Conference seeks to push rights of indigenous peoples in Commonwealth

Stabroek News
June 24, 2003

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A three-day workshop to examine the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples within Commonwealth nations commenced at the Tower Hotel yesterday with a view to outlining recommendations for the next Heads of Government Summit in Abuja, Nigeria in December.

The workshop is being attended by various interest and lobbying groups, both local and overseas, and is co-ordinated by the United Kingdom-based Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit (CSPU) in collaboration with the Commonwealth Association of Indigenous Peoples (CAIP) and the local Amerindian Peoples Association (APA). The CPSU is a part of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.

This group conducts research and lobbies for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the 54 nations making up the Commonwealth of Nations, which is home to 150 million indigenous peoples. In February 2001, CPSU received funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Commission to embark on a project for research and advocacy in the Commonwealth states.

Head of the CPSU, Richard Bourne, said, “we are only scratching the surface, there is a lot more that we can do. We want to develop a project on environmental sustainability and land rights and also the constitutional status of Indigenous Peoples and how they can improve. [We] want to look at the whole issue of common law [in which] a precedent in Guyana can influence a decision of this kind in another country.”

One of the aims of the workshop, which concludes tomorrow, is to craft a sentence on the rights of Indigenous Peoples which would be circulated to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Abuja. This sentence would act as a basis on which an improved Commonwealth position would be made. Dr Helena Whall, the CPSU project officer, said that there seemed to be great reluctance by the Commonwealth to accept its responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples. She said the Commonwealth, in the absence of a clear policy, had left the burden on each member state to deal with the issues of Indigenous Peoples according to its own policy. The CPSU, Whall said, was in no way affiliated with and had no formal relationship with the Commonwealth Secretariat in the UK. She said that the CPSU acted as a critiquing body to the Commonwealth Secretariat.

At yesterday’s forum, participants from Guyana, Belize, Dominica and Canada came together for the first time to strongly make the case that Commonwealth must commit to promote and protect the rights of its first peoples.

One of the most contentious issues concerning Indigenous rights is that of land and land ownership, said Carolyn Rodrigues, Minister of Amerindian Affairs. She told the gathering that flexibility should characterise all deliberations because of the social and political differences in each country. She outlined that in Guyana there were 60,000 indigenous persons in 120 communities.

She noted that in many Amerindian communities, surveys and demarcations had been done although there was some degree of resistance to this as some felt that such processes would encroach on what was rightfully theirs. Out of the 120 communities, 76 had received some land titles, and 36 within the 76 communities had been demarcated. She conceded that the arrangement in place would not allow for persons to use such land as collateral for securing a loan.

Whall, in giving a background to the Commonwealth position, said that in 1979 the first and only commitment was made by the Heads of Government regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Hubert Wong of the Guyana Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP) made the point that the structure had to be created where lobbying for the rights of Indigenous Peoples could be strengthened, calling the issue one which was hardly new. (Johann Earle)

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