Amerindian leaders see Georgetown conference a farce
…say land rights issue being ignored
By Neil Marks
Some Amerindian leaders who travelled to Georgetown for the meeting of the National Toshaos Council (NTC) see it as a farce to get them to support President Bharrat Jagdeo’s forest agenda, while ignoring vexing lands rights issues.
Yesterday, leaders from villages in Regions One, Two, Seven and Nine said that they were being pushed to sign a resolution calling for the fast tracking of the release of funds the World Bank is managing under the forest saving agreement with Norway.
They see the NTC as lacking independence and at the mercy of the government, pointing to the fact the Council’s Secretariat is being set up at the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs.
Some leaders protested that they had not been involved in the drafting of the resolution, and what is more, they had not seen it before it was passed to them to sign.
Vernon Austin, the Toshao of Kaibarupai in Region Eight, said it was almost a repeat of what happened last year when a document was put before them to support REDD+, the United Nations programme under which funds would flow to poor countries for avoiding deforestation.
He said he signed the document when he saw other Toshaos signing, and when he returned home, he was accused by the people of selling out their land.
He did not understand the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) and REDD+ then, and Thomas said he still does not understand it.
The LCDS is what the government is using to seek international partnerships and incentives to protect 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of forest under REDD+.
This Monday, President Jagdeo accused the World Bank, which has before insisted it is only following guidelines set out by Norway, of stalling the release of funds through its bureaucratic structures.
Norway has so far disbursed US$70 million into a World Bank account, but not a cent has yet reached Guyana. Of the first tranche of US$30 million, the government had stated its intention to use $8 million to put solar panel in every Amerindian home, speed up the demarcation of Amerindian lands, and set up an Amerindian Development Fund.
The government is spending US$3 million from the treasury to put solar panels in every Amerindian home, whilst it awaits the Norway funds.
Amerindian leaders say they were never asked by the government what they would like to do with the money that could benefit them.
According to Jagdeo, the World Bank wants to be able to consult with Amerindians on the project’s possible environmental and social impacts.
On Amerindian land demarcation, Jagdeo said that there is not enough money in the budget to do this because this is a costly exercise. However, he said if the funds have to be sourced from the treasury that will have to be the case.
According to Jagdeo, all the Norway money is needed to do is “pay the surveyors” but the World Bank has insisted on assessing the demarcation process.
The Amerindian leaders, who called a press conference yesterday, said the current Amerindian land titling and demarcation process has created more problems for some villages.
In other cases, village boundaries have been reduced from previous land title grants with mining blocks being given on land that was previously titled without the knowledge of the community, said Devroy Thomas of Arau Village in Region Seven. He heads the community of 168 Akawaio and Arekuna people.
He said that while the Amerindian Act of 2006 gives Amerindian villages veto power over their land, this is often ignored.
A case in point is Jawalla village in Region Seven, where Alita John serves as Toshao over 1,135 Akawaio people and the two other satellite communities.
She said that someone from the coast applied to the community to operate a river dredge within its titled boundaries, but the community refused.
However, the coastlander went to the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and received the permission and is now taking coastlanders to work for him, creating further problems, the woman said.
The Amerindian leaders said that they believe that some of the mechanisms established by the World Bank and others are there to protect their rights, and want representatives of the Norwegian Government, and the World Bank to visit their communities to hear and learn directly from them about their concerns.
“We have genuine problems that are not being taken seriously by the current administration,” Toshao Thomas said.
Toshao John said she tried to land rights issues at the conference, but the microphone only goes to those who have the government’s praises to sing.
Toshao Thomas said the main concern of the Amerindians is the non-recognition and respect of their lands and territories that they occupy and use.
He said that the issue has been raised many times before at different levels and at the last National Toshaos Council meeting in 2010.
“The government responded by referring to the process stated in the Amerindian Act 2006 as a means of resolving our land problem,” said Thomas.
“However, the Amerindian Act of 2006 has denied us this right,” he declared.
Thomas said his community has not asked the government to demarcate their land, because the boundaries stated in their title of 1991 differs from the map he has seen from the GGMC, in that their community would become smaller if demarcated according to that map.
He said that he was not taken seriously when he offered to point out mistakes with the GGMC map.
The Amerindian leaders said that the NTC has not been useful in representing their problems.
Instead, they said the Chairperson, Yvonne Pearson, strongly defends and represents the government’s position. They said they do not see the National Toshaos Council as being an independent body.
The Amerindian leaders said that they originally supported the current chair, but have lost confidence in her because of her lack of independence and non-representation of our issues.
Regarding the resolution crafted for them to sign, Thomas said Community Development Officers went around several times to Toshaos who were not in support of the resolution to try to get them to sign it.
“We cannot support the resolution when our outstanding land issues are not resolved and our rights to our traditional lands and territories are not recognized by law,” said Thomas.
“I have to fight for my right; I look stupid, but I got sense,” Toshao John, quoted earlier, declared.
“Nobody can force me to sign this resolution. I have to choose my right. If I sign they will crucify me when I go back there,” she added.
The government has restricted media access to the conference, only staging an opening ceremony and a hastily convened press conference with the President yesterday.
The state media however has been present at the meeting, as they tried to get the leaders to praise the government.
Toshao John said a photographer asked to take her photo and when she inquired why, she said the state media operatives told her they were authorised by the President.
She wryly retorted that if she were paid $8 million she would agree to have her photograph taken.