The need for urgent solutions to longstanding indigenous land issues, a revision of the Amerindian Act and increased stipends for Toshaos were the focus of the opening ceremony of the 10th annual National Toshaos Council (NTC) Conference, which began yesterday at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre.
Held under the theme “Guyana’s First Peoples, Preserving our Culture and Land for Life,’ the five-day conference sees 212 leaders from various Indigenous villages across Guyana assembling to discuss issues that affecting the local indigenous population and recommend solutions.
In his address at yesterday’s opening ceremony, Chairman of the NTC Toshao Joel Fredericks wasted no time in highlighting land titling and the need for a support framework for the Amerindian Act of 2006 as two longstanding issues affecting the indigenous peoples.
Thus, he stated, it is time that the government, now headed by President David Granger, brings an end to these specific issues.
“For many years, the indigenous peoples of this land have had land issues and we cannot run away from that. I believe that this is a time when the leaders can sit with His Excellency and his government to talk about land issues,” he said.
Fredericks related that while work has been done with regard to land titling, so much more can be done.
Describing himself as a leader who believes in working together, the Chairman expressed willingness on behalf of the NTC to partner with the government to address the land titling issues.
Alluding to the circumstances that led to the land titles being taken back from villagers of Tasserene and Kangaruma, in Region Seven, under the previous administration, Fredericks implored the government to work towards correcting the wrong that was done to the indigenous people in those communities.
“This is not the time to play around with the life of the indigenous people but rather the time to address these issues, this is people’s futures here… I believe that at this conference we need to walk away with positive answers when it comes to land rights and land ownership for the indigenous peoples. The NTC is with you in addressing these issues,” he said.
Further, while he expressed appreciation for the existing laws that are contained in the Amerindian Act of 2006, the Chairman related that the NTC has recognised the need for said laws to be strengthened for the benefit of the people it was set up to protect.
This being said, Fredericks suggested that the NTC be seen as a “key player” in the consultation process during the revision of the Act.
Additionally, the establishment of a NTC Secretariat in the city was also raised by the Chairman, who highlighted the need for the committee to have a fixed location as means of effectively serving the Indigenous peoples.
“I humbly ask if you can give the NTC a plot of land somewhere in the city [so] that we can build our Secretariat so that when the people from the hinterland come, they know where to find our office. Since we are celebrating our 50th Independence anniversary, let this be a memorable one so that we can look back and see that we got this for our 50th anniversary,” he said.
Lastly, the Chairman also took the opportunity to lobby for an increase in the current stipend being paid to the Toshaos.
He said, “I have known many of our leaders who toil everyday as Toshaos. They are busy with community work; you have to leave your own private business many times to fulfil the needs of the peoples of the village, and we cannot provide enough for our family. So we are asking for an increase in stipend for Toshaos and Councillors.”
Meanwhile, in offering his remarks, President Granger underscored the importance of the annual conference, while adding that it cannot be overemphasised since such a gathering gives the leaders an opportunity to assemble to make recommendations and offer suggestions for ways to improve the lives of the indigenous peoples.
Responding to Fredericks’ request for the establishment of a permanent Secretariat for the NTC, he acknowledged the need for it and promised to take the suggestion to Cabinet for consideration.
On the other hand, the President questioned whether a once-a-year meeting of the NTC is enough to monitor the implementation of decisions made by the NTC all year round and whether there can be a different administrative approach to resolving the problems that are brought to the NTC’s attention.
“You must ask yourself if these villages’ councils have the skill—the financial skills, the managerial skills—the resources, [and] the organisational structures to effectively address the mere challenges that they face and which the residents face,” the President said.
Continuing, Granger questioned whether the village councils, without the support of a strong administrative body and national reach, can effectively undertake tasks of managing those communities for which they are responsible.
Alluding to the network that governs communities on the coastland, that is, the Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC), Regional Democratic Council (RDC) and its other counterparts leading up the National Assembly, he said that time has come to look at the setting up a body that would represent a parallel system for that of indigenous villages in the hinterland.
This administrative body, the President said, would support the work of the NTC year round to ensure that decisions of the council are properly implemented. The Head of State noted that Toshaos, under the Amerindian Act, are empowered to deliberate on and make decisions on the resolution of a large number of problems that affect indigenous communities.
“It is… very difficult for a single annual conference to execute day-to-day management of these complex problems, which I have spoken about over such a vast area from north to south and east to west. The conference must therefore ask itself whether there can be a different administrative approach to resolving these problems rather than meeting once a year and not being able to monitor the implementation of your decision for 365 days,” he said.
“Sometimes we make decisions and we implement measures, which are intermittent and episodic; a donation of a tractor here, an ATV there, a generator, a solar panel, but taken as a whole they have not succeeded in creating the quality of life which we expect for all Guyanese,” he said.
The body will not usurp the role of the NTC or the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs but ensure effective implementation of decisions taken by the Council, he added.
Granger also advised that Cabinet is currently considering the establishment of ministerial planning units, while explaining that as it stands, the ministries are tasked with transmitting requests and seeking solutions from one agency to another.
He further disclosed the establishment of one such unit for the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs and added that such a unit would give the ministry the authority to act decisively in dealing with some of the burning issues that indigenous communities are faced with.