Almost two decades into a conflict that pitted the indigenous community of Chinese Landing against a miner who leased his mining concessions to a Canadian company, villagers have now been ordered to stop mining on their titled land within which the concessions fall but say they will continue to work.
“We prepared to go to jail, we prepared to go. What else we get to do? They got to take this whole village (to jail),” village councillor Veron Millington said yesterday even as she explained that mining is what the village depends on to earn money, buy food and send
their children to school. “We work because it is on titled land,” she said adding that there are no other jobs available in the Region One community. “This is what we do to mine we family, get food…,” she said.
“We need someone to help us. We need to work,” Toshao Nikita Miller said. She told Stabroek News that on July 26, two Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) officers visited the community and issued ten cease work orders (CWO). She said that they were told that if they continued to mine, they would be doing so at their own risk and could be charged. The community of 130 persons has 14 four-inch dredges operating there, she said.
Miller and Millington explained that the village received its land title in 1991 and in 1995, the GGMC sold four medium-scale mining blocks located within the village’s land in an auction without the knowledge of the community. “Since then we have been fighting and this is the latest issue with no resolution in sight,” Millington said. “We’ve been behind them trying to get back those blocks.”
She explained that villagers have been mining in that area since it is the only part where there is water for the mining operations. She said that because of their earnings, they are able to send their children to school and buy the things they need. Millington said that they wrote letters to Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, met with the Amerindian Affairs Minister and even met with former President Bharrat Jagdeo and asked for the blocks to be cancelled. She said that they never got a response from the authorities. “After 18 years we still fighting with no result in sight,” she said.
She said that the GGMC, in an effort to resolve the matter, had stopped taking rental fees from the miner but the miner took the agency to court. Eventually, an order was made but the GGMC apparently did not comply and the miner filed for a contempt order. Because of this action, the GGMC told them that they were compelled to issue the CWOs, Millington said.
“In other words the villagers are seen as trespassers in their own land,” the community’s attorney David James told Stabroek News. Millington emphasized that the community got its title before the miner was granted the mining blocks. “The Amerindians are considered to be trespassers on their own titled land,” she said. Stabroek News was told that the GGMC has applied for a stay of execution and the agency is appealing the court’s decision.
“But in the meantime, we still got to live,” Miller said. Millington added that everyone in the community depends on mining to earn a living because there are no other jobs available. Even if they do farming, she said, there are no markets. “We live very far. Even if you plant we ain’t got market,” Millington said. According to the village representatives, Moruca/Santa Rosa is the nearest community where they can sell any produce and it is approximately 150 miles away. Some villagers also have children going to secondary school in Santa Rosa and elsewhere and this is how they support them, the women said.
They said that currently the miner is not working on the concessions but the Canadian company, Stratagold, to which he has transferred the rights, has erected some buildings on the blocks and there are security guards posted. She said that the company had not sought the permission of the village to build. At one point, village representatives met with the Canadian company representatives who asked them to sign an agreement giving permission to the company to mine but the villagers refused, Millington recounted.
Millington questioned whether their land title is not valid pointing out that they got it before the blocks were issued. The village councillor recounted that some persons had gotten their dredge licence and had permission from the council to mine on the village land but the GGMC denied them permission. The village’s land and surrounding areas outside the community are covered by a prospecting licence controlled by Stratagold and even if they want to mine outside the titled area, they cannot do so, Millington said.
“Our livelihood is being taken away,” she added. The women asserted that despite the CWOs, they will continue to work since there is nothing else they can do to earn money. In her family inclusive of her siblings, Miller said, there are five children going to secondary school and they have to support them.
Another councillor, Emelda Fernandes said that she has children and grandchildren going to secondary school and the Government Technical Institute and mining is how they support them.
Millington said that the authorities would have to jail the entire community if they want to stop them. She said that yesterday, they met with Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Persaud and acting GGMC commissioner, Rickford Vieira and they were told that there is nothing that can be done.
“Is like we are at an end now. Somebody, anybody please help us,” Millington pleaded. She said that they do not want to go back to the village without results.
Villagers have long been pressing the issue and in 2011, in an ‘open letter’ to then President Jagdeo, the former toshao Theophilus Fernandes asked for the intervention of the President “in a matter we consider to be blatant violation of our rights as indigenous people.” He said at the time that the mining rights had been transferred from the local miner to foreign mining companies and requested assistance to “remove the exploitative conditions that have been forced upon us.”
“Since that year, the life of the people of Chinese Landing has been one of exploitation, intimidation, abuse and total contempt brought about by the miner and some associated with him,” he had said.
In his letter, Fernandes had said that an agreement signed by another former toshao but which the village had objected to because it was totally in favour of the miner, came to an end in 2003, following which then Amerindian Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodrigues wrote to the Prime Minister advising him of the council’s position on the issue. The GGMC nevertheless granted a renewal of the permit to the miner and Rodrigues, in February 2007, subsequently penned another correspondence to the Prime Minister in which she stated that, while the permit may have escaped the passing of the Amerindian Act in 2006, the GGMC was aware of provisions made within the legislation. “Further, it is total disrespect for the Chinese Landing community and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs,” she had said, according to the letter.
Fernandes had said that in September 2009, the Village Council travelled to Georgetown to express their concern to Minster of Amerindian Affairs Pauline Sukhai and were shocked when she rebuffed them and told them Amerindians had no mining rights. That statement was later denied by Sukhai.
“For the past 15 years during which the miner has been issued permits to use our titled lands by the GGMC against our wishes and in violation of our rights, the Chinese Landing community has received very little benefits from the mining operations that have exploited the mineral resources which are found in our lands. In the meantime, we have remained poor, most of us are illiterate and we face growing social problems,” Fernandes had said. “Despite the many difficulties that we face, we are determined to improve the conditions under which we live, for ourselves and our children. However, we can only develop our community if we obtain help to remove the exploitative conditions that have been forced upon us,” he added.
Following the publishing of Fernandes’ letter, Sukhai had written the Stabroek News stating that the matter has been engaging the attention of the Office of the Prime Minister, the Office of the Minister of Amerindian Affairs and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission as late as February, 25, 2011. She had said that no mining permit for small or medium-scale mining on village lands can be given or renewed without the permission of the village council. “This precondition for small and medium-scale mining on Amerindian titled lands is clearly set out in the 2006 Amerindian Act to which many of us contributed and which the PPP/C Government unreservedly supports,” Sukhai had said.
Recently, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had expressed concern about mining on the titled land of some Amerindian communities and has asked government to provide information on the cases.