Court ruling on mining triggers calls for amendment to Amerindian Act

The Village Council of Isseneru is calling for the Amerindian Act to be amended after a recent court ruling allowed a miner to proceed with mining activities on titled lands belonging to the villagers.

The announcement was made yesterday at a press conference with members of the Village Council and Toshaos from other Amerindian communities that are affected by the same issue. It comes just days after a miner won a court ruling against the Village Council and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), preventing them from stopping operations on lands in the village.

The council representatives and their attorney David James later met with President Donald Ramotar and Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai about the situation and the minister said that government would support the residents.

The Village Council stated that it plans to appeal Justice Diana Insanally’s decision, which made absolute nisi orders of certiorari and prohibition, first granted on December 7, 2011, based on the application of Joan Chang, a miner who holds claim licences on lands alleged by the GGMC to be owned by the Isseneru Village Council.

Council members yesterday claimed that the 2006 Amerindian Act does not preserve the rights of Amerindians and as a result they feel deceived by the government, which had claimed that it is the best legislation in the world as it pertains to Amerindians interests.

President Donald Ramotar (left) greets members of the Isseneru Village Council in company with the council’s lawyer David James (second from right). The Village’s captain Dennis Larson is third from left. (GINA photo)
President Donald Ramotar (left) greets members of the Isseneru Village Council in company with the council’s lawyer David James (second from right). The Village’s captain Dennis Larson is third from left. (GINA photo)

Chang had instituted legal proceedings for an order of prohibition against the Village Council to prevent it from interfering with the mining activities and an order of certiorari to quash the cease work orders (CWOs) issued by a GGMC mining officer.

Members of the Village Council had claimed that the mining company was mining on titled lands without the council’s permission under the Amerindian Act and despite subsequent CWOs issued by the GGMC mining officer.

However, Justice Insanally pointed out in her ruling on Thursday that by virtue of Chang being granted a licence to mine prior to the coming into operation of the Amerindian Act of 2006, the Village Council had no authority to stop the operation and the GGMC no authority to issue the CWOs.
At the press conference yesterday, Secretary of the Village Council Dwight Larson said that the village was given titles for the lands in 2007; one year after the Amerindian Act was implemented. However, about three months after, it became clear that the land was not in effect theirs because miners began to come into their lands and mine.
Larson also said that efforts to stop the miners were unsuccessful and a meeting was held with the Minister of Amerindian Affairs as well as the Minister of Natural Resources to discuss the issue. At this meeting, the ministers told them that they would look into the matter but they never received a word back, he said.
“We are deeply disappointed and worried with this ruling and what it means to our village and our Amerindian communities in general. We feel that when the High Court tells us that we have no rights to decide and control what takes place on our lands, then the land is not ours. For the Amerindian people, we are not protected by the Amerindian Act,” Larson added.
Toshaos from the other communities who were present at the conference also expressed similar sentiments as they stood in solidarity. They stated that they thought the Amerindian Act would have preserved their rights but it did not and the lands miners are mining on belong to their ancestors.
The Government Information Agency (GINA) last evening reported that President Ramotar and Minister Sukhai met with the council representatives and James. Sukhai was quoted as saying that government has been following the case very closely.
“We will work together with respect to examining the case and consider appealing,” she said, while adding that no law is perfect, but the Amerindian Act is a strong one.
She also urged Amerindian communities to use the various clauses for protection, opining that the law is “a very workable and strong one,” but Amerindians must “make use of it or it wouldn’t work for them.”

‘Troubling’
The court decision also attracted the attention of the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), which said that the government must accept complete blame and must take legislative steps to correct the situation regarding indigenous lands.

“Not only is it necessary for the legislation to be revised but also that clear policies enumerated by the indigenous peoples themselves. Furthermore, if the Amerindian Act is the law that governs the indigenous peoples of this country then this should be the guiding law when it comes to recognizing indigenous rights and other laws should be made compatible,” it said in a statement, while adding that the situation questions where the process of recognising the rights of indigenous people in Guyana is going.

The APA argued that the judge’s ruling is very troubling on many fronts. It said it pits communities against miners with concessions on their lands, relegating residents to being “aliens” on the land they thought was theirs. Furthermore, it said the ruling speaks to the emptiness of the titles given to some Amerindian communities, with saving clauses protecting those miners who have concessions.

The APA charged that the government was aware of the true status regarding mining concessions and was therefore clearly involved in “deception at the highest level,” which was heightened by the failure to explain the true nature of titles to communities.
“What is the real purpose of these titles? Are they for publicity sake to appear to be doing something for indigenous communities when this is not really so?” it questioned.
Like council members of Isseneru, the APA said that when the revised Amerindian Act was passed in 2006, it had recognized that there were shortcomings that did not account for traditional and other tenure rights that fully protect indigenous lands and this was pointed out to the government and agencies with an interest in indigenous rights. But these concerns were ignored.

It added that the government has showcased the law as the best effort by any country to protect indigenous rights. Further, the law was also cited in the agreement between Guyana and Norway for support of the country’s Low Carbon Development Strategy, it noted, adding that through the recognition of the legislation the Land Titling and Demarcation project is being developed.

“How can the obvious failing and ambiguity of this document continue to be guiding principle for decisions on Amerindian land? Today we see how useless it can be when, through lack of clarity or in some cases direct provisions, it remains open to interpretation that can work against the indigenous communities,” it lamented.

As a result of the situation, a picketing exercise is planned for today in front of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, in addition to two vigils in support of Isseneru, scheduled for today and Friday at the same location.

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