Until miners from the coast land discovered relatively large amounts of gold in the last three years, life at a northwestern native Amerindian jungle community in Guyana was simple and traditional.
Most of the 800 residents in the Carib Community of Baramita District near Venezuela had eked out a living from harvesting timber, subsistence cassava and cash crop farming. Children attended government schools by rote.
Now authorities are being forced to cope with what Guyanese Health Minister George Norton on Wednesday, Oct. 7 called “a suicide epidemic” in the community that is more than an hour by air from the capital, Georgetown.
Baramita’s categorization as “a community in deep distress” follows the death last month of an 11-year-old Carib child “from alcohol poisoning” and an attempted suicide by a six-year-old. Officials say he was given a high proof alcohol drink mixed with wine on an empty stomach.
In all government says, 69 community members have committed suicide or died by alcohol-related misadventure incidents in the past four years.
Officials blame this mostly on the violent change of life following the discovery of gold as many of the men, women and children abandoned their traditional lifestyle, started panning for gold and consuming alcohol as money rolled in from gold sales.
“The situation is tragic. It has the worst kind of social problems that you can imagine,” Norton, a medical doctor told this publication this week as alarm bells ring about the deterioration of a district. Most residents barely speak a word of the English language, communicating largely in their native Carib Amerindian tongue.
Caribs are one of nine Amerindian tribes in the Caribbean single market headquarter nation. They account for about a tenth of the population and for much of the 20-plus percent of those classified as mixed race, through intermarriages mostly with blacks.
Norton said he is taking a multiagency team including experts from the World and Pan American Health Organizations, social workers and the police to Baramita in two weeks to tackle the problem comprehensively before it is too late.
“Alcohol is reaching the village by the truckloads and this has got to stop. Before the gold, the Jehovah Witness Church had a lot of influence. They prayed all day Sunday. Today, it is gold and alcohol. We have social problems to the extreme.”
Norton said the problem had been festering for months with little intervention from the previous government which lost elections in May.
Laura George from the umbrella Amerindian People’s Association (APA) said “strong attempts were made by officials to bury the problem for political reasons. We are watching to see how this government will solve it.”
Guyana was earlier this year classified by the WHO as the country with the highest per capita rate of suicide in the world.
Minister for Education Rupert Roopnaraine raised the issue publicly last week saying Baramita needed “omnipotent control” to prevent it from “becoming a budding Jonestown,” referring to the November 1978 mass suicide deaths involving more than 900 Americans at nearby Jonestown or Port Kaituma.
He complained that persons who attempt to publicize the issue are being harassed and threatened as he called for greater police presence in the community. The Amerindian body confirmed threats to whistle blowers.