The Amerindian conference
May 30, 1999
At the end of April, Amerindian captains and touchaus from over 100 villages representing all the regions of Guyana, except Region 4, gathered in St Ignatius for a national conference to discuss issues of concern to them. Among the topics on the agenda were land rights, constitutional reform, the local government system and the impact of protected areas, logging and mining on their lifestyle and/or environment.
Traditionally it has always been difficult to get a consensus among the Amerindian nations, because their settlements were scattered and communication was difficult. However, external funding for indigenous conferences is far more forthcoming than it used to be, in addition to which, as the Government opens up the interior, contact between the various peoples will become much easier. What it means, therefore, is that the administration will more and more be facing demands from the Amerindians as a whole, rather than from individual settlements or clusters of settlements.
The Government has been particularly tardy in acknowledging the problems of the interior, and in resolving the competing claims there of the different interest groups. At no time, for instance, has it made any attempt to frame an interior policy which would deal with the whole matter of interior development, and supply the guidelines for the resolution of some of those conflicts. Instead it has simply meandered along, giving out logging and mining concessions as it sees fit, while at the same time committing itself to the partly incompatible aims of environmental responsibility, eco-tourism development and respect for Amerindian rights.
If it thought that the Amerindians for their part would be content with just rhetoric, then it must now be discovering how much of an error that is. At every indigenous forum the autochthonous peoples bring up the question of land rights. After more than six years, the administration has shown no inclination to address the problem, and when it does talk about land, it is inevitably referring to nothing more than cadastral surveys of those villages which hold title under the 1976 Amerindian Act. It has not, however, come to terms with the demands of those settlements which do not hold title, or the ones which do, but claim that the land which they were apportioned is insufficient for their needs.
The question of land rights in particular, has to be settled as a matter of some urgency. If it is not, it will come back to haunt the Government, and could cause all kinds of interference with their future plans for the interior. After the conference in St Ignatius, Mr Eugene Isaacs of Region 9 called upon the administration to establish a formal lands claims settlement procedure by which outstanding claims could be resolved. Last year the Amerindian Peoples' Association had suggested the re-establishment of an Amerindian Lands Commission. Whatever form it takes, some mechanism is necessary to facilitate a resolution of the issue.
All over the hemisphere, indigenous populations are clamouring for their rights and are beginning to exert their power, sometimes assisted by funding from outside. The Government has nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose by procrastination. It needs to start talking to the Amerindian representatives from all the regions soon; issues left to fester can take on different dimensions, and then they become even harder to solve.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples