Amerindian communities have right to internal self-determination, it is up to them to act responsibly

Dear Editor,

In a letter `Notwithstanding the Amerindian Act of 2006, govt’s paternalistic, patronising treatment of the Indigenous Peoples is unrestrained’ (SN 7 November 2013), Mr Da Costa claims that the Minister of Amerindian Affairs can decide who is an Amerindian. That is not true. There is a legal definition in the Amerindian Act 2006. The minister’s opinion is irrelevant.

Mr Da Costa claims that the “ruling regime” determines who it will recognise as Amerindian representatives and which groups can be ignored. That is not true. Amerindian communities elect their own representatives. Any Amerindian can stand for election in his or her village. It is up to the Amerindian communities to elect their best people. But irrespective of the outcome, the government must recognise the elected toshaos and village councillors. It is called democracy.

Mr Da Costa refers to the architect of the Amerindian Act 2006. Laws do not have architects. An architect designs a building. A legal drafter, to explain it simply, writes down the words that turn legislative policy into law. Legislative policy is decided by MPs, the elected representatives of the people, not by drafters.

The drafting of the Amerindian bill started after years of consultations with Amerindian communities and Amerindian NGOs, and after the development of the policy. During the drafting there was more public consultation. So the drafters (there was more than one) had to make many amendments to accommodate new Amerindian requests, including conflicting requests.

For example the old Amerindian Act (Cap 29:01) had a ban on intoxicating liquor other than traditional Amerindian drinks like “piwarri”. Some Amerindians wanted to keep the ban; others felt that Amerindians should be free to drink rum like everybody else. The compromise was to leave it up to each Amerindian community to decide democratically what they want. If the community has a problem with alcohol, they can ban it.

There were also conflicts between what Amerindian communities asked for and what NGOs demanded. Governments must listen to the people when the people speak about matters that affect their rights and interests. So the Amerindian Act reflects community submissions rather than NGO submissions.

A Select Committee made up of government and opposition MPs, (including Amerindian MPs) worked on the Amerindian Bill. Every word of every clause was approved by consensus in the Select Committee. That is why the Amerindian Act says what it says.

Mr Da Costa makes serious allegations about abuse of power by the “ruling regime.” Writing to the paper is a good first step in exposing such abuse but it is unlikely to make a government change its behaviour. Perhaps the Amerindian peoples should reconsider their reactions. In 2010 when the Minister tried to get an Amerindian village to transfer their land by deed of gift, (in violation of the Amerindian Act 2006) the village refused – they still own their land. Perhaps other Amerindians should say no to things they don’t want. If the toshaos are told to sign a document and they do not know what is in it, perhaps they should refuse to sign it. If the toshaos are vexed with how the government treats the National Toshaos Council, perhaps they should say what they want and stay home until they get it. Perhaps the Amerindian people should inform themselves better about what is in the Amerindian Act and use it. Amerindian communities have a right to internal self-determination. It is up to them to act responsibly.

Finally, we do not have a “ruling regime”. We have a government that is elected and is subject to the rule of law. No president or minister is above the law. Any abuse of power by a minister undermines the rule of law and should be stopped. But democracy only works if the people of a country believe in it, unite in support of the rule of law and are able to use reason to decide the difficult question of how we can all live well together.

Yours faithfully,

Melinda Janki

Executive Director

Justice Institute Guyana

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