By Marcus Colchester and Jean La Rose
Amerindian Peoples Association, Forest Peoples Programme and The North-South Institute.
Full report here
This report summarises the efforts made by the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) over the past decade (2000-2010) to improve indigenous peoples’ participation in decisions about natural resources in Guyana. These efforts were promoted as part of a joint project between the Amerindian Peoples Association, The North-South Institute (NSI) and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), with funding from the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).
After briefly summarising the findings of the first phase of the project, which ran from 2000-2002, the report then introduces the rationale, methods, conclusions and recommendations of its second phase, which has been ongoing since 2005 and has evolved considerably during that time.
The second phase of the project was developed at a time of rapid legal and institutional reform in Guyana. Notably, a new Constitution was adopted in 2003 which guarantees respect for internationally recognised human rights and protection of Amerindian ways of life. Yet subsequent efforts to reform the Amerindian Act resulted in a discriminatory law, adopted in 2006, which not only seriously limits Amerindian rights, but is so contrary to Guyana’s obligations under international human rights laws that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called on the country to change the law within months of it being passed. The deficiencies in the law also led the World Bank to pull out of the Guyana Protected Areas Project, as the framework provided by the law contravenes the Bank’s policy on indigenous peoples.
During the past seven years, the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs (MoAA) has, nonetheless, significantly increased its presence in the interior, through greater staffing and new community development projects. However, the net result has been to increase central Government control of community affairs, rather than to promote more autonomy and decision-making by Amerindians. Similarly, hopes that the Constitutionally-established National Toshaos Council (NTC) would provide a mechanism for communities to have an improved role in national decision-making have been frustrated, with growing concern that the NTC has been ‘captured’ by the Government.
Amidst these challenges, the single issue of greatest contention between Amerindians and the Government remains the issue of land. The Government continues to grant Amerindian villages rights to relatively small areas, at its discretion, rather than recognising Amerindian peoples’ wider rights over their customary territories. Amerindian titled lands now cover 14% of the country, between a half and a third of the areas claimed.
These territories are increasingly under threat from mining. The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of mining activities in Guyana as mineral prices have soared on global markets. Small- and medium-scale gold mining has especially intensified and new technologies have allowed operations to expand into new areas — among them Amerindian ancestral territories. Large-scale exploration and reconnaissance permits for gold and other minerals, including uranium, now cover about two-thirds of the country, while new prospects to develop bauxite resources, with associated hydropower projects and smelting plants, pose major threats both near the mouth of the Essequibo and in the heart of the Pakaraima Mountains.
Whereas evidence of the severe impacts of mining on Amerindians is growing, there is little evidence that that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) is serious about curbing either the damage that results or related violations of Amerindian rights. Social and environmental impacts include forest loss, polluted waterways, mercury contamination, criminality, drug abuse, sexual exploitation, and abuse of very young Amerindian girls. For lack of viable alternatives, Amerindians themselves are also heavily engaged in small- and mediumscale mining, with serious consequences on their own health, nutrition and cultures. Cases from Regions I, VII and IX, focused on by the project, reveal that even where efforts are made to help communities raise their concerns with the Government and companies, their voices are ignored by these actors. In one case, the GGMC has even defied a court ruling calling for mining to be
halted on a community’s traditional land. More widely, permits are being granted to miners without due consultation with communities, and their right to free, prior and informed consent is ignored.
Beyond mining, intense pressure from internationally-supported climate change mitigation and carbon forestry schemes is also mounting on Guyana’s Amerindian Peoples. The Government of Guyana (GoG) is now engaged in detailed negotiations with the World Bank and the Government of Norway to secure substantial grant aid for the country to stem forest loss and thus to mitigate global warming. The aim is to set up a system whereby Guyana would receive considerable payments – through a global ‘carbon market’ – for reducing deforestation and/or maintaining standing forests. Considerable uncertainties remain about how these programmes will be implemented.
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