The indigenous people of the Guianas are largely ignorant of their governments’ intentions for the environment and of their inalienable rights. They want to know more about matters that affect their land and their livelihood.
The Guiana Shield Regional Meeting of Indigenous Leaders held from April 13-17 in Georgetown seems to have raised more questions than answers on matters affecting indigenous peoples of three of the five countries that constitute the Guiana Shield − Guyana, Guyane (ie, French Guiana or Guyane Française) and Suriname.
The meeting of leaders of the three national level indigenous organisations of the region − the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) of Guyana; Organisatie van Inheemsen in Suriname (OIS), and the Fédération des Organisations Autochtones de Guyane (FOAG) of French Guiana − initially set out to provide an overview of the major threats facing the indigenous peoples and their environment. These included Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) and the impacts of climate change and mining, among other things.
But one of the meeting’s biggest concerns was the sheer ignorance of the policies of national governments which were likely to affect the livelihood of the indigenous people. According to President of Guyana’s APA Tony James:
“We are concerned about no information at the grassroots level. Many communities do not have radios or television sets and do not know what is going on with respect to these issues. What we have done is to bring the grassroots leaders together, to get the seriousness of the situation down to the level of communities, so we can strengthen our capacities to be part of the decision-making process on issues which impact on our way of life.”
President of Suriname’s OIS Leon Wijngaarde concurred with James, emphasising that the meeting’s main mission was to inform the grassroots leaders of the impacts of government’s policies. He felt that too often information remained at the top and did not trickle down to the bottom and explained, “We want the communities to know about climate change and the meaning of REDD so that more indigenous people will be aware of the situation and can become fully involved in the struggle to get support for our objectives.” A representative of Guyane’s FOAG agreed, saying “The language barrier should not be an obstacle anymore…We have our interests and it is the interests of future generations.” Another noted that accessing information in the Guianas was “a challenge.”
As an example, when the leaders were told that there would be consultations about measures to deal with climate change in Guyana, one delegate, noting that it was a complex issue, said that they were being asked to support positions without having the information. “We need more information than anything else.”
The need for public information should not be underestimated. The Guiana Shield has become the subject of this meeting for two reasons. First, the region covers 2.5 million km² and underlies Guyana (previously British Guiana), Suriname (previously Dutch Guiana) and Guyane (French Guiana), as well as parts of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Moreover, it is still inhabited by relatively large indigenous communities; their knowledge and skills are indispensable for proper conservation of the region and a great asset to world culture.
Second, it is one of the zones of highest biodiversity in the world. The eco-region is overlain by the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical rain forest in the world and its conservation is of great global importance in the battle against climate change because its vast stretches of rainforest sequesters carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change, and store an enormous amount of carbon. It contains 10-15 per cent of the world’s fresh water reserves and an extremely rich diversity of plants and animals, most of which are unique to this region.
There is much to be learnt about the environment by the country’s inhabitants and much to be learnt about the governments’ plans by the communities.
President Bharrat Jagdeo who has taken a deep interest in the environment has also become well known for initiating Guyana’s position on Avoided Deforestation. He presented a proposal in December last year in which he outlined solutions to deforestation and how Guyana can ensure that the world acts in a timely manner while at the same time protect its national interest.
Addressing the meeting, he pledged that communities of indigenous people would be free to decide whether or not they want their lands to be included in Guyana’s Avoided Deforestation model which, so far, has excluded all lands under their control. The administration intends to conduct consultations at the community level, at the national level involving all elected leaders, and with non-governmental organisations.
Further, the President promised to establish a special ‘Amerindian Development Fund’ that was separate from funds provided by the state, to deal with all issues relating to the indigenous people. This fund, he hopes, would transform the village economies. Guyana’s Avoided Deforestation model, he thinks, could provide benefits to indigenous communities as each would benefit from the income generated from forest preservation; income generated from the sale of carbon services derived from forest preservation will go towards the development of those communities that preserve their forest. He explained that, “For each Amerindian village, we have to find a set of activities that allows food security so they can grow enough food for that village and then find a crop or an activity that is sustainable.”
REDD − Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation − in developing countries has rapidly become a buzzword in international environmental circles but many people are still uncertain about its mechanisms and modalities. With widespread recognition that deforestation and forest degradation account for 17 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that the emission reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are so large that they will not be achieved without reducing forest loss and degradation, understanding REDD is a regional imperative.
Whether it will help or hurt indigenous forest communities will depend on local and governmental arrangements about the allocation of benefits within countries. Guyana is among seven rainforest countries likely to be major players for REDD. According to one report, however, “It appears evident that many countries are ill-equipped in practice to ensure that REDD schemes benefit local people. Improvements in tenure alone will not achieve this…Tackling some of the powerful players behind deforesting activities, like destructive logging, pressures for infrastructure development and conversion of forests to agribusiness, will require concerted action on an unprecedented scale in many countries.”
It is clear that the administration must commit itself to transmitting a greater amount of information to indigenous communities and must improve the enforcement of regulations that protect those communities and prevent the notorious abuses of construction, mining and logging companies.
The meeting’s importance was emphasised by the fact that, in addition to the three main indigenous people’s organisations of Guyana, Guyane and Suriname, several other international organisations were represented. These included Amazon Alliance (AA); Conservation International (CI); Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indi-genas de la Cuenca Amazonica (COICA); Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN); Environment Development Fund (EDF); Forest and European Union Resource Network (FERN); IIRSA; Insti-tuto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia (IPAM); International Union for Conserva-tion of Nature (IUCN); and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Despite the enormous international interest and the apparent success of the inaugural meeting, indigenous leaders fear that the recent obsession with climate change issues has started to supersede the obligation to guarantee the rights of the indigenous people.
Trevor Stevenson, Executive Director of the Amazon Alliance, for example, remark-ed that while the Guyana Government was in the forefront of the fight against climate change, it was failing in the fight to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. At the meeting, he questioned President Jagdeo about the administration’s willingness to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This forced the President to admit that the administration was not yet ready to do so, but could change its position if some ‘issues’ can be resolved. The non-binding Declaration was adopted by the United Nations in September 2007.
Pathbreaking though the meeting of indigenous leaders has been, passing resolutions will not close the information gap between governments and communities. There is much work to be done and, as a start, leaders must now return home and carry back the information to their communities to enable them to understand the issues. Representative indigenous organisations of the Guianas have made their voices heard; they must now make their power felt in their lands and communities.