A continuing prohibition on joint requests for land title has led to the fragmentation of collective lands and a weakening of joint decision-making on land use among Guyana’s indigenous peoples, according to the findings of a recent study conducted by the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) in 42 Indigenous settlements across regions 1 and 2.
As a result, the study recommends that the government should amend the 2006 Amerindian Act to allow for joint title requests and also establish an independent national tribunal to hear the indigenous peoples’ claims and grievances about land, territorial and resource rights.
The study, titled ‘A Participatory Assessment of the Land Tenure Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Guyana: Regions 1 and 2,’ was conducted between 2012 and 2015 by the APA and its partner, the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), through engagements with communities in region 1 and seven in region 2.
Of the number of settlements in the two regions, 29 were titled villages, while 13 were not.
The report of the study highlights concerns raised by these communities in relation to the implementation of Guyana’s recent land policies and its impact on indigenous communities.
It notes that many of the people who participated in the study consider that individual land titles are undermining indigenous culture and way of life.
Specific reference was made to the Amerindian Lands Commission’s rejection in the 1970s of the joint request made by many villages for a ‘Greater Northwest Amerindian Territory.’ This commission instead recommended individual village titles.
A similar request in the late 1990s by six villages in the Moruca sub-region for a joint title, supported by a community map and documentary evidence, was, according to the report, entirely ignored by the former Minister of Amerindian Affairs. It added that under the current administration, villages reported that in 2015 and 2016 the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MIPA) is still refusing to consider joint requests for land title by more than one village, saying this is not allowed under the 2006 Amerindian Act.
It also stressed that none of the land titles held by villages were agreed through an effective process of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). As a result, 25 demarcated villages used in the study are unhappy with their demarcation.
“Half of them are unhappy because of demarcation errors that have excluded significant portions of titled lands and one third of them are unhappy because the boundary, though more-or-less correct, sets in stone a title area that the village never formally agreed to,” the report explains. It also noted that titling and demarcation did not involve consulting neighbouring villages and getting their agreement beforehand, which has led to boundary disputes between seven villages.
The report, made public last month, states that drafting of village land titles severely limits community ownership of land resources by excluding subsoil resources and all land within 66 feet of the high water mark of rivers and larger creeks, while current national law and ‘save and except’ clauses in land titles allow outside leaseholders to keep previously allocated lands within titled areas, thereby undermining land security.
It accuses previous government officials of having pressured community leaders to give up their request for land titles or title extensions and of using biased criteria to deny or limit land title. An example cited is telling a community it is ‘too small’ to apply for a title.
Additionally, the report links long delays in the processing of land title requests to opposition by vested mining, logging or other outside interests.
As a consequence of these and other findings, it has been recommended that the government and other authorities review and amend the 2006 Amerindian Act to bring it into line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and related human rights instruments ratified by Guyana.
The amendments to the Act are expected to remove “biased statements and rules,” apply the FPIC protection standard to untitled customary lands as well as titled lands and allow a group of villages to jointly apply for and hold a land title or extended title area.
These amendments are also expected to remove the powers of the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs to decide for him/her-self about land title and extension boundaries and set up fair, clear and unbiased criteria for decisions and actions about delimiting, demarcating and titling of indigenous peoples’ land in line with their customary system of tenure and Guyana’s international obligations and commitments to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights.
The report also recommends that government set up an independent national tribunal to hear claims and grievances about land, territorial and resource rights from the indigenous people.
This body is also expected to be authorised to hear related evidence on human rights violations linked to the mining and logging industries.