The gov’t needs to stop talking and start listening to the Indigenous Peoples

Dear Editor,

I was disappointed to learn of President Ramotar’s use of the 7th Annual National Toshao’s Council (NTC) meeting to bash the political opposition; instead of focusing on issues pertinent to Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples. Given the number and complexity of the problems, I would have thought that the government would use every precious moment productively.

The issues facing Guyana’s first peoples have at least three points of origin: The government’s misunderstanding of their cultural realities, the ruling party’s patronising attitude and a legal system which permits continued oppression and marginalisation of Indigenous Guyanese.

The major problems remain unsolved even after almost half a century of independence. Poverty; political, economic, social and legal inequality; lack of equal access to health care, education, social services and financial capital are among the most obvious issues.

The ruling party treats “Amerindians” as a homogeneous group instead of dealing with Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples as the culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct communities that they actually are. One size does not fit all.

The Makushi in the Rupununi are culturally distinct from the Arawak in Orealla. The Carib in Siparuta have different needs from the Arekuna in Western Guyana. The Minister of Amerindian Affairs is in no position to determine their particular, respective needs. The Minister’s air-conditioned office is so far removed from the realities of hinterland life, that she is simply not qualified to make some decisions.

To say that the government listens to the Indigenous Peoples before making decisions is stretching the truth to the outer limits of credibility. In fact, as the NTC meeting demonstrates: the government is doing most, if not all, of the talking and very little listening. This is not just my opinion, the Amerindian Peoples Association are protesting this very reality, outside the meeting’s venue. The Indigenous Peoples are therefore, very aware of the government’s fundamental misunderstanding of their cultural affairs.

The ruling party persists in adopting a patronising, parent-like attitude to Indigenous Guyanese, in the process perpetuating the explicitly stated colonial myth that “Amerindians” are child-like, ignorant and need “adult” supervision to manage their own affairs.

The ruling elite’s insistence on micromanaging the lives of indigenous groups has to stop. The approach is arrogant and unwelcome: the implications of parent-like oversight are insulting to say the least. The ruling regime needs to back off and allow our country’s first inhabitants to determine their own identity and destiny.

Editor, the statutes that permit the ruling regime to continue to “advantage” indigenous groups have to be changed. Many aspects of local law are not only distasteful but discriminatory and inconsistent with international law.

Examples: The Minister of Amerindian Affairs has the authority to ban religious and cultural practices of indigenous groups at the whim of the ruling regime. Indigenous groups have no absolute right to minerals on their land and according to the World Bank: no right to self determination.

This state of affairs is illegal under the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to which Guyana is a signatory.

Moreover, under current law, the government has the power to confiscate titled lands, if two or more persons in a community are “disloyal to the State.”

Editor, no other person in Guyana is subject to such prejudice. Can you imagine the government seizing someone’s house and land in Georgetown, because the government feels they are “disloyal?” If this is not legalised racial prejudice, what is?

The ruling regime has to stop this annual charade of bringing Toshaos hundreds of miles from their homes to Georgetown, to listen to PPP/C propaganda.

The government needs to stop talking and start listening. The PPP/C regime must revise their thinking on the diverse group they call “Amerindians,” abandon their patronising policies and radically revise the country’s laws to give fundamental equality to Guyana’s first peoples.

Yours faithfully,
Mark DaCosta

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