Settlement of African ancestral land claims is long overdue

Dear Editor,

Guyana belongs to all of us, not any one race. That simple fact gives us the opportunity to engage with one another in a spirit of generosity and reconciliation. In my presentation to the Lands Commission, I said that the commission must act in the public interest. That requires claims to land to be dealt with on the basis of equity and justice.

Unfortunately the headline in Stabroek News on Friday, October 13th, ‘Legislation to govern African ancestral lands needs national consensus’ and the accompanying article did not reflect what I said. It created the impression that I said Africans cannot claim their ancestral lands unless everybody agrees. That would be a grotesque perversion of justice and is in fact the opposite of what I said.

What I actually said was that the settlement of African ancestral land claims is long overdue. African ancestral lands were purchased. There are legal documents and testimony. There must be a fair legal process resulting in African ancestral landowners having an indefeasible title and an official map showing the right boundaries.

I also said that we cannot unite as a nation unless we come to terms with our history. Surely no-one will deny the barbaric treatment inflicted on enslaved Africans by the Dutch and British plantocracy? Or that slavery survived because of Amerindian military aid to the planters? Or that on the legal termination of slavery, compensation was paid to the planters, not the Africans. This ugly history is why I said to the commission, “It is in the public interest and for the public benefit that this nation should (i) acknowledge the suffering and exploitation of enslaved Africans; (ii) seek to provide appropriate redress for historic injustice; and (iii) acknowledge the economic, cultural and other contributions made by enslaved Africans, freed Africans and their descendants.”  This may be controversial. Therefore I suggested that the commission should, in partnership with Africans, develop draft terms of reference for public consultation on how this nation could approach (i), (ii) and (iii). Here would be an opportunity to talk to one another openly and honestly.

Finally, I suggested to the commission, that taking into account this history and past injustice, we could add a new legal category of African ancestral lands such as the lands that were occupied by enslaved Africans who escaped and set up their own communities.  I suggested that state lands which Africans historically occupied and used, or had a sufficient cultural or spiritual tradition, etc, could also be legally recognised as African ancestral lands. Otherwise African ancestral lands will be limited to what freed Africans were able to buy and hold on to. That does not seem fair to me. To create a new legal category of African ancestral lands would require a new law. For that we need national consensus.

People might get vexed, but let it be for what I am proposing and not for a misunderstanding.

Yours faithfully,

Melinda Janki