For another year, the opening of the National Toshaos Council (NTC) Conference was dominated by concerns about land rights, with Chairman Joel Fredericks yesterday calling out the APNU+AFC government for making decisions that affect land ownership without first seeking the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of affected Indigenous groups.
“We have seen townships named with Indigenous lands being placed in townships, such as Lethem, Bartica, Mabaruma and the soon to become township of Mahdia… all of these without the Indigenous participation through FPIC. This is troubling and needs [a] redress mechanism,” Fredericks noted in his presentation.
“Our land is vital to our identity, life and spirituality. If the Indigenous peoples’ rights are not secured, respected and protected it would be impossible for government to deliver on the promises of the Paris Agreement, COP21 or of the Sustainable Developmental Goals,” he reminded.
Fredericks also encouraged both sides of the National Assembly to embrace the conference’s theme, “Good Governance – A brighter future for Guyana’s First Peoples,” by acknowledging the right of Indigenous people to participate in decision-making.
He also decried both sides for failing to object to a government parliamentarian’s representation of the NTC as “greedy” and highlighted concerns that government agencies, such as the Protected Areas Commission, are infringing on ancestral lands.
Speaking in the National Assembly on June 16, 2017, Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott claimed that in objecting to the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into Land Rights, the NTC had “manifested an attitude of avarice which should not be condoned.”
Fredericks cautioned that such comments drive a wedge in the nation and therefore should not be tolerated. “We see a member of government openly attack the identity, integrity and history of our people and …there was not one politician that got up and walked out in protest, neither [from] the administration nor even the opposition. We have taken note,” he declared.
Fredericks stressed that not only has the NTC seen political interference in Indigenous Villages and communities but several of his people have complained to him of feeling like third class citizens in a land where they were the First People.
“We all need to do better,” he stressed, while reminding both government ministers and representatives of the 216 villages present that 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He urged stakeholders to reflect on what strides were made in relationship to Indigenous Peoples’ rights, while noting that the declaration provides for his people to be free from discrimination and have the right of self-determination. These cannot be achieved, according to Fredericks, unless government respects the governance of indigenous people as represented by the NTC.
Fredericks also called on President David Granger to work to support institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Indigenous Peoples’ Commission [IPC], which are meant to address the issues being faced by his community.
Fredericks argued that the absence of these commissions expose the NTC to “blows” akin to what they have suffered during their agitation against the CoI.
“The NTC faced blows. It is not the way forward. We need to sit down and work together for the better. Two years and no IPC. We call on government to make it happen instead of pulling and tugging….We need to attack the issues and change our mindset of attacking personalities,” Fredericks stressed, while reminding the president that leaders are elected to deal with issues and find solutions.
Speaking after Fredericks, both President Granger and Vice President Sydney Allicock urged the NTC to work with government to improve the social and economic conditions of the Indigenous people.
Allicock, the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, noted that he has detected the need for a stronger, more unified approach to decision-making at the level of the NTC executive and urged that its members recognise the need for deepening the process of consultation on some critical issues between that body and the wider leadership of the NTC.
“Have you been consulted on these things? Do you know what is happening when the 20 executive members make a decision?” Allicock asked before noting that there are numerous developments and successes in villages that should be highlighted instead of focusing on doom, gloom and negatives.
Meanwhile, the NTC expressed gratitude at having been provided with a quarter acre plot of land for its headquarters.
Fredericks told those gathered at the opening that the NTC looks forward to the fulfillment of a commitment made by Granger at the last meeting for funding the construction of the secretariat.
“The NTC will work with your administration jointly on that project. This is what we are about—working together,” Fredericks noted.
Vice Chairman of the NTC Lennox Schuman later noted at the turning of the sod for the secretariat that APNU+AFC has given the NTC unprecedented room to grow and noted that its commitment to the NTC has been nothing but exemplary.
Granger, speaking at the sod turning, echoed sentiments he had expressed at the opening.
According to the president, the secretariat, once operational, will be a workhouse where the council will meet, deliberate, plan, keep records and interact with persons from the 216 communities. “Nothing is more important for the NTC at this moment than having a permanent home,” he noted.