Jun 04, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – Earlier this week, a furor erupted online after a city café, praised for its innovative use of traditional Guyanese foods in the preparation of primarily foreign-themed meals, referred to cassava bread as ‘rainforest pancakes.’ What ensued was a vigorous – sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious – debate on the right to appropriate and rename traditional foods. The owner of the establishment, at first defiant and dismissal of the criticism, eventually issued an apology for any offence caused.
While the outrage dissipated as quickly as it had been conjured, like most viral ‘scandals’ in the internet age, it raised serious questions about culture, identity and ownership that we as a country still need to tackle.
With respect to the cassava bread incident, at the core of the contention is who exactly has the right to not only benefit from a traditional product, but also what licence exists to alter, name and market that product. Cassava bread, its ingredients and its production are deeply rooted in Indigenous culture centuries old, and while the argument has been made – in defence of the “rainforest pancakes” renaming – that the term ‘cassava bread’ is an English term itself, Indigenous use of and consensus upon that term is what gives the naming aspect of its overall cultural authenticity.
The term “curry” serves as a good parallel, representing a distinctly India-identified food product, but which is an Anglicised rendering of a Tamil word, “kari” which itself does not represent what we know curry to be. Still, curry, so named, is globally accepted as an Indian food by virtue of the fact that the consensus of Indian people, particularly in the Diaspora, has been that the Anglicised rendering suffices. The right of Indigenous people to own and control and presumably manipulate their traditional cultures and products is enshrined in Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.”
Article 149G of our Constitution addresses the issue thusly: “Indigenous peoples shall have the right to the protection, preservation and promulgation of their languages, cultural heritage and way of life.”
The protection of Indigenous culture is at this point codified in only two sections of the Amerindian Act. Traditional Knowledge, which falls under the general rubric of Intangible Cultural Heritage, is protected under Sections 5 and 6 of the Act, while Tangible Cultural Heritage, in this case “artifacts and monuments,” is protected under Section 78.
Article 35 of the Constitution speaks of the broader issue of our “National culture” and the need to honour and respect our diverse strains, but the Constitution itself provides little direction on how we go about doing so, or what exactly is meant by the development of a “socialist national culture for Guyana.”
Today, the Eighth session of the Conference of Parties of the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions will be wrapping up and it is hoped that the Government of Guyana has been represented in the virtual meeting and made representation on how it is, over the next few years, the State will be dealing with issues of culture, identity and ownership and leading a far more constructive version of the transient ‘conversation’ that took place this week in response to the opprobrium over ‘rainforest pancakes.’
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