There are many questions but answers are not forthcoming, Devroy Thomas, the Chief of the Region Seven community in the Pakaraimas Mountains said in an interview last week. “I was trying at the (National Toshaos) Conference but no time was given to me”, he said. Thomas said that while the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) is not discussed much in the community because of limited information, a decision on whether to ‘opt-in’ receives attention as residents fear that their traditional activities, such as the small-scale slashing and burning for farms, may be curtailed.
There are other issues too, Thomas said. Arau- a remote Amerindian community located within the Pakaraimas Mountains, close to the Venezuelan border and comprising 162 residents from both the Akawaio and Arecuna tribes, has not seen anyone come to explain the LCDS. Access to the area is difficult. “We find it very hard and we can’t follow what they are talking about”, Thomas said. He is the only person from the village who has travelled to the city to learn more about the LCDS but says that the issue is hardly discussed in the village, in part, because of his limited information on the subject. “I won’t be able to answer questions that they are asking”, he explained. “I just give them (the village council) the brief information and I tell them, let the people know about it”.
But while they support the conservation of forests, first, Arau wants its traditional lands to be recognised. Sited at the side of a mountain, the village itself is not inside its titled land. The land title was handed over in 1991. Thomas said that in 2007, the village council applied for a land extension to include the village but to date has received no firm word though he has spoken to Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai. “She continue to tell me that they will look into the Arau land issue as priority. That is all she telling we but we never get an official response in writing”, he said.
He recalled that last April, the Council received a letter from the Minister informing the Council that the Ministry has noted that the village has not submitted an application for demarcation. “It is like they are telling us that demarcation is to be done before we get extension to our land”, Thomas said adding that it would solve nothing as the village would remain outside the titled land. He referred to some other villages complaining at the National Toshaos Conference recently that their villages were “sliced off” during demarcation. Thomas said that they would like these issues to be sorted out before making a decision on whether to ‘opt-in’ to the LCDS.
However, he said, the government seems to have a different idea as regards conservation of the forest, pointing to statements affirming that mining and logging would continue and this is “not according to what we know”. He said that this should be stopped or strictly monitored but expressed doubt about whether there is the capacity to do so. The chief pointed out that years after complaining about the muddy state of the Arau River which villagers blame on mining activities upstream, nothing much has changed though the numbers of miners upstream has decreased.
Thomas said that while the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) had promised action, after visits by mines officers, the river reverted to a muddy state as operations restarted.
There is no regular monitoring, Thomas pointed out. Moreover, he added, he learned recently that mining concessions are being granted to lands around the community, leaving it surrounded. “We need to be legally recognised before the miners destroy the forest”, he said.
At the recent toshaos conference a resolution was approved affirming the conference’s support for the LCDS.
Thomas was among a few toshaos who did not sign. “Knowing that my village was never involved in any consultations, I was the first one to refuse to sign. We were never involved in any consultations”, he declared. He said though that the topic of ‘opting-in’ to the strategy has seen some discussions. “When I explain it, the people didn’t like it because it was restricting them from doing their traditional activities”, he said.
According to his understanding, he said, slash and burn agriculture would be stopped. This information is contained in a booklet he has seen, he said.
He also noted that currently the village is not inside its titled area and the land they use would be subject to stricter state forest rules if their extension request is not granted.
He said that he has tried to bring up these concerns with the authorities but has not been heard.
The toshao said that several weeks ago, he wrote to President Bharrat Jagdeo asking that the Arau land extension be afforded special consideration but has not received a response. There are “many unexplained things” that the community wants to know more about, he said while calling for the authorities to respond.