Anyone living along the coastal strip of Guyana will always remember the stench
and abundant fish associated with abandoned sugar cane fields, but, have you
ever paused to ponder why this practice is carried out. It is only in Guyana where
such an event takes place after about 12 to 14 years of ratooning. I will now
endeavour to explain.
Abandoned sugar cane
field. Rose Hall estate,
Berbice, Guyana
Many coastal areas of Guyana,
Vietnam and parts of West
Africa have acid sulphate soils,
formed under marine
conditions and built up by
mangroves where the sulphate
in the sea water is reduced to hydrogen sulphide in the anaerobic conditions of
the flooded soil which is high in organic matter. The hydrogen sulphide reacts
with iron compounds in the soil to form iron pyrites (FeS2). Where the swamp
contains considerable amounts of iron pyrites, they become quite sterile after
draining as the iron sulphide is oxidised to sulphuric acid (by the bacteria
thiobacillus ferrooxidans) and iron is deposited. The process is identical to the
much publicised “acid mine drainage” problem, associated with many mining
regions of the world. This is evident if one looks at the seepage coming from the
soil, one sees the iron rich solution turning brown by the deposition of haematite
(Fe2O3) as it oxidises on contact with atmosphere.
Anaerobic reactions are utilised in the heavy frontal clays in Guyana, where at
the end of the cropping cycle, the structure of the soil is poor and rather difficult
to irrigate efficiently. The land is taken out of cropping and flooded to a depth of
30cm for between 6 to 12 months. During this time all the trash from the last
ratoon rots down and anaerobic reactions associated with iron oxides occur. A
heavy growth of waste-weeds and algae builds up, ideal habitat for fish, but the
normal cane field weeds are “drowned”. When the field is drained away to the
saline (corrupted to silane) canal, any excess salts are removed and as the air
penetrates, oxidation of iron and manganese compounds proceeds. The final
result is a marked improvement in the tilth and an increase in fertility.


Modern sugar refinery under construction at Skeldon estate, Guyana
This practice is confined to Guyana, which has its own characteristic system of
irrigation and drainage canals, evolved over the centuries, by trial and error.

The electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) is one of the most extraordinary South
American fresh water fish. A large electric eel five or six feet in length can
produce outputs as high as 650 volts, and a three-foot eel can regularly produce
350 volts. There are no clearly documented cases of people being killed by these
eels, but it is entirely possible.
The South American electric eel is one of a select family of fishes which all share
the interesting internal arrangement whereby an important part of the muscle
tissue has been modified to produce significant amounts of electricity. All animals
which have a nervous system produce a minute amount of electricity, but in the
vast majority the current is extremely small and so confined entirely within the
body, eg it takes an electrocardiograph to register the current produced in the
human heart. What makes the electric fishes extraordinary is that they can
release electricity outside their bodies, and that the amounts released are
appreciable, ranging from minor tingles to paralyzing and fatal shocks.
The electric is by far the most potent of these electric fishes. Four fifths of its
elongated body is made up of the electricity producing tissue; all of its vital
organs are crowded into the head end.

This makes it really a very short fish with a long tail, and the functions of its
highly charged tail are to provide it with protection, food and the ability to detect
objects in the muddy waters where it lives, all through electricity.

The habitat of the electric
There are three electricityproducing organs in the tail of
the electric eel, each of which
seems to have a separate,
though related, function. The
largest of the three, the main
battery, so to speak, produces
the high voltage discharges. It
starts at the head end of the tail and runs for about two thirds of its length,
tapering at its hind end. It is a paired organ, i.e. there is one of such organ at
either side of the tail. The electric cells within the organ are arranged in series,
like storage batteries in the modern electric car. It is believed that these cells are
muscles in which the contractile tissue has disappeared, so that all that is left is a
concentration of motor end-plates, the electric producing nerve terminals which
in any muscle govern muscular action. Where the large electric organ tapers
towards the hind end of the tail, another, smaller paired organ begins. This one
is known as the bundle of Sachs, and it
releases discharges one tenth as strong as
that of the large organ.

Electric eel in the Mazaruni River

But whereas the major discharges are
discharged in trains of 10 or so at a time
and up to 300 or 400 per second in a
vigorous eel, the bundle of Sachs sends out
single impulses at the rate of 20 or 30 per
second. These discharges seem to function
as a sort of locating device, replacing the
eyes, which, as a young eel matures,
becomes clouded and useless, probably as a result of being damaged by
repeated electric shocks. A third organ, called the organ of hunter, lies along the
base of the anal fin. Long and slender, it runs the full length of the tail. Its
discharges are very feint and, though they seem to be related to the major
discharges, their function as of now is unknown.

An oddity of the electric eel is that it breathes air, it must rise to the surface
every 15 minutes or so, or it will drown. It has neither lungs nor gills, but
numerous small folds in the mouth, covering the tongue and palate, that are
specialized for absorbing oxygen. In the laboratory, an electric eel can be kept
out of water for hours at a time; all that is necessary to keep it alive is to
moisten the mouth once in a while with water.
I went to Guyana on one of my photographic expeditions to document, on film,
the effects of the El Niño drought of 1998, the worst in living memory when
approximately one-third of Guyana’s livestock succumbed to this devastating
natural phenomenon, caused by warm current oscillations in the Eastern Pacific
Ocean, off the West coast of South America. Salt (NaCl) also crystallized in the
coastal canals, permanently altering the fragile ecosystem.

one-third of
succumbed to
the drought


Salt crystallizing along coastal canal, Corentyne coast
While there, I met an old friend who had mining concessions in the Cuyuni and
Mazaruni rivers from which he produced gold and diamond. In the late seventies,
while working for the Guyana Mining Enterprise, I was his mining consultant. He
volunteered to take me in to the Mazaruni to see how things had changed in 20
years I had been away from that area. I relished the idea of a free trip. He
piloted his own Cessna plane and had been doing so since 1975. We flew from
the Ogle airstrip.
This was the first time I had flown into the interior and was able to see the
ground throughout; normally the cloud cover obscures such views, thanks to El
Niño. The suspension bridge at Garraway stream looked majestic in the rain
forest. Omai Gold Mine stood out as the environmental disaster it is renowned to
be. My friend mentioned that because of the El Niño, the electric eels were
seeking out the deeper spots of the river where his men were dredging, and as a
result, three of his men were killed in six months, suspected of electrocution. I
was a bit skeptical. All the electrocutions were on one particular rig in the
Mazaruni, he operated three rigs there. There was no electrocution in the
Cuyuni, where he had four rigs!
I asked him whether his men had seen the eels when they came up for air,
something I learnt on the Discovery channel. Two hours later we landed on a
bumpy Imbaimadai airstrip, chased by all the dogs from the village. A dugout
canoe was waiting for us at the landing; we boarded it and motored up the
Mazaruni River. The river was noticeably low, and rocks were seen everywhere in
the river making navigation treacherous.


Electric eel in the
Karowrieng River
We hit rocks on
several occasions but
had enough warning
to lift the outboard
motor and save the
propeller from being
damaged. We turned
into the Karowrieng,
a tributary of the
Mazaruni, renowned
for its Maipuri fall.
About a mile in we met my friend’s first dredge and tied up alongside it. The
foreman of the rig was Batson, an old associate; he was overjoyed to see me
and hugged me, nearly fracturing my ribs. Years of hard rum drinking and
patronizing the whores who ply the mining camps had not taken their toll. His
propensity for the Itinerant gold miner’s life in this part of the Amazon rain forest
rejuvenated him, I thought!
A mining dredge is fully self-contained for the 8 or 10 hours it is in operation. A
cook is on hand, there is a mechanic to service the engine, compressor and
pump. There are processing men who recover the diamond and gold. Divers
work in stints of 30 minutes, their main function is to hold the hose pipe of the
suction pump in the gravel bed. While he is there, he is fed air from the
compressor. He is partnered by a hose/signal man who feeds him his supply
airline and signals to him. Each crew has their unique signals, it is not universal.
Because of the danger associated with such operation, a diver can surface in 10
seconds from the time he is signaled to. When we arrived Chico was diving and
he had been under for about 20 minutes, the signal man was “Butter Boy”,
renowned for his lightning fast reflexes. I asked Butter Boy, “Butter signal to
Chico to surface,” Butter looked at foreman Batson for approval. Batson was a
hard faced alluvial miner with 40 years’ experience, he worked every river in
Guyana, and I first met him in the Potaro River in 1977, about 5 kilometres
below Kaieteur Falls, when I was shooting some Kodachrome colour slides on
“Itinerant Miners” for a photo essay I was preparing for a well-known UK mining
magazine. Batson replied, “Do as the English Maan suggested, Seech will never
make a wrong decision, I’ve been wucking wid him since 1978, caaalll the man
up, QUICK!!!” Butter duly signaled but after a minute, Chico had not surfaced, so
the crew thought that he found a rich gravel bed. I knew that that was
abnormal, and asked them to pull him up. They pulled him up and when he was
landed on the pontoon he was barely conscious. His appearance was that of
asphyxiation, a symptom I had seen several times in Africa associated with
cyanide poisoning.

On closer examination of the mechanics of the rig, I found that the air intake to
the compressor was very close to the exhaust of the diesel engine. With the low
river level, there was a lower head of water for the air to work against, so the
divers were getting a higher dosage of carbon monoxide than when the river
level was normal. I recommended that they shut down for a day and extend the
exhaust pipe of the engine to above the pontoon’s roof. The average miner lives
from hand to mouth with the sanguine hope that he will find that elusive gold
nugget. Whatever spare money he has at the end of the week is spent on the
prostitutes who come in to the area on special permits as “domestic servants”
but practice their trade openly.
On our way back, about 30 minutes before landing, I told my friend that the
deaths he had were not from electric eels but carbon monoxide poisoning, he
was visibly shaken, and although we had cleared the area renowned for its air
pockets and turbulence, the ride was still rough, and the landing even rougher!!!

The gold dredge, post-modification


THE HOATZIN/CANJE PHEASANT (opisthocomus hoazin)
The Guianas, a large area north of the Amazon watershed, is particularly well
endowed with waterways, and its native name translates into “land of water”.
Surprising, however, these forested
rivers are not over-stocked with
birds, despite the fact that tropical
America houses the richest bird
fauna in the world.
The elusive hoatzin, graciously
posing, up the Canje Creek in
I have spent several days on these
waterways and yet saw only an
occasional heron, kingfisher or
toucan. Nearer the coast the bird life
is more plentiful, and in many areas
there still exists colonies of the
peculiar Hoatzin. Peculiar because
they are probably in some ways the
most primitive birds, and have a
wing structure resembling that of
the fossil Archaeopteryx. It is usually
considered to be the “missing link”
between modern day birds and their
reptilian ancestors.
Long claws on the bend of the wing help the young birds to clamber about in the
branches around the nest, and if they fall into the water they can swim well,
above and below the surface. Hoatzins are mainly crepuscular, sedentary birds,
which rest among the river-bank foliage during the hot hours, and feed at night
on the leaves, flowers and fruit of certain marsh plants known locally as moco
moco. Not only does it eat leaves far more than any other bird, but it digests
them like a cow or a sheep, grinding the leaves up in its specialized muscular
crop. About 85% of the bird’s diet is made up of green leaves. It prefers young,
fresh leaves which are richer in proteins and easier to digest. Since a Hoatzin,
unlike a cow, has no teeth, it “chews” its leaves up by rubbing them against
sandpapery ridges in its crop. It keeps food in its gut for 20 hours or more. Like
a cow it practices foregut fermentation, the fatty acids that result lends the bird
its characteristic smell.


The Hoatzin’s nests are roughly
built platforms of twigs, built
above water, often in
mangroves. When the young first
hatch they are naked and
extremely active. If they dive into
the water because of fright, one
can be later see how they cling
adhesively to twigs and clamber
from one to another as they try
to get back on to the nest
Artist representation of the
Hoatzin chick clinging to a
branch, note vestigial claws
They have two little claws on the
front edge of each wing, relics of the time when their reptilian ancestors had no
wings but forelimbs with separate digits. When the Hoatzin chick grows up, they
lose those vestigial claws. The adults are poor flyers, flapping heavily and
laboriously along the rivers. They do not seem able to cover more than a
hundred metres or so before they have to crash into the vegetation and rest.
Widespread clearing of land along the coast for rice and sugar cultivation during
the last half of the twentieth century destroyed the Hoatzin’s habitat and the bird
became rare.
The Hoatzin is the national bird of Guyana and is locally known as the Canje
Pheasant, from the district in which it was most common. Despite being the
national bird, it is estimated that less than 10% of the population has
seen a wild bird!!

Ramoutar Seecharran (BSc (Hons), ACSM, MSc (Eng), DIC, CEng,


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