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In Guyana, Indigenous Peoples Fight to Join Conservation Efforts

Beginning in 1995, the government of Guyana in collaboration with the World Bank began pursuing plans to establish a National System of Protected Areas (NPAS). The idea was to establish 10 protected areas representative of the country’s ecosystems.

Formulated as a World Bank project, this entailed meetings with “stakeholders” in Georgetown, the capital, and later with the leadership of the indigenous communities in a 1996 meeting in the Patamona village of Paramakato.1 At this meeting the leaders, or Toshaos, stated clearly that the issues of Amerindian land rights must be resolved before the establishment of any protected area near Amerindian communities. Furthermore, the Toshaos demanded that these communities be allowed to fully participate in and agree to such developments.

After the Paramakatoi meeting, little was heard about protected areas in Guyana until mid-1998 when, by chance, the Amerindian Peoples Association, Guyana’s largest indigenous organization, learned that the project was close to finalization and would be submitted to the World Bank’s board for approval in December 1998. Funds amounting to close to U.S.$12 million had been pledged by the government of Guyana, the World Bank Global Environment Facility, the German Bank for Reconstruction, and the European Union.

Kaieteur National Park
Kaieteur National Park was identified as the first pilot site under this project and as a result the community at Chenapou, the Patamona village closest to the park, was visited by a government team that had carried out a rapid rural appraisal exercise. The Toshao of Chenapou, concerned about the way the assessment had been conducted in his village and because he had little information concerning the proposed protected area, approached the Amerindian Peoples Associaton for advice and information. He was worried about the implications of the project for his community as well as the wider Patamona communities who depend on the area in and around Kaieteur to hunt, fish, gather plants, and carry out a number of other traditional and non-traditional activities. Additionally, Kaieteur Falls, the largest single drop waterfall in the world and centerpiece of the park, is a sacred site for all Patamona.

Based on these concerns the association wrote to the World Bank seeking information on the project after attempts to get information from the government proved futile. The bank replied and provided a copy of its Project Information Document. Our analysis at the association of the document revealed a number of areas of concern regarding Amerindian rights, especially territorial rights, as well as a series of major factual errors. We wrote a letter to the bank documenting these concerns and sought a meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C., in September 1998. This meeting was followed by many other meetings and exchanges of letters further documenting the various concerns and making recommendations on how the project should, in our view, move forward.

Little was heard about the government’s plan for the NPAS project until April 1999 when, again by chance, at the National Toshaos Conference, indigenous leaders, including the Toshao of Chenapou, learned that a ministerial order had been issued by then-President Janet Jagan, amending the 1929 Kaieteur National Park Act and extending the Kaieteur National Park from five square miles to 242 square miles. The order incorporated additional indigenous lands into the park, completely extinguished the rights of the Patamona people (and anyone else) to hunt, fish, travel, or carry out any activity within the extended park, and made such activities subject to criminal sanctions. The order and extension then became the subject of a court case filed by Chenapou citing violations of constitutional and indigenous peoples’ rights after attempts to rectify the problem through dialogue failed. The matter is still pending before the courts despite an amendment (judged insufficient by Chenapou) passed by the National Assembly in 2000 that recognizes indigenous use rights in Kaieteur.

At the same National Toshaos Conference, the leaders reaffirmed the position taken at the 1996 Paramakatoi meeting and added that protected areas should only be established after direct negotiation with and agreement by all affected Amerindian communities. The conference also emphasized that protected areas can be, in appropriate cases, owned or co-owned, in full or part, by indigenous peoples as a way of reducing or avoiding conflict and resolving Amerindian land rights issues while also creating protected areas.

New System, Old Problems
After some time, however, the NPAS project was shelved by the World Bank as the government refused to adequately address Amerindian land rights issues, particularly in connection with Kaieteur. The government blamed the stalling of NPAS on sectoral interests, referring to the efforts of the Amerindian Peoples Association to ensure that Amerindian land rights were recognized. The Guyana government next turned to Conservation International and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for assistance in establishing and managing protected areas, including Kaieteur. Both organizations sat on the board of the national park, although Conservation International maintained that its employee was there in a personal capacity. The involvement of these organizations with Kaieteur and other protected areas initiatives prompted international observers to state that the organizations were undermining indigenous peoples’ rights, were operating to standards even lower than those employed by the World Bank and, in the case of WWF, disregarding its own policy on indigenous peoples.

In 2001, the government, together with the World Bank, resuscitated the protected areas system initiative, calling it the Guyana Protected Areas System project (GPAS). This time the approach was different in that the process was going to be phased with key decisions being made at each stage, rather than all decisions being made at the beginning of the project. The government said that any final decision to establish a particular protected area would only be made at the end of the last phase and, in some cases, were this to negatively affect indigenous peoples, they would “have the right to say no.”

But this project is again fraught with problems. While the government is pushing to initially establish only two pilot protected areas under GPAS, there is still no guarantee in place that the rights of the indigenous peoples will be addressed. As in 1998, there is no specific legislation governing protected areas and protecting indigenous rights, nor is there any independent institutional control or meaningful participation by indigenous peoples to ensure that GPAS recognizes or adheres to basic principles regarding our rights. In 2002, after a year of lobbying, I was chosen as an indigenous representative to sit on an advisory committee of the Protected Areas Secretariat, a component of the Guyana Environmental Protection Agency. The committee met for the first three quarters of 2002 and since then I have not been invited to any other meetings. It is doubtful that meetings of this committee have been held since, and all control and decision-making appears to be made by and vested in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Protected Areas in Southern Guyana
In the meantime, two developing protected area projects in southern Guyana have met with resistance from the Makushi and Wapishana peoples as these projects do not address their land rights and consultation has been deficient to non-existent. The proposed Kanuku Mountains protected area, for example, has been under development for the past two years. Even with a number of unresolved problems, land rights that have not been addressed, and communities’ ability to be involved in decision-making still unclear, the process is being proposed by the government and World Bank as the model for the establishment of all protected areas in Guyana. The government has named Conservation International, which has been involved since the outset, as the lead agency for the project. The origin of a letter written by the Wai Wai people requesting that their lands in southern Guyana be declared a protected area has been suspect. The Wai Wai community had been the least contacted group of indigenous peoples in Guyana, except perhaps from visits by the Guyana Army and Conservation International. Rumors of manipulation have been widepread. What exactly is or will be the status of this protected area is anyone’s guess since the Environmental Protection Agency, in its project description for the establishment of GPAS, does not provide for indigenous-owned or co-owned protected areas, and, when questioned, denied that this project was one of its pilot projects. The Wai Wai support of the project resulted in the marring of a previously good relationship between the them and the Wapishana, as the two groups took opposing sides. In December 2002, the Wapishana and Makushi Toshaos wrote to the president of Guyana protesting the establishment of the protected area and citing expropriation of indigenous lands without notification or consent.

Recently, the government has taken steps to move toward the establishment of GPAS. Near the end of November 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency held public disclosure meetings on its plan to establish GPAS—a condition of World Bank financing. One meeting was held in Georgetown, and the others in the two regions where pilot protected areas had been proposed. The Amerindian Peoples Association submitted its comments. Some of the organization’s points were:

1. The documents pertaining to GPAS posted on the Environmental Protection Agency Web site state that “The main issues of concern to Amerindian groups are related to the potential impact of GPAS on their land tenure rights and their access to natural resources both within and around the protected areas to be established.” While this observation is accurate, the Project Description—which names land tenure, including ownership, as one of the main underlying principles of the project—provides no adequate means to address this concern. The project description states, “Where potential [protected areas] fall within lands claimed by Amerindians, efforts will be made to resolve those claims.”2 What exactly thoses efforts will be, however, is ambiguous and vague. The Amerindian Peoples Association is requesting that “efforts” be defined and detailed as procedures or mechanisms for resolving land claims. Additionally, this principle is much weaker than the standard set in the original NPAS project, which required that protected areas not be located in titled areas of Amerindian communities or areas under prior claim by Amerindians without their informed consent. The NPAS project had also provided that procedures for the resolution of land claims would be developed before funds were released for protected areas.

2. Although GPAS documents mention indigenous reserves as one form of protected area,3 no provision is made for protected areas to be owned or co-owned by indigenous peoples as one way of resolving conflict and ensuring that the project is consistent with indigenous peoples’ rights. Article 149G of the Constitution of Guyana provides that indigenous peoples have the fundamental right to the protection, preservation, and promulgation of their languages, cultural heritage, and ways of life. Many of the lands and territories proposed as protected areas form a significant portion of traditional indigenous territory, and ownership and use of traditional and ancestral lands is intrinsically tied to indigenous cultural heritage and therefore must be respected. The Amerindian Peoples Association stresses that all of these issues must be addressed and incorporated as conditions for funding in pilot protected areas. This demand includes incorporating the conditions into an Indigenous Peoples Development Plan as required by the World Bank’s Operational Directive 4.20.4 If these issues are not addressed, there is a danger that the GPAS project will become a mechanism for uncompensated expropriation of indigenous lands and resources.

3. The Social Annex of the Project Description states that “Amerindian land and resource use for traditional and subsistence purposes will be upheld.” Firstly, the Social Annex contains numerous references to cases in which it is clearly anticipated that indigenous peoples’ rights to use and access their natural resources will not be upheld or protected. The references include “zoning showing main restricted areas,” “non-physical displacement,” and “mitigation strategy to address limits to resource use.” Secondly, restricting indigenous rights to resources to “traditional and subsistence purposes” is a limitation of rights that in some cases may be inappropriate and may be difficult to justify in light of the constitutional protections. Development is a basic human right and it has long been recognized that indigenous rights to lands are not restricted to “traditional practices and customs” but must also encompass present-day and future needs.

4. Where protected areas are to be established on indigenous peoples’ traditional lands and territories, indigenous peoples must be recognized as not only being “stakeholders” but also as the “primary rights-holders.” As such the composition of advisory and other committees must be structured so as to ensure that the communities are given a voice that is directly proportional to their interests as stakeholders and as primary rights holders. As it stands the various stakeholders’ committees proposed in the GPAS project do not meet this standard and place indigenous peoples at the distinct disadvantage of being outnumbered both in voice and in vote by others.

Uninformed Indigenous Groups
I attended two of the Environmental Protection Agency’s public disclosure meetings and was especially concerned about how unprepared the Moruca indigenous communities were for the meeting. These communities will be affected by the proposed Shell Beach protected area, but have been given little prior information on the project. The topic of protected areas is fairly new to the communities but nonetheless they were expected to read and understand the documents circulated to them and be able to make intelligent comments when the public disclosure team visited the area at short notice. Many had not even received the documents prior to the meeting, and even if they had, the documents are not readily understandable. When I tried to find out how much the leaders knew about protected areas in general, the GPAS project, or the Shell Beach proposal, I realized they knew little or nothing at all. While a few of the leaders had attended one public forum on the Shell Beach project, they said they did not understand much about what was said and felt that they needed a lot more awareness work to be done before they could comment. This lack of understanding about protected areas is common to indigenous communities throughout Guyana. In the case of the Kanuku Mountains project, and more recently the southern Guyana protected area, both older than the Shell Beach project, most indigenous people could not give even a basic definition. Yet the communities to be affected have been unfailing in their demands that their land rights are recognized before protected areas are established on or close to their lands.

While the Moruca communities have said that they are willing to listen to anyone about protected areas, they are not willing to compromise their rights to the land, and stated that failure to address this stance through an acceptable process could result in complete rejection of any protected area project affecting them. In 2002, these communities filed a formal land claim with the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs that includes part of the proposed Shell Beach protected area; to date, no response has been received from the ministry and the claim is not reflected in any of the project documents.

The government of Guyana has identified five additional areas for protected areas status in later phases of the GPAS project and almost all of them overlap traditional Amerindian lands. The lands comprising the proposed Mount Roraima protected area are presently sub-judice in the first-ever aboriginal title suit filed in Guyana, yet there is still no discussion about the rights of the Akawaio and Arecuna traditional owners who filed the suit, nor is there any discussion with them about the GPAS project.

In all the Amerindian communities throughout Guyana, the people are at a disadvantage when it comes to making choices about the establishment of protected areas on or close to their lands and territories. They have little information about protected areas and experience has shown that even after repeated visits to talk with them about the subject, they still have not fully grasped the implications. This lack of knowledge may not be surprising given that the rapid rural appraisal report on the Kaieteur process concluded that there had been “insufficient consultation with people at the grassroots” and that government attempts at consultation had been “with a few unprepared residents for an hour or so” and were “probably worse than if no visit had taken place at all.”[5]

If the government, together with the World Bank and conservation organizations, is to successfully implement a system of protected areas in Guyana, it must respect that decision-making processes in indigenous communities can take a long time and as much time as necessary should be granted. They must also address the concerns and rights of the indigenous peoples, at least to the extent that transparent and enforceable guarantees for our rights are in place. Recognition must also be accorded to the fact that indigenous peoples have been protecting and managing our territories for centuries and have developed elaborate management systems that are dependent on the maintenance of our knowledge systems and cultures in general, which in turn are dependent on maintaining our various relationships with our traditional lands and territories.

Indigenous-owned protected areas, as part of the larger national protected areas system, are a viable and sensible option that may play a valuable role in avoiding conflict. Even through knowledge is limited about protected areas—at least as the government, conservationists, and the World Bank employ the term—indigenous peoples throughout Guyana have always had our own systems of reserves and other protected areas.

Indigenous peoples have said on numerous occasions that we are not opposed in principle to protected areas, provided that our rights are recognized and do not suffer in the process.

1. GPAS (2003, November). Draft Social Framework Strategy. P 4.
2. GPAS (2003, November). Summary of Project Description and Social Framework Strategy. P 6
3. See GPAS (2003, October). Information for Local Communities. EPA, p 1.
4. GPAS (2003, November). Draft Social Framework Strategy. 5. Forte, J., et al. (1998). Rapid Rural Appraisal Chenapau/Kaieteur National Park. Georgetown: Government of Guyana. P 6.

Jean La Rose ( is programs administrator of the Amerindian Peoples Association of Guyana, where she has worked for the past 10 years. In 2002, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work supporting indigenous peoples and the environment in Guyana, particularly her support for the Akawaio and Arecuna peoples of the Upper Mazaruni River Basin in their attempts to secure ownership of their territories and to protect them from mining.

References and further reading
Patamona Community of Chenapou and the Amerindian Peoples Association (2000). The Guyana National Protected Areas System Project (Global Environmental Facility/World Bank): ACase Study.

Griffiths, T., & Colchester, M. (2000). Indigenous Peoples, Forests and the World Bank. Moreton-in-Marsh, U.K.: Forest Peoples Programme. Peoples/FinalsynthesisOctober2000.pdf

La Rose, J. & MacKay, F. (1999). Our Land, Our Life, Our Culture: The Indigenous Movement and Self-Determination in Guyana. Cultural Survival Quarterly 23:4.

Siegel, S. (2003, December). Conservation at all Costs: How Industry-Backed Environmentalism Creates Violent Conflict Among Indigenous Peoples. Corporate Watch.

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