The Case of Shell Beach

Local stakeholders discuss the prospective boundaries of Shell Beach Protected Area on Guyana’s coast. The park’s boundaries were defined through a consultative process that engaged all local stakeholder groups and ensured that traditional user rights were maintained within the park. © Michelle Kalamandeen

Local stakeholders discuss the prospective boundaries of Shell Beach Protected Area on Guyana’s coast. The park’s boundaries were defined through a consultative process that engaged all local stakeholder groups and ensured that traditional user rights were maintained within the park. © Michelle Kalamandeen

By Michelle Kalamandeen

What about our traditional user rights?” asked Alonso Cornelius, the Vice-Captain of Waramuri Village. Hearing this question can be a protected area manager’s worst nightmare, but for us, it was an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to a fully consultative and participatory process, one that recognizes the rights and roles that indigenous people can play in delineating the proposed Shell Beach Protected Area (SBPA).

Shell Beach is a 120 kilometers (74 miles) stretch of beach and mudflats along the northwestern coast of Guyana in South America. The area is renowned as the annual nesting ground for four marine turtle species: leatherbacks, hawksbills, olive ridleys, and green turtles. The wider Shell Beach area encompasses mostly intact mangrove and lowland swamp forests and seasonally flooded ita palm (Mauritia sp.) savannahs. The area’s bird diversity is also one of the richest in Guyana. For those reasons, Shell Beach was identified by the government of Guyana—through a consultative process—as a priority site for protected area status.

The Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society (GMTCS), for which I work, was appointed to lead the process toward the establishment of the proposed SBPA, which we began in June 2009. Over the following year, we were faced with the important, yet challenging, task of fully engaging local communities and resource users in the park’s development.

At the initial stakeholders’ workshop in August 2009, Alonso Cornelius posed that very important question, which raised an issue at the heart of the process: Who owns and controls natural resources? Addressing such questions was instrumental to the process, as was shattering myths about protected areas, resource use, and traditional rights. It was also important for us to be familiar with the relevant laws and to be able to cite key pieces of legislation that govern traditional activities on state lands. Integrating traditional knowledge into the planning process further strengthened the conviction that sustainable traditional activities would be allowed to continue within the proposed protected area.

We began the delineation process at the initial stakeholders’ workshop by developing goals for the protected area, discussing stakeholders’ expectations, defining criteria for selection of land and ocean areas, and refining the methodology to be used throughout the process. It was imperative that stakeholders understood that we were starting with a blank slate, with no preconceived ideas of where the proposed protected area boundaries should be. This approach laid the foundation for trust and a strong sense of local ownership; it was the ideas, the decisions, and the process of the locals that drove the park’s delineation. During this process, we recounted traditional stories and folklore to remind communities of how they have historically protected sea turtles and other biodiversity at Shell Beach.

Beyond ensuring stakeholders’ comfort and engagement with the proposed protected area, it was also essential to provide them with information on the benefits that would result from its establishment. We were careful to avoid exaggeration, because continued support at the community level is often based on keeping promises and meeting expectations.

At the outset of the process, we also formed a Community Representative Group (CRG) consisting of representatives from the stakeholder communities to act as liaison among the communities, GMTCS, and other stakeholders and to represent the communities’ interests throughout the process. The CRG played an important role in communicating between and among stakeholders; as a result, communities clearly saw how their decisions and knowledge were used in park planning.

Stakeholders initially created six proposed boundary options and then selected two of the six for community consultations. Following those consultations, one last workshop was held to finalize the proposed boundary.

Throughout the process, my staff members and I were always available to address issues raised and to give advice on any other community-related matter. This presence ensured that we were focused on both the present and the future welfare of the communities, and it promoted trust and understanding that we cared not only about the process, but also about the communities themselves. In the end, Alonso’s question was answered to his satisfaction. He became a strong advocate for the Shell Beach Protected Area, and he was elected by his peers to be the chair of the Community Representative Group.