President makes proposal to ease controversy over lands commission

President David Granger has proposed a five-point plan to ensure that the work of the controversial Lands Commission of Inquiry (CoI) meets the needs and addresses the concerns of all stakeholders.

The President’s proposal comes amid fierce opposition by Amerindian leaders to his plan to have a CoI address together, the land claims of freed Africans and Amerindian land titling. Amerindian leaders are suspicious that this could result in an erosion of their land claims and they also charge that they were not consulted by the President on these matters.

A release from the Ministry of the Presidency last night said that during a meeting with executive members of the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) at State House, yesterday, the Head of State made it clear that there was nothing sinister in the setting up of the Commission.  The intention, he said, was to correct existing anomalies regarding individual and communal lands. “There is no mischief or no malice on my part or the part of the Government or the Commission to deprive people of their lands,” he said.

From left (second row): Commissioner of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission, Trevor Benn, President David Granger, Ted Lucas, Ron James, Jean La Rose and Minister of State, Joseph Harmon. Front row: Earl Thomas, Benson Thomas and Laura George.  (Ministry of the Presidency photo)

In addition to the plan, the release said that a “special body” will be set up comprising of representatives of Indigenous peoples organisations including the National Toshaos Council (NTC) to ensure that the President’s interventions are properly executed so that the Commission’s work can move forward smoothly.  It is the NTC, which groups village captains from all Amerindian communities, which is vehemently opposed to the President’s CoI.

So far, Commissioner of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission, Trevor Benn is the designated point of contact for the Government.

Following the setting up of the Commission in early March, the release noted that “several Indigenous groups and individuals have expressed dissatisfaction”. President Granger said that the matter has now become highly politicised and, as such, he will be meeting with the various Indigenous Peoples’ groups.

The release said that the five points that the President outlined are a comprehensive review of all literature that has to do with Amerindian land titling, particularly as it relates to ongoing programmes; consensus building on the Terms of Reference for the CoI; bolstered adherence to the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) so that communities are fully engaged in the process; the reconciling of the positions of the Government, the Commission and that of Indigenous Peoples’ organisations; a review of the Amerindian Act of 2006 and the stopping of the work of the Commission on matters  related to Amerindian lands until all the outstanding concerns are addressed.

Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, who was also present at the meeting, stated that aspects of the Commission’s work related to lands other than those belonging to Indigenous peoples will proceed as scheduled.

“The inquiry will continue where that is concerned but in so far as it has to do with Indigenous peoples’ land, the Commission’s work would be put on hold, pending the outcome of what is going to happen with the body that will be set up,” he said.

In relation to the Amerindian Act, Harmon explained that law revision is a very lengthy process and as such it would not be possible to conclude this matter within the life span of the Commission. He said that only the “injurious elements” of the Act will be addressed for the purpose of fulfilling the mandate of the Commission. A broader review of the law will follow later.

Executive Director of the APA, Jean La Rose was quoted in the release as saying that “this is a good step in the sense that we are able to discuss these issues, we are able to air our concerns and focus on how we can move forward… Hopefully, at the end of these discussions we will arrive at a common position.”

Observers say that it is the NTC that the government will have to convince in relation to the CoI.

The President’s proposal to ease the controversy came a day after the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB) made clear that it had not taken sides in relation to the CoI.

It appeared to take aim at a statement from the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs (MOIPA) on May 26 that members of the NRDBB supported the CoI. The MOIPA statement to the press had been headlined `Indigenous body backs CoI into land ownership’.

In a letter to Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Sydney Allicock on June 8th, the NRDDB said that at its last statutory board meeting held from May 17-19 at Bina Hill both the NTC and MOIPA were given the opportunity to voice their position on the CoI.

“After listening to both sides, the NRDDB agreed that both parties had valid points. However, the NRDBB has not made any public claims of support for either body. We are concerned about what is being said in social media and the press, and feel that this is not the best approach to resolve public differences around the COI”, the letter signed by Secretary, Suresh Andries said.

The NRDDB suggested that an urgent meeting be held between the NTC and MOIPA to find a way of resolving the “sensitive and important matter of land claims”.

No statement has been issued by Allicock on the NRDDB letter which was released to the press by the NRDDB on Tuesday.

In March this year, Rev. George Chuck-A-Sang, David James, Carol Khan-James, Professor Rudolph James, Lennox Caleb, Paulette Henry and Belinda Persaud were sworn in by President Granger to the Lands Commission of Inquiry. The Commission’s mandate is to examine and make recommendations to resolve issues and uncertainties surrounding the individual, joint or communal ownership of lands and Amerindian land titling issues.

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