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By Mark DaCosta- The matter of resolving the problems regarding ancestral lands is one that has been allowed to fester for decades. Those problems include, for the most part, Indigenous lands as well as African ancestral lands. This article focuses on the concerns surrounding African lands, and the need to settle the matter once and for all.
Ancestral lands, generally, refers to the lands, territories and related resources that are recognised to belong to a people as a result of ancestral or historical domain including spiritual and cultural aspects that may not be acknowledged in land titles and legal doctrine about ownership. The concept of ancestral lands is recognised by international treaties and convention; the term was first used in the 1920s by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an arm of the United Nations (UN).
In Guyana, following Emancipation and the abolition of slavery in 1834, groups of former slaves bought plantations and established villages. Unfortunately, much of the lands which may have been bought by freed slaves — or lands to which they were entitled under ancestral domain conventions — were seized by European occupiers who were still very much in power in what was then British Guiana.
To add insult to injury, after Guyana became an independent country in 1966, local authorities did nothing to return those ancestral lands to the descendants of freed slaves. Instead, those unlawfully taken lands were incorporated into State owned real estate or State controlled agencies such as the entity now known as the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo). To date, those lands remain in the hands of the State.
In March 2017, during the tenure of the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) administration, then president, Brigadier David Granger, announced the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI). The seven-member CoI was tasked with examining and make recommendations to resolve all the issues and uncertainties surrounding the individual, joint or communal ownership of land acquired by freed African slaves. The CoI was mandated, too, to examine the matter of Indigenous lands as a separate matter.
Hearings of the CoI began on August 21, 2017. During those hearings there were numerous submissions. Several descendants of African slaves came forward. For example, Dr Rishi Thakur, who represented villagers of Corentyne, Berbice told the CoI that he is pressing his case to repossess 25 acres of ancestral lands, which were acquired before the 1950s along the east bank of the Corentyne River. Thakur said that the Sea Defence Board took over the lands and it should be given back to its rightful owners.
Dr. Thakur said, too, that, in 2013, efforts were made by ministers of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to distribute the lands to persons who have no transport or title. He claimed that the lands belong to his family left behind by his ancestors.
During the hearings, it came to light that the African Cultural & Development Association (ACDA) had written to then President Bharrat Jagdeo way back in 2007 asking Jagdeo to address the matter. Executive Member of ACDA Ms. Violet Jean-Baptiste told the CoI that, “Our pleadings fell on deaf ears.”
According to a 2018 document released by the Mocha/Arcadia Ancestral Lands Committee (MAALC), “The issue of ancestral lands has been approached at best, in a piecemeal manner. Record keeping has been fragmented and remains in a state of total disarray. This might have been a deliberate strategy of those who stole ancestral lands to conceal the injustice meted out to our ancestors and their descendants. We are indeed stymied by the bureaucratic deficiencies that have left evidentiary gaps in the chain of title of lands formerly owned and controlled by our ancestors.” The document noted that “We become complicit with the atrocities of the past when opportunity presents itself to bind up and heal old wounds and we do nothing.”
Regarding the lands at Mocha/Arcadia, the MAALC wrote, “The injustice occurred when governance of our territory was under the control and dominance of an external sovereign. We were mere inhabitants or subjects without the means to redress this injustice. However, more than half a century has elapsed since we became independent and possessed the means to offer redress. Therefore, it is worth noting that much of the ancestral lands that are the subject of this claim, are still possessed by the State or an entity under its control and patronage. Therefore, the State, now governed by formerly colonised subjects, has ability to redress the wrong if only it has the will.”
The MAALC asserts that the State controlled GuySuCo has possession of African Ancestral Lands in Diamond, also in the following townships:
• Ann Maria
• Two Friends
As well as Plots of land South of Mocha up to Lot 335 going towards Diamond/Craig, and Mathilda Crowther 500 acres in rear or Arcadia village.
The MAALC stated that, “The issue of ancestral land is one for which title should not be quieted through continuous open and notorious use and occupancy of the lands by State agencies. It should be resolved by the return of the coveted lands to the descendants of the former slaves who acquired them with hard earned savings.”