In a man’s world, she has shown what it takes to get things done. Even if it meant working in the mud, she has done all of that. Her work in so many areas, like marine life conservation, has made her a go-to person when it comes to protecting Guyana’s wildlife.
Over the past few years, the name Annette Arjoon-Martins has been featured regularly in the media.
From her advocacy to sea turtle conservation, or from tourism awareness to work in the aviation and business sectors, Annette has been busy.
Her leadership skills and ability to get things moving saw the government placing her in charge of the billion-dollar mangrove project initiated to protect the country’s shores from the rising sea level.
As the Customer Services and Marketing Manager at her family-owned Air Services Limited (ASL), Annette continues to be feverishly involved in her environmental work. She successfully lobbied for her beloved Shell Beach to be declared a protected area by the government.
Annette came from a very prominent family: the Mazaharallys, who were known back in the 1980’s for their sawmills in Essequibo. Today, the family has grown to become a powerhouse in another area – the aviation sector.
Half Amerindian, half Indian, she was raised in Pomeroon, Essequibo, learning to swim across the river at an early age. “I think that contributed to my passion for all things outdoor. My affiliation with nature [and] being exposed to that kind of environment made me who I am,” Annette opined.
She was no ordinary girl. As a young teen, she stayed in her family’s logging camps in the backdam, which is not an entirely easy life. “Which was why I got into the field of environment,” she said.
Her two children, Alex (22) and Victoria (18), are both attending schools in the US. Both are well known in the sport circuit, winning squash championships at both the local and Caribbean levels.
But Annette is also known in another area. She is married to Dave Martins, frontman of the popular Tradewinds band.
She credits meeting Dave to her best friend, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, when she was the Minister of Amerindian Affairs. The former minister accompanied Annette on many hinterland trips to share her experience of working with women’s groups, especially in the North West region. During her excursions, Annette had gathered hundreds of photographs of Amerindian life.
“I was asked to put together a slide show for a gala dinner that was held for tourism at the Pegasus Hotel with Dave Martins as the guest speaker. He had been flown in from the Cayman Islands where he lived for the past 25 years.”
According to Annette, the story was simple.
“He saw the photos, got interested in the photographer and a year later we were married in 2009 at the Baganara Island Resort.”
Annette used her photographs for which Dave wrote the descriptions to produce a book. She sold it locally and on trips with her husband when he went on gigs overseas, and used the proceeds to help young Amerindian girls and women. “I would tag along with Dave… and of course the people who paid to come see the Tradewinds would buy the books. What basically brought us together was the love for this beautiful country. When my first husband and I separated, I thought that was it. I didn’t expect to get such a wonderful person to share my life with.”
Her mom was a young Amerindian girl, 16, who met Yacoob Ally, 22 while working at a shop. Yacoob was from a well-known timber family. He was one of the main persons who built the Mazaharally group to a powerhouse.
The young mother was unable to care for baby Annette, so she left her in the care of her grandmother at a place called Siriki, located about 25 miles up the Pomeroon River, in Essequibo.
Annette recalls paddling two miles along the Pomeroon River to the nursery school with her uncle and aunts.
“That was one of the many reasons I learned to swim at an early age. Sometimes, when I wanted to visit my friends, I would swim across the river. I was comfortable with water at an early age. Later, during my sea turtle conservation days, I went on long trips in the rough Atlantic Ocean, and even in the darkest nights that involved water, I was never afraid.”
She explained that her mother and father were never married since they came from different backgrounds.
“Eventually my mom realized that she would not be able to give me much as she was just an ordinary Amerindian girl. She gave full custody [of me] to my dad so that I could be given a chance in life and that’s how I got educated. I was raised by my aunts in Georgetown,” Annette recalled.
In the city, the young Annette attended Dolphin’s. When time came for her secondary education, she was sent to a boarding school in Barbados. “That school made me want to excel and do my best. It was the best years of my life. It was a school founded in 1918 as an English boarding school. I was always competitive and still hold the 800-meter race record which I attribute to my Amerindian heritage. That kept me running when others were collapsing behind me,” said Annette.
Coming back to Guyana, Annette started her working career at the family’s timber concession at Supenaam, Region Two.
She was rotated to the other mills: “I spent a year at every mill before I realized that I wasn’t keen in the business and I was more interested in the aviation part of the business.”
She went to Trinidad and earned her pilot’s licence at Briko Flight School. She was not alone in the family. Several other cousins, her sister and her brother had pursued their licences too.
According to Annette, “In the family, getting a pilot’s licence was not an uncommon thing. It was more like something that everyone needed to do. My dad didn’t restrict what we could or could not do because we were girls… We were given equal opportunities.”
As a matter of fact, a proud Annette said, her sister, Feriel Ally, has been recently recognized for her contributions to the aviation industry.
When Annette got married and had her first child, her then husband was not too enthusiastic about his wife flying so her “wings were clipped”.
She formed a tour company called Shell Beach Adventures, operating out of an office at the Pegasus Hotel.
Her knowledge of the hinterlands saw her doing logistics for the US Southern Command when they came to Guyana to conduct jungle training.
Annette also received work from a number of well-known overseas television production companies.
“During elections time, I would also do charters for the Commonwealth Secretariat, which much later afforded me the opportunity to meet the Queen through the Commonwealth Foundation,” she stated. “As I was standing there in the palace shaking the Queen’s hand, the palace photographer took a photo as it was a Golden Jublilee.”
She came back to Guyana, made several copies, inscribed with the words “the Buck in Buckingham Palace” and presented them to several persons. She did this because people often referred to her as a buck. It was a triumph for her to be in the palace because the name ‘Buck’ referred to Amerindian people in a deragotary manner. But she said, as she grew older, she accepted her heritage, and became proud of it. It didn’t bother her anymore.
Annette’s love for the environment received a nudge in a different direction when she met Dr. Peter Pritchard, who would visit Shell Beach often to monitor the sea turtle nesting in the area. She explained, “I wondered what this man was doing down there so often and it was then I took it upon myself to visit Shell Beach with him and saw my first green sea turtle; it was love at first sight.”
She made several trips. “Slowly, Dr. Pritchard was able to increase the population by helping to stop the killing and selling of the turtle meat.” Joining Dr. Pritchard’s advocacy, the sea turtle population has increased dramatically.
However, she complained: “We still have large amounts of mortality due to drowning in fishing nets and the ingestion of floating plastics, which sea turtles mistake for jelly fish. I am all for development of my country, but it has to be done in a sustainable manner.”
Annette is a member of several environmental committees and firmly believes that environmental education at an early age is crucial for the success of conservation efforts.
She is highly spirited while talking about it. “We need to follow protocols so as to protect and preserve nature. I would love one day to put on my TV and see the local Learning Channel showing Guyana and its natural beauty, native animals and places, instead of zebras and elephants from the other side of the world.”
Annette is equally passionate about other marine life, like the whales. When, for some inexplicable reason, a couple of them washed up ashore, she was in the thick of things, wading in the mud and dealing with the media and the technical folks.
“I am not only concerned about the turtles that come up to nest on Shell Beach, I am also very much involved and concerned about the other marine life found in our vast ocean. For example, the whales that were washed up, the reasons for their deaths, how they are being affected,” she stated.
Annette believes that since the oil industry is new for Guyana, there is an opportunity to ensure we get it right from the start. “For example, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission should not permit seismic surveys during marine mammals nesting season. Environmental safeguards must be in place for compliance by our emerging oil industry and there must be robust regulatory oversight.”
Her decade long passion with Shell Beach did not interfere with other areas of her life.
One of her most successful projects was the outlet for products of Amerindian women called the North West Organics. Some of these products were coco sticks and cassava bread.
Annette explained, “I was able to get it into the leading supermarkets all over and this made my women empowerment project a huge success. When the Guyana Mangrove Restoration Project (GMRP) was conceptualized and started, I was honored to be asked by the government to chair the Mangrove Action Committee.”
She also worked with another group of about 20 women, in what she refers to as a “Bee Defense” project where they were taught beekeeping skills and provided with equipment to set up their hives.
“Despite the usual start up challenges, it was a success. The honey was sometimes sold before it even hit the market and one of the producers now has her own Victoria Honey Hut and her own brand. In return, this helps mothers to keep a better home and give an education to their kids.”
Annette regrets, of course, not spending enough time with her children: “My family life suffered a lot because of my field of work. As an environmentalist, I had to be hands on. I couldn’t sit in an office and manage remotely. I had to be there to encourage the other women and to make sure everything was in order, so it took me out of my home a lot.”
She admitted that her kids were neglected because of the work: “If I had the chance to do it all again, I would have shared my time differently and prioritize my kids’ needs over that of my profession. But thank God they had a wonderful father who did double duty and we never got any trouble with our kids. They are two beautiful kids with lots of talents.”
Annette has advice for young professional women: “Strike a balance between work and family.”
At ASL, Annette’s work was a busy one too. ASL is said to be the busiest company at the Ogle Airport where the company is based. “My biggest role was to help my brother establish our own fuel farm and ensure that we controlled our own supply and cost of fuel which is the most expensive part of our operations,” she stated.
She also oversaw the introduction of the fuel-efficient turbine engines Cessna Grand Caravans to the fleet of ASL’s aircrafts.
She was responsible for the expansion of ASL’s shuttle operations at Mahdia, a key mining community in Region Eight where the company moves over three hundred thousand pounds of cargo and passengers each month.
When the government announced that it was allowing the licensing of helicopter operations in Guyana, Annette was again called by her family to ensure the process went smoothly.
ASL bought three helicopters over the past years. “Because of those helicopters, we were able to help the gold miners, especially to places where they didn’t have airstrips.”
Annette is perhaps prouder of the company’s work in using those helicopters to help National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Omni Production to do work in the interior.
“We were also able to do some incredible television work after that and were able to get millions of viewership,” she proudly stated.
The videos have helped to market Guyana’s ruggedly beautiful sights. She is also passionate about protection of especially the jaguars and pumas.
“The good thing is that the [former] Ministry of Natural Resources has established a National Wildlife Management Steering Committee of which I am a member. We address the disturbing and mindless slaughtering of our national animals – the jaguar and even pumas. We need mechanisms to support ongoing awareness and outreach work … on the challenges of human and jaguar conflicts. [We also need] sustained research to establish closed seasons on other endangered species,” she stated.
She is also proud of the Mangrove Restoration Project which is a tremendous success. “There is an amazing awareness of the importance of mangroves. People are becoming aware that the wildlife legislation exists, so there is progress; slow, but sure. I am very proud to know that I can use my experience and my expertise is valued to be of national use.”
Annette is also a member of the Private Sector Commission. She is not quiet in her advocacy. “When I don’t agree with something said, I articulate my position very clearly. I have been accused of being a nag; but if that is what it takes to get heard, I am fine with being a nag.”
Annette is very much independent. “I like to express my opinions and views and I’m always trying to be careful not to do so in an offensive manner. I believe that women are not afforded adequate respect, especially in male-dominated boards. We need to have more women represented in such boards.”
At ASL, Annette’s push for equal opportunities for women saw her introducing a deliberate policy to hire more women.”
The all-rounder knows that the only way to success is through hard work.
Her advice is: “As a woman, I want to let every other woman out there know that there is no shortcut to true success. If you want to achieve that, you have to work hard. Whether it is studying, learning a trade or whatever way you choose to educate yourself, it’s very important to invest in yourself. There is no instant gratification… you have to work long and hard to see achievements.”
The life of Annette Arjoon-Martins is simply one that speaks of living in the different worlds of Guyana. She has learnt the Amerindian ways, has flown to all parts of Guyana, has rubbed shoulders with world renowned environmentalists, and has sat in boardrooms making decisions that chart the course of the country. Best of all she has had fun while doing it, living the Guyanese dream.