Amerindian leaders welcome forest management programme

– urge greater inputs from first peoples

Amerindian leaders from several indigenous communities yesterday welcomed Guyana’s move to adopt a European Union (EU) forest management initiative and also called for Amerindian land rights to be secured and more community involvement in the process.

Guyana is engaged in negotiations with the EU under its Forestry Law Governance and Trade (FLEGT) programme with the aim of signing a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) to effectively bring the governance regime of the country’s forest resources under international scrutiny and enhance its environmental bona fides.

A critical element of the EU-FLEGT programme is a voluntary scheme which seeks to ensure that only legally harvested timber is imported into the EU from countries agreeing to take part in the scheme. The VPA aims to promote sustainable forest management by ensuring forest legality and securing access to European markets for legally-harvested and sustainable Guyanese forest products.

The Amerindian Peoples Association and the Forest Peoples Programme yesterday concluded a four-day seminar for indigenous leaders from several regions as well as several non-governmental organisations. The seminar was held at the Georgetown Club on Camp Street. Discussions focused on the Guyana-EU FLEGT VPA process and how it relates to indigenous peoples and their lands and livelihoods. In addition to the process itself, particular focus has been given to the legality definition.

“Our discussions have been informed by issues and recommendations identified in community workshops facilitated by the Amerindian Peoples Association and Forest Peoples Programme between July 2014 and January 2015. Inputs from governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors over the course of the four days have also been taken into consideration,” said Clyde Henry, toshao of Waramadong, an indigenous community in Region Seven at the close of the seminar yesterday.

Speaking for the indigenous leaders present, he said that from time immemorial, the indigenous peoples have cared the forests and believe that it is important that the forests continue to be managed well in order to secure the future of their children and generations to come. “We welcome the FLEGT VPA process as it aims to halt illegal and harmful forest practices,” he said.

In relation to the national FLEGT VPA discussions, the indigenous leader urged that customary land claims of indigenous communities be satisfactorily addressed before any forest concession be granted, in accordance with all the relevant international human rights legislation which Guyana has signed onto.

He also urged that no forest concession be allocated fully or partly on customary land of an Amerindian community, whether titled or untitled, without the free prior and informed consent of the community and without a benefit sharing agreement between the concession holder and the community. Among other suggestions was that there must be an independent mechanism to provide redress and solve conflict in case of any violation of these customary land rights and when there is no conflict regarding customary land, any timber harvested by the indigenous community from these lands should be deemed legal.

In relation to the FLEGT VPA Process, Henry said that there must be increased civil society representation on the National Technical Working Group (NTWG) including a formally established and credible non-governmental indigenous people’s organization. It was also recommended that the National Toshaos Council be strengthened as an institution to enhance effective communication to ensure proper representation and accountability as it relates to participation and representation on the NTWG.

“The work of the Amerindian Peoples Association in communication with Amerindian communities must be recognized and supported as part of inputs into the process,” he said while adding that there must be more community involvement in the process. There is need for more consultations and space for effective participation. Audio visual media as well as other material must be used to maximize transfer of information to communities, Henry urged.

Further, he said, information from community workshops should be sent back to communities for validation and national laws must incorporate minimum standards of international laws that cover protection of environmental, social and human rights obligations.

He also stated that there must be a text within the VPA which guarantees a timeframe within which the agreement will be reviewed by stakeholders. “There must be open discussions with all stakeholders and rights holders including the guidance of an independent legal counsel through their selected representatives. There should be more time for the public to comment on the process,” he asserted.

Another recommendation was for the NTWG to have Legality Seminars for stakeholders especially for indigenous peoples and keep updated flow of information and communication. The existing Legality Assurance system must be evaluated in all regions including codes of practices and the Wood Tracking System which has been posing a lot of challenges for logging communities. There must be space for reform of laws and policies and must be reviewed with the participation of communities, Henry said.

He also said that there needs to be a clear Terms of Reference for the Amerindian constituency group if their inputs are to be considered and recognized in the process. There must be access to information including programme documents, legislation, regulations and policies while all lands under claim must be left free until such time that legal recognition has been achieved, he asserted.

“An Amerindian Lands Commission must be re-established to review the land situation using the ‘Amerindian Lands Commission Report – 1969’ as a minimum to influence resolutions to achieving land tenure security,” Henry urged.

FLEGT had been recommended for Guyana under its forest partnership with Norway.

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