Military presence at Kaieteur Park leaves Chenapau villagers fearful

The Kaieteur National Park Arrival Centre

Emotions are running high in Chenapau Village and surrounding areas in Region Eight as a heavy military presence at the Kaieteur National Park (KNP) has left residents fearful and frustrated.

Stabroek News during a recent visit to the KNP noticed that in addition to tourists being greeted at the Park’s Arrival Centre by heavily armed members of the joint services, they were also prevented from going to sections of the upper viewing balcony since it is being used to store military equipment and hang laundry.

Attempts by Stabroek News yesterday to verify whether approval was given by the Protected Areas Commission (PAC) for the GDF to set up camp at the arrival centre were unsuccessful.  There has been no statement by the government on exactly what the GDF is doing in the park.

However, PAC board member Dr. Raquel Thomas-Caesar in a Facebook comment stated that the heavy military presence in the KNP is due to a “temporary operation” dealing with alleged mining in the reserve.

“…we don’t want the world to know we are going in, as they would run away…there is mining in the park and there is a monitoring operation for a period (not permanent)…everyone knows this is a very sensitive issue for Chenapau Village and for the Gov’t and we all need to sit together as I have told Chenapau Village Council and work this out. Issues are sorted when people work together. This KNP has had a difficult history and there are some key issues to address,” the Board member said.

This, however does not sit well with residents of Chenapau who claim that their rights as Indigenous Peoples are being violated since their movement around the park has now been restricted, due to an ongoing military operation in the KNP.

The army’s presence also raises question about why it is undertaking an enforcement role when it should be the wardens of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the PAC who are undertaking this task.

Toshao of the village, Edward McGarrell in an interview with Stabroek News said that residents feel threatened and disrespected by the heavily armed soldiers on the ground.

“People are feeling threatened because they cannot come and continue their livelihood meaning fishing, hunting, gathering within the park, whereas there is a section in the park saying we got the right as Amerindians,” he said.

“With the military presence in the area, we feel threatened, really threatened because we cannot continue our customs in the Park. I see no demarcation of the Kaieteur National Park and that is a stance I have been taking and we respect the signboard as the Park and all the members of my community respect the signboard as the Park,” he added.

Steve Augustus shared similar sentiments with Stabroek News after venturing out of the backdam at Blackwater, where he and his four-member crew had remained for almost a month out of fear that they would be arrested if they were caught walking through the park.

Augustus related that they finally decided to risk their freedom and began their journey through the park after they ran out of food supplies two days prior.

Bahir

“We were mining in Blackwater, a Bahir and four divers…we were in the camp almost a month since the floods happened, and we were supposed to come out because the water was high and we cannot work. But after hearing that people were being arrested if they get catch in the park we decided to wait it out; Is only because we ran out of ration that we are out here now…we decided that we were not going to starve in there, they would have had to lock us up,” Augustus said.

Reaffirming their position that their people were not involved in any mining activity within the park, residents of Chenapau say that they appreciate the area like any other Guyanese, and even more since it has been the home of the Patamona People.

“We have that right to pass through the Park at any time we want to go and gather even medicinal weeds; we cannot do it anymore because if we go into that bush, the military will arrest us and take us to Georgetown. The struggle is on and we are prepared … because the community is united and we are fighting for what is right for our people; the Government must recognise Kaieteur as a sacred site for us the Patamona nation,” the Indigenous leader noted.

As it relates to the impact of the restriction on the village economy, several residents contended that the development of the village apart from the occasional assistance for the school and health centre, everything else was being done with the earnings made from subsistence mining.

Villagers, particularly the women also continue to question their next move since they are unsure of what other plans, if any are going to be put in place by the government as an alternative to mining.

Chenapau resident Linda Williams said, “We have to farm, fish, hunt or mine to provide for our families and right now we can’t farm because of the flood, and now the soldiers come in here to harass us. What will we do?”

Miserable

“They are making our lives miserable because we all want to know what next? We don’t know where to turn next?…are there any alternative sources of income that the Government is putting in place for us?” the Head teacher of the Chenapau Primary School further queried.

“On the sign board it is stated that Indigenous [Peoples] have all rights to go hunting, fishing and so forth, and now they have a new law that we cannot encamp, pass by or anything. It is our main passageway to go elsewhere… so we need Government to do something about it, because we cannot live in this way…They are taking bread out of our mouths,” Greg Marco, another resident said.

“I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the President is being wrongly advised. We supported him a lot and if this is the thanks we get well I’m sorry but next election the ballot boxes going back empty. We don’t want to make this political…we have refused to meet with the opposition, all their calls going unanswered but we don’t have time for that. This is a peoples’ fight not no politically influenced anything; mining is the only way we can get a piece of money to survive…” Toshao McGarrell added.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Peoples rights activist and Chenapau native, Michael Mc Garrell who was also on the ground over the weekend said the heavy military presence in the area only confirmed the villagers’ allegation of militarisation.

“What this demonstrates is that Kaieteur is now a militarised zone and that the military have control of what is happening here and it is very unfortunate for us as a people to be going through something like that because Kaieteur was not intended to be something like this,” he said.

He added that the area has now become a battleground between the military and the villagers since their rights were being violated without any consideration from the authorities.

“The amount of control the military have here is disturbing. There is the Arrival Centre and the military have control of that. Is that what we want to show the world? Is that what people are coming to Kaieteur for, to be greeted by army personnel with AK-47s? Is this what we are promoting…Kaieteur is not about that; we want the Army to be pulled from this location with immediate effect,” the activist said.

In addition to this, he reiterated the need for better communication among agencies involved in the operation.

“There seems to be a lack of coordination and communication as it relates to their purpose here; it’s not very clear and because of that it would seem that the army saying here that we are going to collect anyone passing through and send them to the city. In the hands of the police they are saying that they don’t have anything to hold them and GGMC does not have the evidence, so the question is what are they are going to charge them with?” McGarrell asked.

“While we respect that law enforcement officers need to enforce the law, there is a better way of doing things, and I think that this in itself shows the gap within their operations; what they are doing is basically alienating the people,” he added.

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