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We Must Show an Appreciation and Protection of our Rich Natural Heritage
by Seelochan Beharry
Guyana Journal, February 2006

While working at New Amsterdam Multilateral High School as a science teacher, there was a news report (1976) of two shipments of monkeys (about 70) from Guyana that died at Heathrow, London Airport. They were transported so poorly that the animals died in transit, and/or while awaiting processing in stressful conditions (cold, no food or water).

I mentioned these incidents in my science classes. I then wrote to the Hon. Mr. Gavin Kennard (now deceased), then Minister of Agriculture and mentioned my concerns about the ill treatment of our fellow primate Guyanese citizens – the monkeys; and that the Govt should take the necessary measures to prevent the exploitation of Guyanese monkeys from unscrupulous exporters.

The animals are part of our extremely rich natural heritage, and it is therefore our responsibility to protect them; and that export of these animals must be rigidly controlled. The then process (a molasses mixture) used to capture the monkeys would usually snare an entire family group, and sometimes leave uncared orphans behind. We have no right to destroy an entire family.

Besides the letter to Mr. G. Kennard, I was also drafting a letter in defence of the rights of animals to the Guyana Graphic. I asked the secretary of the school, if she could please type the letters for me after school. She willingly agreed to help me. The then Headmistress saw the draft letters and called me (along with Deputy Head Master and Deputy Head Mistress) into her office. She (being very fearful of the political repercussions of allowing any perceived anti-Govt./PNC activity in the school) said that I could not use the school facilities to type an anti-Govt letter. Further, she made me sign a note stating that I was forbidden to even describe myself as a science teacher of the School, and that I was doing this of my own accord, without the approval of the school. She got more furious and annoyed when I tried telling her that it was not anti-Govt.; that it was about taking responsibility for our natural heritage. The environmental movement was not yet in vogue. The Public and even the general scientists were not yet sensitized to such issues.

The Deputy Headmaster, Mr. Rueben Dash (also a UG Graduate and English Teacher), who was called into the office to bear witness about the reprimand, later spoke with me in his office. He asked me to explain why I was doing what I was doing. I explained the importance of caring for our heritage, etc.. He asked me to show him the letter again. He read and corrected the mistakes in the letters and made a few suggestions. I asked him why he was willing to help me. Mr. Dash said that he respected my stand and that he believed that I was doing the right thing. He added that any person who would risk his job and career for some monkeys could not be a bad person. He encouraged me to stick to my principles and wished me good luck in my efforts.

I sent the letter in to the late Hon. Mr. Kennard. I thought that I would surely be fired. Much to my surprise, I got a really complimentary letter signed by the Hon. Mr. G. Kennard, Minister of Agriculture, thanking me for expressing my concerns about the monkeys and our wild life heritage. He promised me that he would look into the matter and deal with it. He said that he was really glad that I took a stand for the right thing; and hoped that I continued to be the voice of those who could not speak for themselves. He even asked me to visit him next time I was in Georgetown. Mr. Dash was very glad for me; he told me that he would have been very saddened to see a person like me destroyed by his political party, the PNC. I told him that I was glad that a technocrat like Mr. Kennard also had the courage to do the right thing. (More surprisingly, to me, about 15 of my Second Form science students (with the help of their parents) had also taken the initiative and written Hon. Mr. G. Kennard. He also sent a complimentary reply to each student.)

The letter to the Guyana Graphic was published. It was distorted and headed – “Do not destroy anything living.” The content of the letter was changed a lot from the original intent and meaning. I wrote back in protest, but never got a reply.

Much later: During my stay at the Ocean View hotel (while waiting for my apartment to be ready at UG, 2001), I mentioned to Dr. Victor Forsythe (now deceased, former Communications Officer of the Burnham/PNC Govt.) how close I came to getting fired, and that my life would have been so different if Mr. G. Kennard had acted vengefully and/or sent a different letter. To my surprise, Dr. V. Forsythe remembered the incident very clearly. He said that after Mr. Kennard received the letter, he (Dr. Forsythe) was called in. He said that he agreed with Mr. Kennard that this was gutsy person and they would not destroy this young man. He said that they both respected with my stand, and both agreed that this was what they would like to see in our young people. Dr. V. Forsythe said that he himself was the author of the complimentary letter that was sent to me. I thanked him. Dr. V. Forsythe also mentioned how surprised he was to also hear from some of my Second Form science students, and that he had also drafted the response to each student’s letter.

What the story showed that even in an atmosphere of extreme fear where compliance or self-policing was necessary for one’s personal survival, there were people (Mr. Rueben Dash, Mr. Gavin Kennard, and Dr. Victor Forsythe, and about 15 Second Form science students and their parents) who had the courage to do the right thing. They all realised that this was above our petty partisan politics and shortsightedness.

What is preventing us from doing the right thing now?

Now the environmental movement is strong globally; and consequently people are much more aware of the importance of the preservation of other species. We in Guyana have been truly blessed with much, and we must show our appreciation for the beauty around us and accept our responsibilities to protect and safeguard our natural heritage. Once they are gone, they are gone –‘extinction is forever’.

I am therefore asking, all students (especially science students) in High Schools, Institutes, Colleges, and the University to peacefully voice (call, write, protest) your concerns now about the exportation and subsequent mistreatment of our primate relatives. If we take the initiative and lead, the politicians will follow. It is your heritage that is being destroyed. Hopefully, members of parliament, concerned citizens, teachers, and eco-tourism minded individuals would also do the right thing. As Mr. Ruben Dash said to me – any person who cares about monkeys cannot be a bad human being. Maybe this is an opportunity to show that we all do have common interests and love for our Guyanese primate relatives. The caring and sharing must begin somewhere with our young people showing the way.
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