Cheddi Jagan designated September Amerindian Heritage Month

Dear Editor,

On the occasion of yet another September month of celebration of Amerindian heritage in our beloved Guyana, I join with other Guyanese, among whom  are a majority of our Amerindian population, in expressing our happiness and pride that it was the late Dr Cheddi  Jagan, the then President of Guyana who successfully moved to ensure that Amerindian culture, art and craft, cuisine, music, dances and other aspects of Amerindian traditional lifestyle were kept alive when he officially designated September as Amerindian Heritage Month in memory of Mr Stephen Campbell, the first Amerindian to enter the Parliament of then British Guiana.

The celebration which  grew and expanded over the 23 years of PPP/C governance from October 1992 to May 2015,  highlighted the special achievements of our Amerindian people and also provided the opportunity for all Guyanese and non-Guyanese residing in our country to be able to view, experience and be reminded of the unique sub-culture of Amerindians in the various villages and communities. This is a unique culture that the PPP and the PPP/C have always respected, cherished and helped to preserve.

This is quite apart from the support of specific institutions which have helped to protect and to preserve Amerindian artifacts that are specific to the Amerindian way of life, viz the National Museum, the Walter Roth Museum, the Benab at the Sophia Exhibition Site and the Umana Yana, to name but a few. They all display, inter alia, an array of artefacts unique to the Amerindian way of life; the unique Amerindian architecture and traditional knowledge of the people.

It must be noted that the rotation of the designated Heritage Village from year to year provided opportunity for Guyanese , including our First Nations people themselves, to experience and to learn more of the culture and way of life of our Amerindian people. It allowed them to market their villages, their people and what they had to offer in terms of goods and services. In short, Amerindian Heritage Month was also a medium for promoting hinterland tourism.

I am not sure those in authority at the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs understand let alone appreciate this fact. I say to them that there is more to Amerindian Heritage Month than a mere name. The government must, as the PPP/C government was doing, work with all the Amerindian villages and communities, not selectively with those who voted for it in May 2015, in order to bring further improvement in the lives of the people in the villages and communities and ultimately, to showcase the improvements. Development must involve all of the people.

Amerindian Heritage Month celebrations were also intended and indeed did provide opportunities for Amerindians to display their art, craft, indigenous dances, dress and music in their villages and during the major activities held in the selected Heritage Village and in Georgetown.  The activities in the Amerindian villages and communities across Guyana also allowed for all Guyanese to participate and to share in the culture of our First Nation people. It was another way of bringing Amerindian people and their communities into the mainstream of national development. Indeed, under the PPP/C government there was perennially much progress and improvements to celebrate.

I have a difficulty identifying noticeable improvements in the quality of life of our Amerindian people over the past two years plus of APNU+AFC rule, for there has been very little. Instead, the APNU+AFC  government has sought to take away from our Amerindians  much of what they achieved under the stewardship of the PPP/C government, viz: almost 2000 jobs, the $10 000 per child education grant under the Because we care Programme, their One Laptop per household, the presidential grants to fund the community development plans and the National Hinterland Secure Livelihood Programme of the villages and communities, plans which the villagers themselves working with their Village Councils had developed and more.

Thanks to the collective efforts of the PPP/C government working with the National Toshaos Council and the village councils over the period 1993 to 2015 a significant number of our Amerindian brothers and sisters were able to benefit from improved social services and infrastructure and, in the process also, created for themselves and families wider choices in respect of the goods and services and the quality of those goods and services, viz: education; healthcare; and river, air and road transportation. In this regard, the construction of schools and dormitories, the extension of schools, the building of

hospitals, health centres/posts and the furnishing of these facilities; and the training of teachers, health workers, etc, were treated as a priority, notwithstanding the cost. Many benefited, including some who criticize the PPP/C today.

I say to the APNU+AFC government and its supporters, we are prepared even at the half way stage into their five-year term in office, to share our knowledge and experience with them and to work with them to collectively bring more improvement to the lives of our Amerindian people. Are they willing? Are they ready?

Better education and training  meant for many Amerindians better jobs and concomitantly better earnings. Improved health care meant for many healthier lives. That many became ministers of government, education officers, headteachers, doctors, health workers, medexes, dentexes, microscopists, nurses, agriculture officers, engineers, police and army officers, etc, is due in no small measure to the fervent and dedicated commitment and work of the Peoples Progressive Party/Civic government and our Amerindian Leaders, the NTC, village councils and the larger beneficiaries, ie the Amerindian  population. We worked with them to identify and prioritize their needs and to provide resources, human and material to satisfy as many of those needs as resources would allow. And while we may be criticized by some for not doing more, I say to the critics, show me your contribution.

Add to the above the significant infrastructure support such as new airstrips, extension and/or rehabilitation of several airstrips; improved roads, the provision of river and land transport, viz ATVs and outboard engines, boats and life-jackets for use by school children and other hinterland residents;  radio sets and landline and cellular phone services for use in hinterland administrative centres, schools, health centres, health posts, village offices and by individuals resulting in improved communication; the provision of solar electricity and use of this at these very institutions and even in homes; the provision of potable water by way of solar pumps and water tanks/trestles; the hinterland housing schemes started in Regions1, 2 and 9; the 2006 Amerindian Act that guides and informs what is done in the villages and communities, moreso, with respect to governance and land ownership and use. It happened under the PPP/C government.

The PPP/C has worked with our hinterland people to provide them with more goods and services, and not take away from them or deny them as the APNU+AFC government has been doing. During the 1970s and 1980s our Amerindian brothers and sisters were marginalized. Under the PPP/C Government they were much better off.

Be assured that we of the PPP/C will continue to exhort and to implore the APNU+AFC government not to be indifferent to their needs as a people and not to renege on its 2015 pre-elections commitments and pledges, but to plough resources into the village economy and so reduce the incidence and the impact of the social and economic challenges they face. We advise that they be aware of the continual political machinations of the government aimed at denying you resources and impeding and undermining your efforts to improve your livelihood. A leopard does not change its spots.

For me, it has been a pleasure and a productive period of my life living and working among our Amerindian brothers and sisters in their villages and communities from 1976 to 2015. I have learnt a lot from them, and with much humility I wish to posit, they from me also.

To our Amerindian comrades I commend their contribution to the development of Guyana; more significantly, for keeping this dear and great land of ours intact so that we could all benefit. Talk of traditional lands? Only they can honestly and successfully lay such a claim.  Amerindian development with culture and identity.

We of the PPP/C will continue to put the people’s interest first and that, of course, includes our Amerindian brothers and sisters.

Yours faithfully,

Norman Whittaker

Former Minister of Local

Government

and Regional Development

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