Concerns expressed about inaction on Government’s part in the Amerindian Land Titling process, lack of political will to address mining issues in indigenous communities and other areas do not mean that the National Toshaos Council (NTC) has moved into an anti-government stance said NTC vice chairman Lenox Shuman.
“We are not anti-government. It is just that we have not seen any movement in the land titling process. I would go so far to say, it is negative movement. Government has started granting leases in proposed indigenous lands and extensions.”
Shuman did not say where the granting of leases has begun.
In an interview that included NTC chairman Joel Fredericks on the achievements of the NTC and challenges it faced over its three-year tenure which is coming to an end in July, Shuman said, “We have not seen the mining issues addressed in any community. We have not seen any policy changes in addressing logging issues in indigenous communities nor have we seen any policy changes in addressing education or health issues in indigenous communities.”
He said, he would put the performance of the current administration in line with the previous administration who expected Indigenous Peoples would “be happy and eternally grateful” with the little handouts they get.
“We keep having these discussions and there is no commitment. When we come out and speak on behalf of the people on their inactions, they look on us as being tainted with opposition.”
Meanwhile, Fredericks told Stabroek News that in a good political space the NTC should say, “There is a real problem here. We need to influence policies on how to serve people. We are not averse to Government’s mandate but complementary.”
He said, it has been an uphill battle to not only move out of the direct space and control of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MOIPA) but to gain control of its subvention from Government. The NTC had a dormant bank account prior to 2015 which the executive reactivated.
Up to 2015, the Government had given the NTC a $12-million subvention which, Fredericks said, could have only accommodated four meetings a year for the 20-member executive. There was no more money to do follow-ups or outreach or anything else coming out of those meetings.
In preparing for the 2016 and 2018 budgets, the NTC asked for $38 million but has received $16 million.
Though better than nothing, Fredericks said, “not much could be achieved with the increase of the $4 million and that is one of part of the challenge.”
The NTC is not under the ministry except for financial accountability because of the subvention, he said.
He said that moving out of the ministry’s premises in which they actually had no space, gave the NTC executive the room to operate, to look at their mandate, and to drive an agenda for the Indigenous Peoples.
“Had we stayed there, I think it would have been difficult to have opinions of our own.”
Shuman said that when the NTC issued some press releases on what they were doing, “The Ministry (of Indigenous Peoples Affairs) not only intervened but interfered in the operations of the NTC. We fought back strongly.”
In keeping with its mandate to organise its affairs, he said, the NTC planned an agenda for the 2017 National Toshaos conference. “Then the ministry simply foisted its agenda on us which created a lot of back and forth. We were not given the room to disagree on the agenda. It was, ‘We are paying for this. This is the agenda’”.
While the NTC gave into the Government’s agenda, Shuman said, the experience, nevertheless, allowed the organisation to find its footing and grow into a stronger institution.
When they attempted to invite the Opposition to the conference, he said, “The ministry said, ‘We don’t want them there. We are paying for this’.”
Shuman argued that the bottom line was that it was the taxpayers’ money that was paying for the conference.
“How do you become politically neutral if you don’t have both sides sitting at the table? Government has its mandate and at some point in time the Opposition becomes Government.”
He is hopeful that the Indigenous Peoples truly see that there is no political party that is going in to address their issues. “It is for us to say we will take this no longer,” he said.
Maybe, it was time to work for constitutional reform to enable Indigenous Peoples to have a fixed amount of seats in the Parliament and which persons will vote based on needs, and stop getting used as political footballs, he added.