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International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples was observed on August 9 as is done every year. A major objective of the annual observance is the recognition of the importance of preserving indigenous cultures for the benefit, wellbeing, and development of all communities.
In Guyana, Indigenous peoples comprise some 9.16 per cent of our country’s population. There are nine tribes of Guyanese Indigenous Peoples: Arawaks, Wai Wai, Caribs, Akawaio, Arecuna, Patamona, Wapixana, Macushi and Warao, each with its own language, history, beliefs, unique skills, and way of living. Those unique traits collectively make up culture. It is imperative that all Guyanese — particularly political and other community leaders — recognise that this cultural diversity is essential for the preservation of Guyana’s economic, social, and political welfare and prosperity.
The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (UN), in a statement, has linked the preservation of indigenous cultures directly to development. The statement notes, “Indigenous Peoples have, over the course of generations, developed rich sets of knowledge about the natural world, health, technologies and techniques, rites and rituals and other cultural expressions. Culture is one of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum and is inextricably linked to Indigenous Peoples’ identity, their traditional knowledge, their experiences with the natural environment and hence their territorial and cultural rights.
Cultural practices, traditions and values of indigenous peoples – as long as they are in line with human rights principles – can play a critical and positive role in advancing and promoting gender equality and human rights. Although culture was not explicitly mentioned in the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, it has been widely acknowledged as a key element to be taken into account in order to achieve the development goals set by the international community.”
The UN statement underscores the fact that Indigenous Peoples hold a rich diversity of living heritage, including practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills. The practice and transmission of this heritage contributes to the ongoing vitality, strength and wellbeing of communities.
One aspect of indigenous cultures which is of particular importance is that of indigenous languages. Of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, some 5,000 are used by the worlds’ 476 million Indigenous Peoples living across 90 countries.
Indigenous languages contain entire libraries of information relating to traditional medicines, customs, legends, historical facts, and stories. In the field of medicine, for example, it is highly noteworthy that western pharmaceutical companies routinely send expeditions into indigenous communities to gather information on, and samples of medicinal plants and mushrooms. In another example, the knowledge of local history by indigenous peoples is an indispensable source of information for archeologists and other researchers.
At a 2003 meeting sponsored and hosted by the UN, a representative of the Japanese Indigenous People, the Ainu, stressed the importance of preserving indigenous languages and sacred sites, as well as recognising traditional lands and natural resources. Lamenting the tragic disappearance of entire indigenous cultures, the representative urged governments to protect traditional languages in national constitutions, and encouraged UNESCO to set up programmes aimed at recovering indigenous culture.
It is well known that Indigenous Peoples — including those in Guyana — have fewer educational opportunities, job prospects, accessible healthcare facilities, and receive less attention from national governments. Further, governments often deliberately and blatantly disregard the wishes, and disrespect the dignity of Indigenous Peoples.
While examples of such disregard are too numerous to mention here, one example of this total disrespect by the PPP regime is the re-naming of the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs after the regime returned to power in August 2020. One will recall that — in line with the desires of Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples — the David Granger administration had adopted the desired name. However, the PPP regime reverted to the old name — Ministry of Amerindian Affairs — even after numerous protests were made by Indigenous groups and individuals. This despicable act by the PPP regime is yet to be corrected.
It is well known that many countries — including Guyana — have autocratic governments that discriminate against Indigenous Peoples. It is known, too, that in many cases Indigenous Peoples are almost powerless to fight for their rights.
What may be needed, therefore, is the advocacy of international organisations, local groups, and politically active individuals to take action to correct the great wrongs being endured by Indigenous Peoples. In the case of Guyana, it may be up to all Guyanese, whether indigenous or not, to make representations on behalf of the First Peoples. After all, experts have repeatedly underscored that indigenous cultures are under existential threat, and to lose any indigenous culture would be a monumental loss.