…Jean La Rose is a ‘Special Person’
“I didn’t want to be a figurehead person or just a name, sitting on the (Constitutional Reform) commission; I wanted to contribute substantially.”
By Dennis A. Nichols
This week’s ‘Special Person’, Jean La Rose, is an untiring advocate for indigenous rights and environmental integrity. She is currently Programme Administrator of the Amerindian Peoples Association (A.P.A).
A native of the North West Region of Guyana, she was born in the village of Santa Rosa in Moruka on May 6th, 1962. She recalled her early childhood in the riverine environment which she says was filled with fun and games, like playing ‘Catcher’, running through the bush, climbing trees, getting stung by marabuntas, swimming (often with clothes in hand to keep them dry when crossing the river) and fishing, especially with her grandfather, having lost her father when she was just four years old. Now she is justifiably proud to have mothered and nurtured her own daughter, Soroya Simmons, a sixth Form Queen’s College student and national athlete/swimmer.
Jean La Rose’s early education was channeled through the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic School (Now Santa Rosa Primary). Then in 1974 she received a government scholarship to attend the South Georgetown Secondary School in the capital, which she left in 1979 after passing her G.C.E. ‘O’ Levels and Caribbean Examinations. She then worked as an Assistant at the University of Guyana Library, and after a few years there, was able to secure a scholarship to do a degree programme from 1987 to 1991, resulting in a Bachelor’s Degree in History. She continued working there, reaching the position of Assistant Librarian by the time she left the tertiary institution.
Speaking with her at her A.P.A. office on Charlotte Street recently, I was struck by the quiet intensity she displayed when talking about her work. It is immediately evident that she cares very deeply about the way Amerindians are perceived and the discrimination and injustice they suffer, particularly in their struggle for full rights to traditional lands in our country’s hinterland and forested areas. But even as she speaks with such passion and obvious commitment, I observed a sharp wit, and the occasional laugh that expressed itself when a comment or question merited such a response. But it was the seriousness of her work that was the main thrust of our talk.
Ms. La Rose said she knew that there was something wrong with the way Amerindians were perceived and addressed, since she was a child attending the South Georgetown Secondary School, where she, and other Amerindian children who got scholarships, were thrown into a situation living with people whom they did not know, in a strange environment, eating strange food, without the closest relatives (a mother or a father) being present, and although some guardians were good and responsible surrogates, some were not.
In her case, she added, she internalized her situation and more or less guided herself to some extent which, she felt, shouldn’t have been the case. This gave her the impression that something was not quite right even though she couldn’t say exactly what needed to be fixed. She said that later on, as she started working, and expanding her views, reading and learning more about the other situations, it all started coming together, that it was not only this one aspect; (of education) there were so many other things that needed to be put in place. And put things in place she did.
In 1992, while at the University of Guyana, Ms. La Rose participated in an International Cooperative Human Rights Training Programme, sponsored by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation in Quebec. Six years later, in 1998, she completed another course, this time on ‘Indigenous Rights in the International System, organized by the International Training Centre for Indigenous Peoples in Greenland.
Both of these courses helped build her foundation and understanding of international law as applied to indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, and as they could be applied to Guyana’s situation where certain national legislation did not offer adequate protection for Amerindians.
She explained, “The reason why this is important is because in Guyana, we (indigenous peoples) are governed under the Amerindian Act, which was amended at various times. But we had already perceived at that time, that this Act especially, was lacking in terms of its protection for indigenous peoples; that indeed, international law showed that there were precedents that could in fact offer better protection for us if the government of Guyana could recognize and agree, and have these incorporated into local national legislation.”
Such legislation was not forthcoming, but this did not daunt her spirit or her quest for justice.
Ms. La Rose, as part of a team, travelled extensively to Amerindian communities in Guyana, in the process of which she expressed her concerns about their welfare, while teaching and sensitizing them with respect to their rights. To this end, she has ‘backgrounded’ herself by attending numerous workshops, seminars and conferences, both in her individual capacity, and on behalf of the A.P.A. These include U.N Working Group Meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, as well as with the Organization of American States, (O.A.S.) the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, (COICA) and the Amazon Alliance.
Here in Guyana, she embarked on several campaigns. Among them was a signature-coordinating campaign for an Open Letter to a 1994 World Bank Meeting in Georgetown calling for a moratorium on timber concessions. Other campaigns included efforts aimed at reducing the effect and impact of mining on indigenous communities, reviewing the Amerindian Act, reforming the Constitution of Guyana to include indigenous and environmental rights, renouncing the Beal Aerospace Project in the Waini area, amending the Kaieteur National Park Act to encompass right of occupation and use for Patamona people, and ensuring Amerindian rights in the establishment of protected areas.
Expanding on this aspect of her work, Ms. La Rose explained that following a rise in gold prices, the Upper Mazaruni Region was overrun with mining enterprises when a ‘multiplicity of mining concessions’ was granted by the government, including the carrying out of reconnaissance and exploratory mining activities by large companies such as Golden Star Resources (GSR), a Canadian company, in Regions Seven and Eight.
In the case of Region Seven, she said, small and medium scale mining was very rampant, with resulting negative implications for the majority Akawaio and Arecuna people of that area. These, she added, are evident up to this day. According to her, they include environmental pollution, and social problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, and rape; persons were also focusing more on mining to the detriment of farming activity, with the result that they (residents, not miners) were creating a dependency for things they could buy in the shops.
(One glaring example of the problem of environmental pollution occurred in 1995, when Omai Mines, an entity partly owned by GSR, caused a huge mining disaster after a massive amount of cyanide effluent spilled into the Omai River, and subsequently into Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. Nevertheless, after a commission of inquiry investigated the matter and made recommendations, gold-mining operations resumed there, although the disaster continues to have serious negative ramifications for some local communities.)
Ms. La Rose emphasized that a major headache for people of the Upper Mazaruni during that time was the infringing and the encroachment on indigenous land, and the destruction of their farm land and other areas that were important to them. She said that the State had granted legal titles to the people of this region, but only for certain areas, and to the exclusion of others. But the Akawaio and the Arecuna people, she added, are contending that the entire area should be titled to them for the reason that it encloses their waterways and river ways, their hunting lands, their farming lands and their sacred sites, therefore it belongs to them.
Because of these perceived injustices, several Amerindian communities in the region filed a land rights lawsuit in the High Court of Guyana in 1998, the first of its kind, with some guidance from Ms. La Rose and others. She remarked that this case was brought after a number of years of visiting those areas and travelling to the various communities, gathering historical and current information as to how the people used the area, and after the communities had made attempts to meet and talk with the government, and present their case without having any redress. She said that this lawsuit is still pending, and depositions have been made by members of the communities as well as by other specialists. The State, she added, has now to present its side in the matter.
Another very important aspect of our Special Person’s work to change the status quo with respect to indigenous rights has been in her role as the Vice Chairperson and Amerindian Representative on the Constitutional Reform Commission from 1999.
Admitting that it was a huge task, but a ‘real honour’ to be thus chosen, she however intimated, “I didn’t want to be a figurehead person or just a name, sitting on the commission; I wanted to contribute substantially, and therefore I knew sometimes I was the joke of the other commissioners, because I would go with so many documents.
‘You see this is what we have here supporting what I’m asking for in relation to Amerindian lands…the environment…‘look we have all these documents, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel…this is what Guyana has to do…’ So I did that kind of work, in trying to get a chapter into the Constitution dealing with Amerindian rights.”
That didn’t happen, she said, but what eventually came out was the Indigenous Peoples Commission that is now functioning, and Article 149 G, which speaks, in the Constitution, of the fundamental rights of indigenous people to their way of life.
The length of this article does not permit a more expansive discourse on Ms. La Rose’s numerous contributions to Amerindian/indigenous rights, and to national life, but suffice it to say that she holds, or has held, membership in several associations. These include the Guyana Human Rights Association, the Advisory Committee to the Environmental Protection Agency (Guyana), the Steering Committee of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, the Task Force on Fundamental Rights of the Oversight Committee of the National Assembly, and the National Development Strategy Working Group; National Steering Committee on Land Use Planning. She was also a Board Member of the Rainforest Foundation, U.S. and the Indian Law Resource Centre based in Washington D.C.
A fitting cap to this ‘story’ would have to be the Goldman Environmental Prize awarded to Ms. La Rose in 2002 for her work as an environmentalist, which is inextricably tied to her work as an indigenous rights advocate.
The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to environmentalists representing the six geographical regions including South and Central America, the area she represented. Asked how she felt about the award, she responded, “I felt good, but I was also shocked knowing I was actually selected; even though I knew my name was on a shortlist.” To receive her prize, she travelled to San Francisco in the United States, and then on to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. where she met with members of the American government including then Senator Hillary Clinton.
And who knows? Maybe our ‘Special Person’ is on her way to becoming the ‘Hillary Clinton’ of Guyana.
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