The British Empire Library

Land of Waters: Explorations in the Natural History of Guyana, South America

by Ro McConnell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Dr Linda Heesterman (Geologist, now working in Guyana)
Land of Waters describes the life of fish biologist Ro McConnell in the years 1956 - 1962 in what was then called British Guiana. Ro travelled extensively, both with her husband, who was then head of the Geological Survey in the colony, and on her own work. There are good descriptions of the wildlife, rainforest, rivers and savannahs, and amusing stories of life in remote areas. Ro had lived in Africa before she moved to Guiana, and she makes extensive comparisons between the fish and bird life of both places.

This book indicates how little had changed from that time to the present day. Most of the photographs could have been taken yesterday. Geological survey work is still done in the same way, though now there are a few more direct roads and small dirt airstrips, and amphibious planes are not used as much. On a recent fieldtrip to Kokrite, sights and sounds were very similar. Even Georgetown has not changed that much, though lack of funds for maintenance has resulted in some areas being neglected. The Palm Court restaurant still is a pleasant place to eat, the herons and manatees still live in the botanical gardens, and even most of the Geological Survey buildings are still the same. Only the railways are no longer used, and some of the trenches are now badly overgrown and silted up.

One of the themes in this book is the relationship of the Amerindian people in the interior of Guyana with the rest of the population. Again there have been few changes. In general there is now more integration, with faces of many different kinds seen in some of the villages. In some areas the people are proud of their Amerindian heritage, but no longer speak the Amerindian languages, but in other areas English is still a second language. One aspect not touched on in this book is the relationship between the people of Indian and African heritage; now there is a strong rivalry between these two groups, especially in politics.

In the last chapter Ro McConnell tries to comment on the environmental changes in Guyana, mostly based on literature published by NGOs. She reports meeting porkknockers (bush prospectors and miners), with no indication that these people represented a threat to the environment, but laments the current impact of mining. Officially approximately 20% of GDP in Guyana is derived from mining for bauxite, gold and diamonds, but in reality the contribution from mining is very much higher. Large amounts of gold and diamonds are worked by pork-knockers, but never officially reported. With the exception of bauxite mining, and the Omai Gold Mine, most other mining activity is still on a very small scale. The original Colonial Geological Survey has since independence from Britain developed into the Guyana Geological and Mines Commission (GGMC). Though there have been periods when money and people were not available to do much work, GGMC is now starting to do more of the work one would expect of a government survey. An environmental division has recently been created, and work on monitoring eg. potential mercury pollution has started. The GGMC Mines Division monitors, and to some extent controls some of the mining activity, and the Geoservices Division has recently started more systematic technical work.

This book is relevant as a good background guide to Guyana and its history and natural history, especially for those people interested in bird watching, aquarium fish, or game fishing. Reference to other publications are abundant, making this very suitable as a book introducing the country, though unfortunately there is no appendix with a full reference list. The abundant use of Latin scientific names may be a bit daunting to some lay readers, and some of the sections describing all of the different types of fish may be a bit long for those more interested in a travel book.

British Empire Book
Ro McConnell
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