Amidst increasing concerns about threats to their forests, wetlands and way of life, the Wapichan People of south west Rupununi have set up their own website to monitor their ancestral lands and defend their rights against harmful development.
According to a press statement issued on Tuesday by the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), information has been collected by monitoring teams, using smartphone technology, drones and community digital maps. The innovative community-based monitoring and publishing system the Wapichan are using has involved developing and adapting a suite of user friendly open access software tools made available on a platform called Community lands. The information will be managed by the twenty-one villages and communities on their new website http://wapichanao.communitylands.org.
It is the intention of the Wapichan communities to utilise the website to create both national and international awareness, according to the statement.
The highlighting of human rights abuse and environmental damage is expected to give momentum to their calls for secure land rights and national legal and policy reforms in support of community rights and protection of community conservation sites, including a Wapichan Conservation Forest.
“Our territory is under pressure from rampant mining and plans for agribusiness and road developments. Uncontroll-ed mining expansion on our lands is resulting in deforestation, desecration of sacred sites and irreparable damage to our creeks, rivers and water sources. The situation is getting worse and threats are getting worse. That is why we have decided to watch over our lands and forests…to tell the world what is going on,” SDRC Chairperson Paulinus Albert was quoted as saying in the statement.
According to the SDRC statement, harms recorded by the indigenous monitoring system include encroachment of land and forest by illegal gold miners; deforestation and destruction of water sources creeks and wetlands, including elimination of the Toucan and Panache Creeks; pollution of water sources with mercury and tailings sediment; violation of the right to free, prior and informed consent through imposed mining concessions and the establishment of a mining district; opening of mining roads in sensitive forest areas; and illegal border crossings from Brazil used by miners, rustlers, smugglers and sports hunters.
“By mapping the mining pollution resources we now understand how it affects wider river systems and water supplies that are essential to our villages for fishing, bathing and drinking. The head waters of the Kwitaro, Kuyuwini and Takutu rivers are under serious threat. We are bringing this monitoring information to the attention of the environmental and mining authorities, yet the problem continues unabated,” community mapper Ron James was quoted as saying.
According to the SDRC statement, this is not the first time that the Wapichan Nation has raised concerns about destruction caused by illegal and concession mining. In fact, it has been doing so since the mid-1990s. Present concerns centre around a large scale licence held by Guyana Goldstrike Inc of Canada which overlaps ancestral lands not yet titled by the State.
Nicolas Fredericks, Toshao of Shulinab Village, was reported in the statement as saying that villages now plan to feed their reports on mining impacts, rights violations and threats to territory into formal land talks with the Government of Guyana, which have been ongoing since 2016. “We are demanding that our villages be fully involved in the impact assessment in line with our rights as indigenous peoples,” he added.
According to the SDRC statement, other key community demands include Titling of Village customary lands through accelerated progress in the Wapichan land talks with the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs; suspension of all mining operations, licences and claims and a moratorium on all new mining roads in forest areas until a full environmental impact study is completed, and the development of new land and concession policies that fully protect fragile creek heads, watersheds and areas of high cultural, spiritual or livelihood value for Wapichan Villages from exploitation by extractive industries.
In 2015, the Wapichan Villages and organisations received the prestigious Equator prize from the UNDP in recognition of their prolonged efforts to legally secure their ancestral lands and conserve extensive rainforests and diverse wildlife habitats in the South Rupununi.