In a letter (`The gov’t needs to stop talking and start listening to the Indigenous Peoples’ SN October 25, 2013), Mr DaCosta criticised the way we treat Amerindian peoples in Guyana. The letter cited the protest by the Amerindian Peoples Association as evidence of dissatisfaction by the “indigenous peoples.” Freedom of expression is the basis of democracy, but it is also important to use reason and to assess critically what is being expressed.
Good governance requires that representatives are elected by and accountable to the people they represent. Amerindian NGOs represent only the few individuals comprising their membership. The Amerindian Peoples Association cannot legitimately speak for or represent the Amerindian peoples of Guyana.
The legitimate representatives of the Amerindian peoples are the Toshaos and village councillors who are elected by their Amerindian communities. The Amerindian communities can call these leaders to account for their performance. That is exactly what Amerindian communities should do in order to ensure good governance. Nobody else can do it for them.
Self-governance carries responsibilities as well as rights. Mr DaCosta’s description of our national law is wrong and needs correcting. He claimed that “the Minister of Amerindian Affairs has the authority to ban religious and cultural practices of indigenous groups at the whim of the ruling regime.” This is not true. All Guyanese have freedom of religion which is constitutionally protected.
The Constitution also provides special protection for languages, culture and way of life of “indigenous peoples.”
Mr DaCosta stated that “indigenous groups have no absolute right to minerals on their land.” Nobody does. It is normal for minerals to belong to the sovereign state in which they are located. However Amerindians control access to minerals on their lands. Control is the key. Amerindians can veto mining. The State can override the veto, but only for large scale mining in the public interest, and only with safeguards to protect the community.
(Non-Amerindian communities have no equivalent protection.) In other words our law says that there are times when the interests of the people of Guyana as a whole may outweigh the
interests of a community which forms part of the whole.
Mr DaCosta claimed that according to the World Bank, indigenous groups have no self-determination. Amerindian communities control access to their lands, the use of resources on their lands, and the use of their traditional knowledge. They can make rules which become law when approved by the Minister and gazetted. The Minister must respond within six months and her failure to act can be dealt with by the court. The World Bank’s opinion is certainly wrong; perhaps it is merely out of date.
Mr DaCosta claimed, “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.” This is wrong.
The old Amerindian Act Cap 29:01 which gave the Minister such power was repealed in 2006. The new Amerindian Act 2006 specifically prohibits any attempt to transfer Amerindian land to anybody else. The constitution protects Amerindians against deprivation of property and discrimination.
The Amerindian Act 2006 restricts the Minister’s powers and imposes duties on her. If any Amerindian believes that his rights are being violated he should immediately seek a legal remedy.
The problem is not the law but the failure of the Minister to comply with her legal obligations combined with the failure of Amerindian communities and leaders to get proper legal advice and use their legal rights and powers effectively.
Mr DaCosta called for the government to revise Guyana’s laws radically to give fundamental equality to Guyana’s first peoples.
How do we identify “first peoples?” Do we assume that every Amerindian automatically belongs to Guyana’s “first peoples”? Irrespective of when they came to Guyana?
In 1817 Spanish Arawaks fled from Venezuela to British Guiana. The British Governor gave them a grant of land in Moruca in 1834. Were these Arawaks refugees or “first peoples” of Guyana? Other Amerindians fled from Venezuela and Brazil to British Guiana in the nineteenth century.
Are their descendants “first peoples”? Using terms like “first peoples” may be emotionally comforting but it can also be dangerously divisive.
Amerindians currently have fundamental rights and freedoms equally with other Guyanese. Amerindians also have a special regime of collective rights that no other Guyanese have. As a result of land settlements, Amerindians are now the biggest landowners in Guyana after the State. Equality must be assessed with these facts in mind.
Our responsibility as Guyanese is to build a country based on the rule of law, social justice and respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of one another. Mr DaCosta’s letter raises important points that deserve careful thought.
Justice Institute Guyana