Indigenous rights a fundamental part of conservation
--Amerindian leaders

Stabroek News
December 7, 2000

Amerindian leaders say that there needs to be a recognition that the rights of the indigenous peoples are a fundamental part of the conservation and management of the country's natural resources.

"We need to ... [combine] the best proven scientific methods and indigenous knowledge for future activities in the area of conservation and protected areas for the benefit of all concerned, and the population of the Guiana Shield," said William Andries in his presentation yesterday at the Regional Technical Workshop on Critical Issues in the Conservation and Sustainable and Equitable Use of Wildlife in the Guiana Shield.

Andries, of the North Rupununi District Development Board, Guyana, asserted that conservation would be a failure if approached only via pro-conservationist groups and the government.

He said the process should be undertaken with the inclusion of the Amerindians and respect for their rights.

"It is gaining recognition the world over, through concerned conservation NGOs and individuals, that conservation and sustainable development cannot function properly without the inclusion of the local peoples' knowledge," Andries stated.

Andries felt that the modern technology now being used to harvest wildlife posed a major threat to some species.

He said that uncontrolled harvesting needed to addressed urgently, and that his people were fully conscious of the proper harvesting of wildlife and had been practising this for centuries.

"It is not easy for one to know about the nature of animals by being taught in large buildings, reading books and seeing pictures of animals," he stated. "You have to live with wildlife to know about [it]."

Andries said his people, the Macushis, see their land as sacred which sustains themselves and the wildlife population.

However, their method of conservation is being challenged because the government did not see it as suitable for developmental programmes, he said.

Tony James, of the Amerindian Peoples Association, said the indigenous peoples were not anti-development but were just a group of people who wanted their voices to be heard.

"Securing rights to our lands and natural resources are of paramount importance to the indigenous people if we are to continue to protect our environment and share our knowledge with the world," James said.

The Amerindian leader said his people continued to depend on the land, especially the forests, for their livelihood and survival. A lot of the animals and plants were used for food and medicine, he said, but stressed that the hunting and fishing were done largely in a sustainable manner.

He admitted that some villages still practised the poisoning of creeks to catch fish but the village councils were working to control this.

James expressed concern for the future of his people which he said was being threatened by mining, logging, and wildlife poaching. Rivers were dying and riverbanks were being destroyed by mining activity, he stated.

He warned of the negative impact already being experienced at the Linden-Lethem road even though the linkage had not yet been completed.

He disclosed that bird trappers who work within the buffer zone of the road claim that they were on state land and no village council could stop them.

The hunters also hunted indiscriminately without thought of what will be left for tomorrow, he said.

He revealed that the Arapaima, Guyana's largest freshwater fish, was slowly disappearing because there was no security at the Brazilian border.

He alluded to "the Kwebana experience" where he said most of the forest of this community located in the North West District has been logged out by a sawmilling firm.

The village councils must play a role in enforcing policies and regulations if the natural resources are to be properly managed, he stated.

James said the Amerindians have been the protectors of the forest for a very long time but must have control of their territories for them to continue to do so.

James advocated the amendment of the Amerindian Act which he said had provisions for six different ways in which government could take away Amerindian lands.

He said the immediate needs of the indigenous peoples were: the recognition of their rights according to international standards; training of their leaders and representatives in scientific techniques of zoning and wildlife management; respect and recognition of the individual's knowledge; and better links, information sharing and consultation with the administration.

The workshop is being hosted at the Le Meridien Pegasus by the Iwokrama Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development and has attracted participants from Suriname, Brazil, the Department of France, US, UK and Canada.

Today's sessions will focus on education and training for wildlife research and management followed by a public lecture this evening on "The bush meat trade: social perspectives on harvesting wild meat" by David Brown of the Overseas Development Institute of the UK.

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