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By Mark DaCosta- During Heritage Month 2022, Village Voice News had highlighted – in an article – the issue of ancestral lands to which Indigenous Guyanese are entitled. Sadly, after a whole year under the rule of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) regime, nothing has changed. We are in the closing months of 2023, but Guyana’s first peoples continue to be deprived of what is rightfully theirs.
The following is an updated excerpt from the article captioned, “The matter of Indigenous Ancestral lands.”
“There are currently nine distinct tribes of Indigenous peoples in Guyana: Lokono (Arawak), Akawaio (Kapon), Arecuna (Pemon), Macusi, Warrau, Wapisiana, Wai Wai, Patamona and Kalina (Carib). Those peoples comprise about 10 percent of our total population – close to 80,000 individuals. The issue of land ownership and control by Guyana’s first peoples is one that has dragged out for about 400 years. That is, since Guyana was colonised by the dutch in the 17th century. The issue has still not been settled to this day“
Last year’s article makes clear, too, that the international community is aware of the poor treatment being meted out to Guyana’s first peoples:
“Cultural Survival — a network of Indigenous partners and international human rights advocates across the globe — released a statement critical of Guyana’s government. ‘Independent Guyana’s policy towards Indigenous peoples is essentially based upon colonial policy and law, maintaining strong elements of wardship, indirect rule and assimilation.
‘Both the Dutch and the British, and the successor [independent] State of Guyana, asserted that all lands not held under grant from the State were crown lands effectively denying Indigenous title and sovereignty, “the statement said.’
One example of the PPP regime’s contempt for Indigenous Guyanese is the matter of what happened at Isseneru.
Isseneru is a community of about 300 people, mainly Akawaio, living among the hilly, forested banks of the Mazaruni River. Gold mining is a major economic activity in the area. Isseneru received its land title around 2007.
In that year, the Isseneru Village Council filed a case in local courts against mining operators working on, and polluting ancestral lands. Previous court rulings had stated that Isseneru had no jurisdiction over this territory. Guyana’s High Court ruled that miners operating in the area had purchased licenses prior to Isseneru obtaining title in 2007 and the coming into operation of the Amerindian Act of 2006. As such, the local courts held that village councils had no authority to stop mining operations and no means of protecting their own land. Appeals to the Guyana Court of Appeal were postponed indefinitely in 2009.
Seeing that the local legal system was giving them no justice, the villagers of Isseneru moved to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS) based in Washington DC.
In April of last year the IACHR ruled in favour of the village. The ruling stated that the government of Guyana is responsible for at least sixteen violations of the rights of the community and its members, as a result of which Guyanese law will have to be amended.
In a letter to the Guyanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Hugh Todd, the IACHR asked the PPP how it intends to comply with the decision. The Commission has concluded that the State of Guyana failed to grant community titles over Indigenous ancestral lands, that equality under the law was violated, and that mining concessions were granted license to operate without consultation with Isseneru’s village representatives. The Commission also concluded that the right to health, food, water, as well as the rights of children and mothers, had been violated by the PPP regime.
Although the international ruling was a historic victory for the people of the village, and although the case was reported on in the local and foreign media, the PPP regime – some people say – continues to hold onto the mindset that Guyana’s first peoples are “second-class,” and are somehow inferior. As one commentator put it: “It is total disrespect – complete eyes-pass.”