President outlines Govt. policies on key Amerindian issues
- Wants indigenous Guyana sustain their rightful place in society
Guyana Chronicle
February 12, 2004

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GINA -- GOVERNMENT is hoping to have the Revised Amerindian Act passed in the National Assembly this year.

This was conveyed by President Bharrat Jagdeo to the more than 150 Toshaos participating in the National Toshaos Meeting ongoing in Georgetown.

The Head of State was delivering the feature address at the opening ceremony of the four-day meeting at Hotel Tower. The meeting will facilitate the Toshaos' selecting three representatives to the Constitutional Indigenous People's Commission, as well as training for Rural Constables and Justices of the Peace to effectively perform their functions.

The Peoples Progressive Party/Civic, by its record, has demonstrated its commitment to the development of the Amerindian people, the President said, adding that since his administration returned to Government in 1992, much time and effort has been dedicated toward the improvement of hinterland communities.

The Amerindian Act has its origins as far back as 1951 and needs to be modernized. At the national level, Government commenced the process for revision of the Act in 2002 with countrywide consultations.

"While the revision or passage of laws does not require countrywide consultations, in this case the Government recognized that it was important to consult with Amerindians so as to accommodate their recommendations as far as possible," the President said.

A technical team comprising lawyers in private practice and from the Attorney General's Office; non-governmental organizations, representatives of Amerindian communities and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, was set up in 2002 to conduct the consultations.

"They have consulted widely on this matter. In fact at 30 locations they had consultations involving 111 communities," he said.

A summary of the recommendations has been circulated to various stakeholders, including the communities. The summary contains recommendations from the communities so that residents can verify that their recommendations and views are correctly represented. So far, all submissions have been summarised and an international legal consultant has been hired to carry out a study of the summary.

After this, recommendations will be provided on the methodologies, concept and language that may be applied to the re-drafting of the Act.

"We are hoping that these (the responses) will be presented to the Cabinet shortly. Immediately thereafter, we hope that the re-drafting will commence and that this Bill/Act will be passed in the National Assembly in 2004," the Head of State said.

The President said Government's decision to include the Amerindians in the revision of the Act is solely to ensure their voices are heard and causes represented.

"I want to let you know that my Government views all of you as partners in development. Not as subordinates, not as people to lecture to, not as people to be the receiver and passive recipients of Government policies, plans and projects, but as active partners. I want to promise you that my Government will work with you to ensure that our Amerindian brothers and sisters take their rightful place in society," he said.

Government took the decision to revise the Amerindian Act, as some aspects are outdated. The administration recognizes the need for changes to more adequately represent Amerindian communities and the society, as a whole.

Demarcating Amerindian lands
Government will ensure that in Protected Areas, the Amerindian traditional way of life is guaranteed and at no time will Protected Areas be established on titled Amerindian lands.

"Let me make it very clear that my Government will respect and guarantee the traditional sustainable use of resources by Amerindian communities. We will guarantee, in the Protected Areas, the traditional use of the forest. We will not grant Protected Areas status to titled Amerindian lands, unless the communities request this," the President emphasized.

According to the Head of State, this issue has been the source of controversy because Government's policy has in some cases, been deliberately distorted by political or other partisan groups for selfish reasons. Setting the record straight, the President said Government is aware that more often than not, indigenous communities are located in or around areas that may be designated Protected Areas.

Having recognized the importance of sustainable use, and in some cases, preservation, Government started consultations with various communities and other stakeholders on the establishment of a Protected Area System in Guyana.

"As usual, introducing new concepts will always have its challenges; but this is one way (the consultations) that indigenous peoples and Guyanese as a whole can be assured of the protection of the environment and the preservation of our patrimony," President Jagdeo said.

He said that in areas where land claims are present, efforts would be made to reach amicable and realistic solutions.

"I have heard so many things, that we are going to take away your titled lands and make them into Protected Areas and you wouldn't be allowed to go into the forest. It is not so," the President asserted.

Another controversial Amerindian issue is to do with land. There exist approximately 120 Amerindian communities - 76 of these communities have legal ownership of the lands they occupy - that's the title. Some of the communities are requesting extensions to their titles. Additionally, those communities that do not have legal ownership are requesting to have titles to their lands.

In 1995, the Government, in an attempt to address the Amerindian Land Issue, formulated a Policy after consultation with the Amerindian Captains at a meeting held at Paramakatoi, Region 8. A two-phased approach was designed.

The first entails surveying and demarcating the 76 communities listed in the Act. The second phase dealt with the issue of extensions to existing titled communities and the titling of untitled communities. In 1996 the demarcation process started. However, this encountered some difficulties as some communities reneged on their decision to demarcate.

To date, 39 communities have been demarcated within Regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10 completed. These regions have been completed. Thirty-seven communities are still to be demarcated. Five have now indicated their interest to do so and will be demarcated in 2004, the President said.

President Jagdeo also noted that as a result of a land use study conducted in seven communities in Region 10, the Government approved the titling of four of these communities. Negotiations will commence with the remaining three communities in February 2004. The nine communities in Region 2 have made their submissions for extensions.

The Amerindian Districts of Konashen and Baramita, which were declared districts in 1977, under the Amerindian Act, but Section 20(a) of the Amerindian Act did not apply to these communities, are now brought in line with the other communities.

Reversing neglect of Amerindians

Increasing resources
Government, immediately after being re-elected to Office, pursued its commitment to reverse the trend of neglecting Guyana's indigenous people.

Upon assuming Office, the current Administration appointed a Minister of Amerindian Affairs to address the issues.

"We know that Amerindians were historically neglected and to be frank with you, were relegated to second-class status/citizens in their own country. I know that many of their concerns and requests fell on deaf ears. The PPP/Civic Government wanted to make a positive difference and we felt in order to address these issues, we needed a focal point which would be an established channel of communication," he said.

According to the President, Government has also ensured that its national programmes cater adequately for the needs of these communities. Additionally, these special programmes were designed to cater for the unique characteristics of the communities, including the Amerindian Development Fund.

This Fund has seen increased budgetary support to the Regions that have large Amerindian communities: Regions 1, 7, 8, & 9. This has seen on average a 15-fold increase in the budget

"Why did we increase the budget so much? Because these communities were traditionally neglected," he said.

Through the Social Impact Amelioration Programme (SIMAP), Government has also funded several projects in Amerindian communities.

"SIMAP is not a non-governmental organization. Many of you were told that SIMAP is not Government. Yes, we borrow the money from the Inter-American Development Bank but it is loan that the Government of Guyana has to pay back. That is not free money that SIMAP spends in the community," the President told the Toshaos.

He noted that SIMAP is a unique social investment fund in this part of the world, with a special component for the development of indigenous people. Government has spent more than $250M in projects through SIMAP in Amerindian communities, and over the next three years an additional $400M will be spent.

"We have also expanded the menu of projects that SIMAP can now fund to include the introduction of new energy sources such as solar power. We have already identified 35 projects to be executed in 2004 & 2005," he said. The Toshaos will be given the application package before returning to their villages.