A month to showcase the rich culture of the Amerindian people

By Mr David James, Executive member, Amerindian People’s Association
Guyana Chronicle
September 5, 2001

THIS September marks yet another Amerindian Heritage Month. During this month many activities are held to celebrate the achievements and to showcase the rich history and culture of the Amerindian people of Guyana.

This month is important not only for Amerindians who take pride in their heritage, but it is also important for non-Amerindian Guyanese who are given the opportunity to learn about, and to appreciate the culture of their Amerindian brothers and sisters.

Even now, there are some Amerindians and others of Amerindian descent who are ashamed to acknowledge their Amerindian heritage. The reasons for this are varied, but I would venture to say that it mainly has to do with the negativity with which Amerindians have been portrayed from colonial times to present day.

We, the Amerindians, can do a lot to dispel such negative attitudes that are still strongly rooted in our society. I think that we can start this process by recognising that we, the Amerindians, have played and will continue to play a vital role in the development of Guyanese society.

In addition to this, we must never accept second best in any endeavour that we undertake neither must we accept anything less than what would be done for all other Guyanese. For example, Amerindians must always demand equal access to quality education, health care and other social services.

While I would admit that some progress has been made in these areas, I do not think that anyone can deny that much more has to be done before we can signal our satisfaction.

There is no way that I can fail to mention the land rights issue. If I were to do so then I would be disregarding the call of the majority of Amerindians who fervently wish for this matter to be dealt with in a satisfactory manner. It is a stain on Guyana’s political history that Amerindian land rights, that were made a condition of Guyana’s Independence in 1966, are far from being resolved today.

While it is true, that the origins of the Amerindian land rights issue go way back into our colonial past, that is no excuse for the failure of successive governments, since Independence, to address this issue in a manner satisfactory to all parties, but especially to the Amerindian peoples, the violation of whose rights it seems, is still taken as a matter of course even today.

Since the Amerindian Lands Commission was established in 1967 to survey Guyana in order to determine where Amerindians were resident and then make recommendations for titling Amerindian lands and defining other rights enjoyed by Amerindians, there has been limited progress.

In 1969, when the Amerindian Lands Commission submitted its report to the Guyana Government, it recommended that 128 Amerindian communities receive some form of land title, in almost all cases, communal freehold titles.

In total, the Lands Commission recommended that title be granted to an area of approximately 24,000 square miles out of 43,000 square miles that had been requested by 116 Amerindian communities. Many requests were rejected by the Commission, which stated that the area requested was “excessive and beyond the ability of the residents to develop and administer.”

The Amerindians had to wait until 1976, when under the Amerindian Act of 1976 only 62 villages and two districts obtained ownership rights to approximately 4,500 square miles of land. This was exactly half the number of communities and less than one-fifth of the area recommended for title by the Amerindian Lands Commission.

In 1991 by Order No. 43, ten Mazaruni communities were granted title to approximately 1,500 square miles and added to the schedule of the Amerindian Act. This increased the amount of titled Amerindian lands to 6,000 square miles or approximately seven per cent of the country. This is exactly one-quarter of that recommended by the Amerindian Lands Commission and less than one-seventh of that claimed by Amerindians in the Lands Commission Report. Also, the titles issued to date are held by slightly more than half of the communities recommended for title by the Amerindian Lands Commission - more than 50 communities still do not have titles. No further titles have been issued since 1991, despite many promises by the Government to do so.

One may ask why do Amerindians make the land rights issue their top priority? To this I answer: the land is the root of our culture; if we lose our land, we lose our culture, the very culture, which we are now celebrating during Amerindian Heritage Month. We must not allow this to happen.

I take this opportunity on behalf of the Amerindian Peoples Association to wish all Amerindians of Guyana and all other Guyanese a happy month of celebrations.