Amerindians not consulted on issues

US State Department report
Stabroek News
March 21, 2000

The 1999 Country Report on Human Rights in Guyana released by the US Department of State has found that the Amerindians in Guyana are seldom consulted on issues that affect their way of life.

The report stated that the Amerindian community, which consists of nine tribal groups, constitutes an estimated eight percent of the population. Most of the indigenous people live in reservations and villages in remote parts of the interior and their standard of living is much lower than other citizens, the report stated.

The Amerindian community has long been advocating that government hold consultations on issues affecting them, but, according to the report, "their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, tradition and the allocation of natural resources is limited."

It pointed out that the lives of the Amerindian people are regulated by the Amerindian Act--legislation dating from the colonel times designed to protect the indigenous people from exploitation. The Act gives the government the power to determine who is an Amerindian and what is an Amerindian community, to appoint Amerindian leaders, and to annul decisions made by Amerindian councils.

It also prohibits the sale of alcohol to Amerindians and it is a requirement that government permission be granted before any Amerindian can accept formal employment. These provisions are, however, not enforced, the report said.

It pointed out that in 1998 Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Vibert De Souza admitted that the Amerindian Act was antiquated and he had expressed a commitment to update it, but this was not done.

Another issue facing the Amerindians is that government has long maintained that it is committed to demarcating land that had traditionally been the home of the indigenous people but this project has experienced several hiccups.

The report stated that the government holds title to almost all the nation's land and is free to act as it wishes without consultation.

A total of 75 Amerindian villages was identified by government and it was reported that 11 of them were successfully demarcated in 1998. The Ministry of Amerindian Affairs had claimed that, in close consultation with Amerindian leaders, it would demarcate a total of 40 additional villages in 1999.

However, while a handful of village leaders accepted these new titles, most leaders rejected the demarcations.

The report said local Amerindian non-governmental organisations (NGO) regarded government consultations as mere public relations exercises and demarcation as a means of confining Amerindian communities so that the rest of what Amerindians considered to be their land could be offered as concessions to miners and loggers. The NGOs claimed that Amerindian leaders were not consulted properly and were pressured into uninformed decisions, it stated.

The government has maintained that it would consider granting additional land rights to those communities which agree to have their lands demarcated in 1999. However, as at year end, the government had taken no action to do so.

The Amerindian community is still progressing with plans to stage a march from the southernmost part of Guyana in the Rupununi District to Georgetown.

The march should not be viewed as politically motivated, Amerindian leaders have said, but to highlight the issues of concern affecting the indigenous people of the country.