Indigenous leaders call for better communication channels

– in wake of Kaieteur Park incident

Better communication is needed between indigenous communities and the Protected Areas Commission (PAC) to avoid the reoccurrence of last weekend’s incident, which saw the arrests of 20 persons, alleged to have been engaged in illegal mining in the Kaieteur National Park (KNP).

This is the position of the Chenapau Village Council, which, with representation by current Toshao Edward McGarrell and former Toshaos Tony Melville and Sylvester Joseph yesterday held a press conference to address the recent decision by government not to pursue charges against the individuals.

Edward McGarrell

Maintaining the collective claim that those arrested were not mining in the KNP as alleged, McGarrell said central to their belief as indigenous peoples is the protection of the environment and that includes the KNP.

“I have been in contact with my community and we are happy that the charges have been dropped; we were informed verbally by the ministry and subsequently read about it in the newspapers. Nonetheless, we still maintain that all those arrested were working beyond the signboard which indicates the park boundaries,” McGarrell stated.

“They cannot say that persons from Chenapau were working in the park because we respect that the environment needs to be protected and that is why we work outside of the park. We have been protecting it for years gone by and there is no reason why any of us, the people of Chenapau would work inside the park to destroy it because we love it as much as any other Guyanese loves Kaieteur Falls,” the Toshao added.

It is against this backdrop that McGarrell said the PAC and the government should do more to involve the village and by extension the regional administration in efforts to protect the area. In order to do this, the Toshao said, there is need for improved communication.

“Yesterday we had a meeting with the PAC and things that we got, they don’t have and things they have we don’t have. We don’t know what really is going on and we are supposed to be partners… I see there is a lack of communication right now,” he added.

Meanwhile, McGarrell said during the meeting, a proposal was made by the agency to

establish a team to visit the area and conduct additional investigation with the aim of “finding

out the truth.”

The team will include representatives from Chenapau Village, Menzies Landing, the Guyana Lands and Survey Com-mission, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission and the PAC.

While he welcomed the suggestion, the Toshao said he could not agree to it at that time since he first had to consult with his community.

“…I am out here and I cannot make that decision by myself. I have to go back and sit with the people and see what they say. I was elected by them and I represent them. I came with their voice, with their support so when I get back home we will have a meeting and by Thursday I will provide them with feedback. I think it would be good and in the interest of my people because I don’t want to hear again that there are people working in the park,” he added.

Patamona co-ownership

Melville asked that additional efforts be made to not only educate residents on the Protected Areas Legislation but that they also be allowed to make their input before anything is finalized, adding that failure to do so can be seen as a violation of indigenous peoples’ rights.

“We need certain legislation to be changed as it relates to the protected areas and the rights of indigenous peoples… If you look at this scenario right here, definitely you will see there is a violation of our rights… Currently here we have traditional ancestral passage that it would seem we are not allowed to use because of the Protected Areas Act. There are systems that are in place that do not guarantee the rights to passage and there you can see something lacking. Even though the PAC has a particular article which states that we can continue to enjoy our free movement, apparently it does not recognise that,” the former Toshao said.

“They could educate us more about the legislation but we should be allowed to give our input as well,” he added.

It was at that point that McGarrell suggested that the Patamona people be recognized as “co-owners” of the area, saying, “Kaieteur that majestic falls, that is a sacred site to the Patamona people, so when we have these problems with the area it is not just Chenapau you have to consider, you have to consider the entire Patamona nation. So if the reform of the legislation can at least acknowledge us as co-owners of this area that can be something I think would really work.”

Asked what advantages would be derived from such a move, the Toshao said the KNP would be better managed.

“I think the park would be properly managed because as it is, it is not being managed properly. We are the ones who have been protecting it all the time that is why our proposed extension would be around it and that is why we want to help them protect it because I don’t think they are doing enough,” he added.

Joseph on the other hand said, “We are happy that the charges are dropped but I wish to remind the government that we did not ask them for a favour. We maintain that our miners were far beyond the boundary of the KNP and at this moment we have evidence to show that where our people worked was far beyond the park boundaries.”

With the aid of a resource map of Chenapau Village, the former Toshao highlighted three locations where the persons had encountered members of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) before being arrested as well as the location of the mining camps owned by Chenapau residents. According to the map these locations were outside the KNP boundary.

He stated that most if not all of those arrested were nabbed along an “ancestral trail” as they were making their way home.

“There are a lot of photos in the media showing big mining going on, but that’s below the falls and it’s like they are just pining it on the Chenapau people. But it is not us, the Chinese people they had in there who they had given permission to were destroying it, not us… It is time that that government act and start holding the culprits who are giving wrong information. The people on the ground know it better than the people who sitting down out here in the AC offices,” McGarrell said.

‘Treated like terrorists’

Melville also called for the termination of military operations in the Kaieteur area, claiming that the presence of the GDF hinders their free movement and is tampering with their way of life.

“People have been traumatized by what has happened; Kaieteur is known for tourists but we are being treated like terrorists,” he added.

In response to questions asked about the possibility of the decision by government not to prosecute as a campaign line in future elections, Melville was adamant that their concerns were not politically motivated in any way or form.

“First of all we don’t recognise those charges as being lawful. This is not political. This is the Chenapau, Patamona stance right now, so whether they baiting themselves for that political stuff we have our own ground and we stick to those grounds,” he said.

“They are the ones we guaranteed to protect us and this is what they have done to us… We won’t forget it, but I cannot give you a definite answer on that…,” the former Toshao added.

Similar sentiments were shared by McGarrell who said, “This is history and will go down in our books as the struggle for our rights as a people; we are not politically motivated, this is the people’s fight.”

McGarrell also called out the PAC and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs for what he said were untruthful statements made in the media as it relates to the welfare of those who were arrested and flown to the city.

“We are supposed to be friends but I really don’t see the friendship…,” McGarrell said. “Even the ministry did nothing apart from housing 10 of them at the hostel, two on mattresses on the ground and the rest sling up in hammocks. I can’t have my people out here like this, just out of one stress and into another. There are some among them who never came to Georgetown before and it’s something hard,” he related.

Nonetheless, he was happy to share that persons will be travelling home today via caravans provided by the PAC and are expected to be greeted with a welcome home celebration and church service.

The government, through the Ministry of Natural Resources, on Friday announced that as an “act of goodwill” charges will not be pursued against the 20 persons arrested last weekend for alleged illegal mining in the KNP.

But while a decision was made not to prosecute, the ministry said it remained firm in its mandate to protect areas that are included in the Protected Area Systems of Guyana, which in this case is the KNP.

“The park has been designated a protected area and will remain off limits to mining, forest-harvesting and other related activities. Further, it has been determined that the pre-1999 boundaries for the Kaieteur National Park will not be restored as some have advocated,” the statement added.

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