In total 1,156 trees were recorded, including 57 unique tree species. Of all those identified, 38 percent had their origins in Asia, 34 percent were pan-tropical species, while the rest came from the Americas (17 percent), Africa (6 percent) and Oceania (5 percent).

The researchers didn’t stop there. They then looked at the ethnic composition of each community they visited in search of correlations between the origin of the trees found and the ethnicity of people living nearby. For instance, were there more trees of Indian origin in predominantly Indo-Guyanese areas?

What they found wasn’t what they expected.

“Surprisingly, considering the presence of tree species with close links to Indian culture,” the authors conclude in the report, “we found that ethnic composition of neighborhoods had a minimal effect on tree species abundance.”

Their suggested explanation? Food. Or to be specific: “The establishment of Guyanese food as a unifying national identifier across ethnicities.”

Just like Guyana’s cuisine, the city’s trees reflect the various origins of the people who have made Guyana their home. That includes descendants of African slaves brought first by Dutch then British colonizers. The Indian indentured laborers arrived after emancipation in 1838 to work on the sugarcane plantations. The smaller numbers of Chinese and Portuguese also came in search of employment. Then, of course, there are the indigenous Amerindians — the original guardians of the tropical forests that cover more than 87 percent of this South American country.

Thanks to Georgetown’s trees and plants, their different culinary traditions have survived, prospered and been passed on.

Whether it’s Indian curry and roti, African cook-up rice, Chinese chow mein or indigenous pepperpot (a stew made with casareep, a juice extracted from the cassava root), all are today simply recognized as good Guyanese food.

Colonial roots and seeds of discontent

To find out what effect Guyana’s British colonial history has had on the trees found in Georgetown today, researchers compared their data to existing surveys from cities in neighboring Brazil and Venezuela, which were colonized by Portugal and Spain, respectively. They found 14 tree species unique to Georgetown, including the cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), ackee (Blighia sapida) and katahar or breadnut (Artocarpus camansi).

The implication is that the British colonialists, through their commercially minded botanic gardens network, brought the unique species to Guyana. Or the people they transported here did. It’s not surprising, then, that the majority of the trees in Georgetown come from Asia rather than Africa. Indian arrivals in Guyana came largely by choice, so would have been more likely and able to carry seeds and cuttings with them.

Trevor Caughlin, senior author of the report and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State University, told Mongabay over the phone that looking deeper into country’s past, particularly the food shortages of the 1970s and 1980s, is a possible area for further research.

“Perhaps that prompted people to plant trees,” he speculated. “And I think understanding that history and the reason why Georgetown has so many fruit trees could provide avenues for increasing fruit trees to promote food security now and in the future.”

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has started looking into urban forestry, according to Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, professor of urban forestry at the University of British Colombia and editor of the journal in which the paper was published.

“They see, of course, in the Global South there’s a role for trees that is probably a little bit different than it is in many other places,” hetold Mongabay over the phone.

He cited the inaugural world forum on urban forestry that took place in Italy in November 2018, which explored issues of food security, climate change and public health as well as the function of urban forests and green spaces.

Migratory roots

Documenting the biocultural significance of trees in a multi-ethnic city like Georgetown can help dispel some wider myths around ethnic minorities and their connection to the natural world.

“There has been research done in temperate places that suggests that non-white people don’t have as strong a connection to urban trees,” Caughlin said.

The report disputes this assumption, noting that recent emigrant ethnic groups from the tropics face a “climate barrier” when it comes to transferring culturally important tree species to their adopted homes in temperate regions. “I think that’s a useful finding,” Caughlin said. “Maybe it suggests that there is some education effort or something that can be done to improve the links that people feel to nature in new places.”

The report also acknowledges concerns about the high proportion of exotic species in urban flora that can be found in some other studies on urban forests in South America. However, it challenges this perspective by highlighting the cultural value of trees, an aspect some of its own authors didn’t fully appreciate before.

“This paper really made me re-evaluate my perspective on invasive tree species,” Caughlin said, “because I think there are non-native tree species in Georgetown that still have enormous value because they provide a link between the people that live in Georgetown now and their ancestral practices.”

Exploring attitudes toward trees among residents of Georgetown could therefore inform urban planning, not only in Guyana’s capital but also in both tropical and temperate cities with diverse populations.

“Our cities are becoming more and more diverse,” Konijnendijk van den Bosch said. “Councils and professionals I think still tend to focus very much on a specific way of developing green spaces — specific selection of species — and of course that’s not catering for all the different people.”

He cited an example from Toronto where the council planted a tree in front of a house and the owner asked for it to be removed (or to have permission to do so himself) as it was in opposition to his cultural beliefs. As a report in The Star explained: “Vastu, an ancient Hindu system of architecture involving home design, holds that trees shouldn’t be planted directly in front of a home’s main entrance in order to harness the flow of good energy into the house.” 

The right kind of trees

In Guyana, encouraging residents to maintain the trees in their yards is crucial as new arrivals flock to the city, housing becomes scarce, and residents look for economic stability.

Concerned about a lack of guidance around the planting of trees in the allocation of housing lots, Nadia Hunte, the lead author of the report, said she is working on plans for a tree restoration project in Georgetown. “I’m working along with someone from the Ministry of Communities and I’ve also pitched the idea at the mayor to see if they could come on board,” she told Mongabay.

Narine, the mayor, said the city council’s tree planting plans are already underway. “We’re planning to restore some of the trees,” he said in an interview, “and we’re planning to trim and neaten up some of them as well.”

The report authors say they hope their data and conclusions will help Georgetown’s city planners to not only increase tree cover but to select the right trees for the right locations to meet the needs of residents and the environment.

This fits in neatly with the government’s Green State Development Strategy. But balancing these green ambitions with a growing economy (not to mention becoming an oil nation) will be tricky.

If Guyana wants to achieve a green state by 2040, Hunte said, focused action is needed “to shape our cities” by having the trees alleviate some of the impacts of climate change.

Hunte and her colleagues are now working on the analysis of a separate paper, based on the interviews conducted with residents — many of whom, she noted, were delighted that such research is being done.

A contestant in the 2018 cook-up competition held at Georgetown’s National Park. Cook-up is one of Guyana’s favorite national dishes, made with rice, coconut milk and usually beans and meat. Photo by Carinya Sharples.

Citation:

Hunte, N., Roopsind, A., Ansari, A. A., & Caughlin, T. T. (2019). Colonial history impacts urban tree species distribution in a tropical city. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening41, 313-322. doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2019.04.010

Banner image: Tropical rainforest in Iwokrama, Guyana. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

About the reporter: Carinya Sharples is a lecturer, editor and freelance journalist based in Georgetown, Guyana. You can find her on Twitter at @carinyasharples.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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