Rupununi Hauntings: Tracing Development from Cattle to Roads

April 27, 2016

The Rupununi is a vast savannah lowland region of Guyana, one which forms the Northern fringe of the Amazon basin.  Its geography is distinct from the rest of the country, with the tropical forests that cover much of Guyana giving way to the seasonally flooded grasslands, crossed with small meandering creeks.  The Rupununi was originally part of the Gran Sabana (Venezuela) and the Rio Branco savannah (Brazil), a geography artificially divided along political lines.  It is these artificial divisions which form the entry point into this study, which traces the introduction of cattle to the region through to the development of an all-season road linking the Amazon to the Atlantic port of Georgetown, Guyana.  Examining the entangled history of early development in the Rupununi reveals patterns, and the interconnections between these industries and their patterns weave a complex picture of the current region, one scarred by colonial haunting. 

When Europeans began exploring the northern savannahs of the upper Rio Branco, there was substantial interest in the native grasslands and their potential for cattle rearing.  Because of the ambivalence of the borders in the region, Brazilian ranchers often settled on the eastern shores of the Takutu River, and by 1887, several ranches were established in Guyana.  By 1892, Guyanese ranchers were settling in the region, the largest of which, HPC Melville’s, had acquired 300 cattle before settling near Dadanawa, where he continued to grow his business by importing cattle from Brazil. 

And just as the cattle were originally acquired from Brazil, similarly the motivation for ranching in the Rupununi was firmly placed in the Brazilian economy.  The upper Amazon was experiencing a rubber boom, and from the early eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century the Brazilian Amazon supplied nearly all of the world’s rubber.  Brazilian rubber barons were in need of supplies for their workers, including beef, and consequently, there was a steady demand for Rupununi cattle.  The collapse of the Brazilian rubber industry in 1910 damaged the cattle industry of the Rupununi.  However Melville and some of the other local ranchers persuaded Georgetown of the need to develop a cattle trail to transport live animals from the Rupununi to Georgetown, thereby replacing the Brazilian market with a Guyanese demand. 

Construction of this cattle trail began in 1917, and by 1919 it was completed, with the first herd travelling in 1920. 

 Meanwhile, Brazilian interests in the route of the trail were growing.  The Brazilian government recognized that the advantages of a road linking the Northern Brazilian states to Atlantic Georgetown included a decrease in shipping times from the entire northern region of the country, in particular the Amazon region, as trucking freight up to Georgetown by land reduced the time to transport goods from Brazil to North America by one week.  Thus, the Brazilian government began advocating strongly for a continuous road north linking Manaus, across the international border, and through the Rupununi to Georgetown, thereby connecting the Brazilian interior with the export economy of the Caribbean, with further links to global trade.  The extant cattle trail provided a good template for this future development, and in 1971, a joint declaration was signed between Guyana and Brazil for bilateral cooperation in the construction of the road.  By 1992, with significant financial support from Brazil, the road had been upgraded to an all-season laterite road, and in 2009, a bridge was constructed across the Takatu River, connecting Brazil to Guyana by land.  Significantly, Brazil continues to campaign for further road improvements, offering to asphalt the entire surface, and the Inter-American Development Bank is completing a feasibility study for the project.

 However, the Guyanese media and local researchers are adamantly clear that this road is not in the interests of Guyana nor of the peoples and environments of the Rupununi, arguing that the road development has been biased in favour of the Brazilian nation.  Consultation has been weak, and the required Environmental Impact Analysis has not been completed.  The impacts, both social and environmental, are predicted to be significant.  Hence, we see how Melville’s cattle are haunting the geopolitical reality of the Rupununi today through the continued existence of the road.  Roads in general need to be better situated within relations of power, since through them colonial history continues to manifest itself as an active presence in current struggles.  This road can hardly be considered politically neutral, with Brazilian interests dominating its development, impacting upon the peoples and places of the Rupununi, sometimes in surprising ways.  By tracing the colonial history of the cattle, and the context of the evolving trail/road, a different perspective on the past permits a transformative recognition of the present, where acknowledgement can lead to possibility for change.  


This is the first article that builds on the following published research: 

MacDonald, K.  (2014)  Impacts of the Cattle Industry and Road Development in the Guyanese Amazon.  Journal of Latin American Geography, 13(3): 159-182.  

Next Wednesday, Dr. MacDonald will publish a second part, called "Impacts of Road Development on the Peoples and Environments in the Rupununi, Guyana." 

About Author(s)

Katherine MacDonald
Katherine MacDonald is a Lecturer at the School for Field Studies, Peru. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from York University. Her dissertation, ‘Rupununi Imaginaries’, explores how Makushi and Wapishana ontologies are counter-imagining places by re-engaging with the imaginaries of their ancestors, producing a complex set of alternate geographies, and creating positive change within their communities. She continues to explore the fluvial landscapes of Amazonia while researching Indigenous responses to large-scale environmental and land use change, including through IBCH adaptation and cultural management of natural resources.