The pull of emigration and the search for a better life in the greener pastures of North America and the Caribbean have wrought significant changes in the political demography of Guyana. The two major groups, the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese have seen declines in their numbers. According to the 2002 census Indo-Guyanese were pegged at 43.5% while the Afro-Guyanese were at 30.2%. There is evidence to establish that this trend has continued over the years; recent statistics from the United States Embassy in Georgetown would suggest that the emigration cycle has intensified. Neither group, therefore, can by itself guarantee a majority at national elections. I suspect that my friends in Freedom House can no longer boast that they have the ‘numbers.’ Those days are long gone. Any political party which has the intention of governing Guyana must make inroads into the remaining 26.3%, of which the Amerindian population represents approximately 9%. It is because the Amerindian community is so vital to electoral success that it is courted by all political parties, especially the ruling party which has placed Amerindians in prominent positions and even created programmes, such as the Low Carbon Development Strategy, which are designed, among other things, to attract the votes of the Amerindian communities.
I do consider it an important matter that if the Amerindian community is so vital a part of the electorate there must be a more intimate understanding of what it represents in the scheme of Guyanese politics.
As it is there are only biased and highly politicized accounts of what the Amerindians represent, based on insufficient knowledge and understanding. Let us, therefore, look for example at the geographical spread of Amerindian areas in Guyana. Amerindians are to be found in all ten regions of Guyana, the greatest concentration being in Regions One, Two, Seven, Eight and Nine.
There are established Amerindian communities in Santa Aratak in Region Three, St Cuthbert’s Mission in Region Four, Maraikobai in Region Five, Orealla in Region Six and Malali in Region Ten as examples of the wider spread. It is a fact that the Amerindian population of Guyana is the only indigenous one that is increasing in the Caribbean region.
The fact that they are embedded in the very social tissue of the life of this nation, ought to qualify them for the attention and respect they naturally deserve. Rather, it seems, the Amerindians only receive the appropriate attention during the election cycle. My argument is that there is nothing at this point in our history that prevents the contribution of the Amerindians to our nation from being included in the curriculum from nursery to university. In other words, whenever we have national elections every Guyanese must be aware of the importance of the Amerindians to Guyana.
Indeed, so political is the PPP’s approach that anything that is done for this community is characterized as the direct result of one political entity or the other. I am not surprised therefore that many Amerindians believe that they have become the ‘playthings’ of the politicians and their parties. And I must confess that the rather clumsy attempt to hide from them the funds which were supposed to accrue to them under the Amerindian Act merely reinforced this view. I was therefore impressed that APNU has come out for a more balanced and mature approach to the development of the Amerindian community. It is my hope that when APNU takes over the reins of government this approach will inform policy in a practical and convincing manner. I offer this advice to my friends and colleagues in APNU. It does make sense to place those individuals who have a deep understanding of Amerindians in those communities during this election period. Moreover, it would make even greater sense to tap into the popularity of the candidate who secured the most votes from the Amerindian community when the PNCR voted for its presidential candidate in February last.
I believe that the right approach to the Amerindian community must be based on an accurate and credible account of what happened in the past. Every Guyanese knows that there was very little development under the colonial regime. It is to Mr Burnham’s credit and that of the PNC that a major conference was convened in the halls of the National Assembly, not long after independence, which addressed the question of the overall development of the Amerindian community, such as the demarcation of land, scholarships, health and other pertinent issues. My own view is that the earlier PPP and subsequently the Jagdeo regime had a wonderful opportunity of building on this foundation. Instead all of the negative elements of our national politics were foisted on the Amerindian community. The PNC was demonized in these communities and the PPP government continues to give the impression that the PNC did nothing for the Amerindians. For me this is the most damaging political practice. It is the dividing of the Amerindians into organizations and individuals who support the PPP and those who do not. Such division was clearly on display when the recent Toshaos Conference was held at the Conference Centre. There for all to see were Amerindians holding press conferences in support of the government and others holding press conferences to say that these Amerindians did not speak for them. This division cannot be of benefit to the Amerindian community, and by extension, our country.
The national elections are almost upon us. It is time that all political parties approach the Amerindian community in a mature way. In other words the focus must be on fully integrating Amerindians into our national life and making every effort to rid their community of such scourges as trafficking in persons, child labour and other forms of discrimination.
I am confident that my friends in A Partnership for National Unity understand clearly how this is to be done and will therefore be in the best position to effectively capture the imagination of the Amerindian dream for a better Guyana and to chart a vision for the realization of that dream.