Amerindian women are forced to change their community roles and seek employment in other areas of the country where they have been subjected to labour exploitation. For those who choose to stay in their communities, there is a heightened risk of sexual exploitation and rape.
Unable to cover this aspect of indigenous women’s rights in my LLM dissertation, and with an increasing interest in the rights of women, I decided to pursue a PhD to research this issue further. I am currently in my second year. The research focuses on the relationship between the rights of indigenous women, the extractive industries and free, prior and informed consent in relation to negotiations with the state and indigenous peoples on the use of their land for natural resource extraction.
Thanks to a place at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in addition to the expertise offered by my supervisors, I have access to numerous colleagues experienced in conducting research with indigenous communities in the Commonwealth and beyond. This is invaluable as I contemplate how to actually gather this research data effectively. Close ties to other School of Advanced Study member institutes, such as the Institute of Latin American Studies, means comparative research can be easily achieved.
My aim is to carry out research that is not only academically interesting but also beneficial to indigenous women. I want the implementation of their rights to be a reality and not just a dream.
Sonya Rahaman is a second year PhD researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the social media editor of the International Journal of Human Rights and coordinator of the Human Rights Researchers Network (HRRN). Follow Sonya and the Journal on Twitter: @InRights, @SonyaRahaman.