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Our Land, Our Life, Our Culture: The Indigenous Movement In Guyana

One of the strategies which Indigenous peoples have employed effectively to bind people together politically is a strategy which asks that people imagine a future, that they rise above present day situations which are generally depressing, dream a new dream and set a new vision. The confidence of knowing that we have survived and can only go forward provides some impetus to a process of envisioning. (Tuhiwai Smith 1999, 152)


The nine Indigenous nations of Guyana recently signed an historic treaty of peace and friendship as part of a larger strategy aimed at building consensus on the parameters and content of the right to self-determination in the contemporary Guyanese context. This treaty was signed at the first Indigenous-organized National Toshaos (village leaders) Conference held in the Macusi village of Zeriwa, 27-30 April 1999. This meeting was a momentous event in the history of the Indigenous movement in Guyana, marking the first occasion that Toshaos, at their own initiative, gathered to discuss their problems, to formulate a collective position on the myriad of issues facing their communities and to propose a shared vision for the future. Prominent among the issues discussed were rights to lands and territories, self-government, constitutional and legal reform, the impact of external resource exploitation, particularly logging and mining, cultural integrity and the impact of a proposed protected areas system.

The primary aim of the Indigenous movement in Guyana, as typified by the discussions at the Toshaos conference, is to redefine prevailing political, legal, economic and cultural relations with the state and thereby to transcend four centuries of colonial domination and institutionalized racism that remain firmly entrenched in Guyanese law, policy and practice. In this context, their vision of the future accords with Prof. Daes' statement that Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination `should ordinarily be interpreted as their right to negotiate freely their status and representation in the State in which they live.' This might be best described as a kind of `belated state-building,' through which Indigenous peoples are able to join with all the other peoples that make up the State on mutually-agreed and just terms, after many years of isolation and exclusion. This does not mean [the] assimilation of Indigenous individuals as citizens like all others, but the recognition and incorporation of distinct peoples in the fabric of the State, on agreed terms. (Daes 1993, 5) However, as noted at the Toshaos Conference, dialogue and negotiation requires that there be at least two engaged parties and the government of Guyana has shown little interest in serious discussion, let alone negotiation, with Indigenous peoples.

Partly because a political solution appears remote at this time, legal reform is high on the Indigenous agenda. Legal reform is urgently needed as Guyanese law relating to Indigenous peoples is based upon legislation passed in the early 20th century, which is in turn based upon 18th and 19th century colonial law and policy. Indigenous proposals for reform, and most programmatic activities, focus on recognition of rights in three main areas: 1) autonomy and self-government; 2) lands, territories and resources; and 3) political participation rights. These rights are all in some way related to fundamental guarantees of nondiscrimination and cultural integrity and are subsumed within the framework of self-determination. Guyana is presently reforming its Constitution and Indigenous peoples have been actively seeking inclusion of the rights and structural changes noted above in the new Constitution. The first phase of this process, discussed in greater detail below, concluded on July 16, 1999.

This short article cannot possibly cover all the developments in Guyana and therefore will focus primarily on outlining some of the significant developments and some of the main strategies employed by the Indigenous movement. As national Indigenous mobilization is relatively new in Guyana, we will also explain some of the strategies employed to ensure that the Indigenous grassroots and institutions are empowered to take an active role in redefining the future.

Indigenous Peoples in Guyana: Background

Bordered by Suriname, Brazil and Venezuela, Guyana is the only English speaking country in South America. It is home to nine distinct Indigenous peoples - Lokono (Arawak), Akawaio (Kapon), Arecuna (Pemon), Macusi, Warrau, Wapisiana, Wai Wai, Patamona and Kalina (Carib) - comprising 60-80,000 persons, approximately 8-10 percent of the total population. The remainder of the population is of African, Asian (East Indian, Chinese), and European (Portuguese, English, Dutch) descent. They live predominately on the coastal plain (around 10 percent of the country), while the Indigenous peoples occupy the coastal forests, tropical forests and savannahs of the remaining 90 percent.

Guyana was first colonized by the Dutch in the 17th Century, and they established a number of trading posts and plantations on the coastal plain and imported African slaves as a work force. Relations with Indigenous peoples revolved essentially around trade, the capturing of escaped slaves and the maintenance of peaceful coexistence. In 1814 Guyana was formally ceded to Great Britain, which ruled the colony until independence was granted in 1966. The viability of the colony, abolition of slavery and changes in export commodities decreased the need for a formal relationship with Indigenous peoples. This led the British to formulate a policy of isolation and wardship in the 19th century followed by the establishment of a reservation system in the 1900s and a combination of wardship, integration and assimilation beginning in the 1930-40s. Independent Guyana's policy towards Indigenous peoples is essentially based upon colonial policy and law, maintaining strong elements of wardship, indirect rule and assimilation.

Both the Dutch and the British, and the successor state of Guyana, asserted that all lands not held under grant from the state were crown lands effectively denying Indigenous title and sovereignty. The Independence Agreement between Great Britain and Guyana contained a condition relating to Indigenous peoples requiring that `the ownership of lands, rights of occupancy and other legal rights held by custom or tradition be legally recognized without distinction or disability.' To comply with this condition an Amerindian Lands Commission was established in 1966. The Commission traveled throughout most regions of Guyana holding hearings in Indigenous communities and, in 1969 it issued a report in which it noted Indigenous requests and recommended that 128 Indigenous communities receive title to 24,000 square miles. Indigenous peoples had requested title to 43,000 square miles, slightly more than 50 percent of the country. To date, only 6000 square miles have been titled (4500 square miles in 1976 and 1500 square miles in 1991) and the government is going to great lengths to ensure that additional areas are not recognized. More than 50 communities remain without any legal guarantees for their lands. Furthermore, the titles issued are subject to substantial statutory limitations that render Indigenous tenure dependent upon the good will of the government of the day.

The primary law relating to Indigenous peoples is the Amerindian Act of 1951, amended in 1961 and 1976, and is essentially an expanded version of the 1902 Aboriginal Indians Protection Ordinance. This law, among others, authorizes the Minister of Amerindian Affairs to arbitrarily take, modify or suspend Indigenous land titles in six different ways, including taking a land title if two or more members of a community have shown themselves to be `disloyal or disaffected to the state or have done any voluntary act which is incompatible with their loyalty to the state' (Sec. 20A(4)(d)). Government officials may also: take, sell or otherwise dispose of Indigenous property for `purposes of its care, management or protection' (Sec. 12 (1)(a)); the Minister may take Indigenous children into custody for purposes of their education, welfare or to apprentice them in the service of others (Sec. 40(2) (c)(d)); may relocate Indigenous communities to any region of Guyana (Sec. 40(2)(a)); may prohibit cultural and religious activities that the Minister believes may be harmful (Sec. 40 (2)(f)); and, requires that any non-Amerindian wishing to visit Indigenous lands, even if invited by the community, receive the permission of the Minister of Amerindian Affairs under penalty of fine and imprisonment (Sec. 5).

The Amerindian Act does provide for limited Indigenous self-government, exercised through an appointed, presently elected, village council. The village council is elected by the community for a two-year period and is presided over by a Captain, who is also elected for a two-year period. Under the law, the government has the right to remove Captains and Councilors and replace them at their discretion. The Council holds the community's land title in trust for all members (Sec. 19(1)); is authorized to manage and care for titled lands (Sec. 19(2), and may make rules and regulations for a number of prescribed purposes and specify and enforce penalties for failure to comply therewith (Sec. 21(1)). The Minister, who has the authority to suspend, change or revoke any rule, at any time, for any reason (Sec. 21(3)), must approve the rules made by the Village Council. The authority, albeit limited, of Village Councils to make rules has provided the basis for a far reaching Self-Government Project implemented by the APA at the request of a number of communities. Discussed in greater detail below, this project uses Indigenous legal systems as the basis for regulating a series of external and internal challenges, including biodiversity prospecting, mining and the environment and tourism and is an essential correlate to national reform initiatives.

The impact of multinational and local resource exploitation activities, which have substantially increased since 1990, has highlighted the failure to recognize and guarantee Indigenous rights. Gold and diamond mining concessions presently cover about 35 percent of Guyana - an area encompassing much of the ancestral lands of the Wai Wai, Macusi and Wapisiana peoples - who were neither consulted nor informed about the proposed development. Logging concessions cover around 40 percent of the country and a further 11.4 million acres were made available to multinational companies in 1997.

Resource exploitation has a substantial impact upon Indigenous subsistence and other rights both directly through restrictions on access and indirectly through environmental degradation and social disruption. It is estimated that small-scale miners dumped around 49.37 metric tones of mercury into the environment during the years 1989-1994 and have destroyed many aquatic eco-systems, substantially reducing fish stocks and clean water sources. (Anselmo & MacKay Ms., 42) In 1997 and 1998, mercury release rates were 25 percent higher per annum than 1989-1994 rates. (Ibid) Monitoring and regulatory capacity is minimal to non-existent and existing laws are not enforced the disaster at the Canadian operated Omai Mine provides ample evidence of the consequences of this policy. Indigenous communities and organizations have vigorously opposed this activity, characterizing it as uncontrolled, irresponsible, of little benefit to the nation and highly prejudicial to Indigenous peoples rights and well-being. These complaints have been ignored and the government continues to solicit additional foreign investment and to provide incentives from local mining and logging operations. Indigenous land, subsistence and other rights are also threatened by proposed conservation projects, particularly the proposed World Bank-funded National Protected Areas System Project. This project is presently stalled awaiting negotiations between the government, the World Bank and the Indigenous community Chenapau. We will now look at some of the strategies employed by the Indigenous movement both internally as a means to develop greater consensus and cohesion, and externally, to reshape the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state.

The Indigenous Movement and Survival Strategies

Although the Indigenous movement is relatively new, it is vigorous and has rapidly become a force to be reckoned with. The catalyst for much of the recent activity has been the Amerindian Peoples' Association of Guyana (APA), Guyana's primary Indigenous NGO. Founded in 1991, the APA is an association of `community units' - groups of at least 10 persons in an Indigenous community -which represents 80 communities from all of the nine peoples of Guyana. In the past three to four years, the APA has focused much attention on grassroots education and organizing, culminating in the National Toshaos Conference in 1999. This process has been greatly facilitated by the establishment of an APA-supported high frequency radio network that links Indigenous communities with each other and the APA central office. Education work involves regional workshops during which the communities develop the agenda from a list of problems they are confronting. These problems are analyzed in accordance with Guyanese and international law. Follow up measures are then discussed and formulated. A number of regional Indigenous organizations have grown out of these workshops. The APA also trains regional leaders to understand the laws of Guyana and to use the various remedies available, so that they can be regional support persons attached to APA regional offices.

The Amerindian Peoples' Association of Guyana has also conducted a number of strategic projects to test Guyana's political and legal systems. In particular, the APA, (with support from the Forest Peoples Programme, Dr. Peter Poole and the Assembly of First Nations), trained community members from the Akawaio and Arecuna communities of the Upper Mazaruni to use Global Positioning System technology to map Indigenous knowledge (resource use) and the boundaries of their lands. In addition to providing the basis for the development of resource management plans - the communities are considering seeking support to have their lands recognized as an Indigenous-owned protected area - these maps also form a key part of the evidence in the first ever aboriginal title law suit filed in Guyana. This case was filed in October 1998 by the leaders of six Akawaio and Arecuna communities who are seeking a judicial declaration that: Indigenous peoples enjoy full and equal protection of the laws of Guyana; that parts of the Amerindian Act are discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional; that Aboriginal title exists in the common law of Guyana and is enforceable; and an order granting freehold title to approximately 3000 square miles. To-date, the government has failed to respond to the complaint and the communities have filed for a default judgement, which should be heard before the end of the Millennium. If successful, this case will reverse more than four centuries of legal tradition in Guyana - much as the Mabo Case did in Australia - and redefine what are Amerindian lands and state lands. Other communities are presently conducting mapping projects and/or plan to seek the protection of the courts.

The efficacy of Indigenous organizational and educational efforts was tested in the first quarter of 1999 by the establishment of the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC). This Commission, composed of 10 political party representatives and 10 civil society representatives, was established to make recommendations to a Select Committee of Parliament convened to reform the 1980 Constitution. The Select Committee will decide upon the final language of the reformed Constitution. In formulating its recommendations, the CRC was charged with holding hearings throughout Guyana to solicit the opinions of Guyanese. After substantial lobbying by the APA, it was agreed that Indigenous peoples could have one seat on the CRC. However, the Indigenous organizations were given only two weeks to choose their representative. Village leaders representing their regions were quickly assembled and chose the APA's Programme Administrator as their representative, who was subsequently elected as the Vice-Chairperson of the CRC. At the same time they formulated and endorsed a statement setting out the key demands of the Indigenous community concerning reform of the Constitution. This statement became the basis for the vast majority of the presentations in the hearings in Indigenous communities, which, due to intensive organizational work, were attended by more persons than all of the non-Indigenous hearings combined.

The Statement of the Amerindian Toshaos (Captains) and Amerindian Organizations of Guyana Concerning Reform of Guyana's Constitution is the first comprehensive elaboration of an Indigenous vision for a future equitable relationship with the Guyanese state. As with Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, the full recognition of territorial rights is a fundamental prerequisite to establishing a relationship with the state that is built on mutual respect and cooperation. On this issue, the statement asserts that Amerindian territorial rights, including subsoil rights, are not dependent upon a grant from the state, predate colonial intervention and exist by virtue of immemorial occupation and use. It proposes that a land claims settlement procedure be established under the new Constitution that will provide the mechanism for structured negotiations between Indigenous peoples and the state - with such a procedure operating under the auspices of an independent Constitutional Commission. Largely based upon Canada's comprehensive land claims settlement procedure, the aim is to remove decisions about land ownership from the state and ensure that Indigenous peoples can negotiate directly as equals in the resolution of outstanding land tenure issues. As in Canada, it is proposed that land claims settlement agreements will be Constitutionally protected as modern treaties. With one exception, and despite support from the Bar Association, the political parties in the CRC have vigorously opposed this proposal, leaving Indigenous communities no alternative than to seek recognition of their rights in the courts.

Indigenous peoples have criticized Guyana's national motto of `One nation, one people, one destiny' as assimilationist, seeking instead a Constitutional recognition that Guyana is pluri-cultural. A broad range of cultural rights are also proposed for inclusion in the reformed Constitution including the explicit prohibition of acts that have the aim or effect of causing ethnocide, control and restitution of cultural and intellectual property and the right to bilingual and bicultural education.

The proposals for constitutional reform posited in the Toshaos statement mark a significant point in the evolution of the Indigenous movement in Guyana. It is a proactive Indigenous vision, supported by all the national Indigenous organizations and almost all of the Toshaos. It seeks to establish the legal framework for the decolonisation of contemporary Indigenous-state relations. The political establishment has treated this initiative as a threat and has closed ranks to reject not only the substance of the proposal but also its conceptual basis. In doing so it has characterized Indigenous peoples' rights as internal political considerations rather than internationally recognized human rights that the state is obligated to recognize and respect. While the report of the CRC has yet to be finalized, the Indigenous movement is now gearing up to reassert its proposals in the Parliamentary Select Committee, where it hopes to impress upon the political parties that Indigenous peoples hold the swing votes in the forthcoming elections. Irrespective of the final outcome, participation in the process has substantially empowered Indigenous peoples and helped to further galvanize the Indigenous movement.


Anselmo, L., & MacKay, F., Indigenous Peoples, Land Rights and Mining in the Upper Mazaruni, forthcoming, Nijmegen: Global Law Association.

Daes, E.I., 1993. Explanatory note concerning the draft declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, by Erica-Irene Daes, Chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. UN Doc. E/CN. 4/Sub.2/1993/26/Add. 1.

Tuhiwai Smith, L., 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books

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