US researcher conducting study on traditional Warrau canoes in Region One

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Some canoes at Imbotero, Region One [Robert Holtzman photos]

By: Amar Persaud

Underscoring the importance of documenting aged-old traditions before they fade, an international ethnographic researcher is currently in Region One (Barima-Waini) where he is conducting a study on the use of canoes among the Warrau indigenous groups in Imbotero and Warapoka.

Robert Holtzman is the first researcher stationed at the Imbotero Research Centre (IRC) – which falls under the control of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS).

Holtzman arrived in Guyana on April 9 and is currently stationed at Imbotero after which he will travel to Warapoka to conduct his research which will cover some 16 weeks.

“As globalisation affects all indigenous people in Guyana and elsewhere, it is important to record traditions as they are now practiced. Although traditional dugout canoes are common now, there is clearly a shift under way toward the use of outbound engines…and it is possible that dugouts could fade away in the not-too-distant future,” the researcher explained during an interview with INews.

“Now is the only time to record the traditions of canoe use as they are currently practiced. When maritime scholars and Warrau people 100 years from now wonder about the Warrau’s maritime practices of the early 21st century, this research will provide some answers,” Holtzman added.

According to the ethnographic researcher, canoes play a critical role in the lives of the Warrau people currently residing in the interior regions of Guyana.

“The watery environment of Imbotero makes boats an essential aspect of the economy and the culture. I’m observing how traditional dugout canoes (and more modern alternatives) enable people to negotiate their environment, and how the environment has shaped the culture and the boats they use,” he noted.

The Warrau community of Imbotero is located on the border with Venezuela and considered the gateway to the Barima Mora Passage Area (BMPA) which is home to number of endangered species and more.

“I’ve observed many traditional activities being pursued in traditional canoes, such as fishing, crab-catching, and accessing nearby farms, all with slight modifications that reflect access to new materials and markets. Traditions are not fixed entities — they are constantly evolving to suit changing circumstances,” Holtzman expressed.

The researcher also explained that during his time here, he plans to provide advice on the community’s efforts to establish itself as a location for research tourism.

Robert Holtzman enjoying a Guyanese breakfast at the IRC

According to him, it is a ‘great privilege’ in being the first researcher at the IRC.

“I’m honoured to be the first researcher in residence at the Imbotero Research Centre and I’m grateful to Annette Arjoon of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society for making it possible,” he noted.

Though his area of study is ethnography, Holtzman believes the IRC is better suited for biodiversity research.

“I believe the Research Centre’s main target audience is biological researchers, not ethnographers like myself. It is wonderfully situated for all kinds of biological and environment studies of the rich surrounding area including Shell Beach and the Mora Passage mangrove complex,” he posited.

Holtzman is also a retired editor, publisher, and author. He has a Master’s Degrees in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island, USA and Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton, UK. He is currently a PhD candidate in archaeology at the University of Southampton.