Guyanese project to bolster Indigenous land rights draws funding — and flak

  • The Amerindian People’s Association (APA) in Guyana has received 252,500 euros ($285,300) in funding from the French government for a project to strengthen Indigenous councils and leaders in upholding the rights of Guyana’s Amerindian people.
  • Land rights, and how titles should be awarded, remain a highly contested issue in the South American country, with one court case dragging on for 23 years without an end in sight.
  • The funding hasn’t been universally welcomed, however, with some saying that NGOs like the APA “own no land and have no say in what happens in Amerindian communities.”
  • The APA says its ultimate goal is pushing for a revision of Guyana’s 2006 Amerindian Peoples Act and calling for recognition of Indigenous traditional customary land rights.

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — The Akawaio and Arecuna peoples of Guyana’s Upper Mazaruni District in the north of the country could be forgiven for being a little impatient. For 23 years they’ve been awaiting the outcome of a High Court case to have their territory recognized as collective titled land, rather than a scattering of titled villages.

The Amerindian People’s Association (APA), an Indigenous advocacy group in Guyana, is hoping to provide evidence to support their claim through a new project, “Protecting indigenous rights, the forest and the environment in Guyana.” It has received 252,500 euros ($285,300) in funding from the French government’s Solidarity Fund for Innovative Projects (FSPI). The project is due to end in June 2022, with the possibility of being extended for another year.

Given the recent flooding in the Upper Mazaruni region, which forced some communities along the Mazaruni River to relocate, speeding up the court case is a priority for the APA and is one of the project’s focal points. When Mongabay spoke on the phone to Ron James, mapping technician for the APA, he had recently returned from the region.

Education mapping
APA team presenting the village with the mapping and priority site identification project its context and activities. This followed a short introduction of myself and the role of the French grant in the project. Image courtesy of Peter Gaté.

“They have title for a small amount [of land] but you have the mining agency giving out concessions around their traditional lands,” James said. “So what we’re trying to do is use this cultural mapping to protect some of these areas that have not been identified on the map as yet.”

The next step will be to “ground truth” the pinpointed sites of cultural, sacred and environmental significance, and support the villages to decide what sort of protection or status to seek.

Similar mapping has been done before, APA project lead Graham Atkinson told Mongabay in a video interview. The aim now, he said, is to do the work “more in depth at this time, so it can be presented in a more holistic way to the people.”

Titles for territories

Although Indigenous villages in Guyana can already apply for land titles, the APA is pushing for Indigenous district councils, like the Upper Mazaruni District Council (UMDC), to be able to apply for larger territories. This is to avoid culturally significant sites located on state land in between titled villages being given out as concessions to miners or forestry operators, who may access the sites by passing through Indigenous villages.

“That’s where you find discrimination, a clash of cultures and the whole [issue] of pollution,” Atkinson said. “[W]e have been cooped into this pen of a ‘village.’”

Indigenous mapping
Guides and other village members are agreeing on the precise site locations and estimating trips’ length. Image courtesy of Peter Gaté.

Protected areas exist in Guyana, administered by the Protected Areas Commission, and is an option that can be used to protect traditional lands. However, Atkinson said the government has the power to withdraw this protection, for example, to allow oil extraction activities.

A document provided to Mongabay by the APA outlines possible weaknesses with claiming a territory as a protected area, noting that “there is no legal obligation for [the Protected Areas Commission] to ensure that the UMDC or villages are involved in … management of the protected area.”

Christine Halvorson, project director at the Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS), which has been working with the APA for almost two decades, pointed to the “save and except” clause found in villages’ title documents as another loophole. The clause excludes areas that have been conceded to miners, “so a village will get their title and it’s like Swiss cheese: full of holes,” she said.

She added RFUS is providing technical support to the APA, including with planning, administration and mapping.

Strengthening and supporting Indigenous communities

The APA’s newly announced project aims to strengthen and support not only the UMDC but also the Indigenous district councils of North Pakaraimas and Moruca, where the wetlands and coastline are vulnerable to potential environmental impacts of the new offshore oil and gas extraction. Atkinson said this will include ensuring smooth transfers of power and enabling leaders to know their rights under the laws and conventions of Guyana, “so they are in a position to really talk or to fight for FPIC,” or free, prior and informed consent.

Indigenous mapping
APA adjusting mapping instruments. Guides are made aware of their functioning. Image courtest of Peter Gaté.

The project also aims to provide administrative support for village councils; train women and young people in skills such as IT and minute taking; and offer business and accounting guidance for handicraft and ecotourism entrepreneurs.

Its core aim, however, is revising Guyana’s 2006 Amerindian Peoples Act and calling for recognition of Indigenous traditional customary land rights. When Mongabay spoke to Atkinson, at the same time as the COP26 climate summit was taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, he said: “Given what’s happening at COP26, now, it has become so important for Indigenous people to have control of their land, so that we can continue to contribute to our carbon sink.”

The APA is calling for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to be incorporated into the 2006 act as part of its revision.

“Given how governments in the past are very wary of that, that might not happen in our present,” Atkinson said. “But we hoping at least 80% can be captured in the new act.”

At the village level in Guyana, leadership is held by local chiefs, or toshao. Atkinson said some have raised concerns about losing power to the district councils. However, he told Mongabay, “The district council does not take away from the individual village council authority or jurisdiction of the rules … You have to go through a process of the village giving its approval to be part of the district council.”

According to Pierre Gaté, a representative of the French Embassy in the capital, Georgetown, the main motivation for funding the APA project is to “support the initiatives taken by Guyanese Amerindians to assert their rights while preserving the Amazonian forest.”

Education project Indigenous
Ron James, project officer at APA, concludes the session recapping on the list of designated important sites. Image courtesy of Peter Gaté.

Asked if he plans to put pressure on the Guyanese government to meet the APA’s requests, Gaté said neither he nor the French Embassy would be the ones directly attempting to influence the revision of the Amerindian Act.

Atkinson said he’s “cautiously optimistic” of collaboration with the Guyanese government, though he added the APA has only met with the minister of Amerindian affairs once.

“At the moment, the law is designed for us to basically ask government for land,” he said. “We should be saying this [is] ours, recognize it as our land.”

A complex history and lengthy court process

However, this isn’t a universally held view. Melinda Janki, a lawyer who helped draft the Amerindian Act and who’s involved in various legal challenges against an oil deal agreed by the government with ExxonMobil, said the 2006 act already provides the protection needed.

In an email to Mongabay, she said the assertion that “Amerindians are the Indigenous peoples of Guyana and once owned the whole of Guyana … is not backed by law or fact.”

“The historical record tells a different story of constant Amerindian migrations into Guyana, with an increase after Dutch colonisation,” she added.

Janki highlighted various land rights cases in Guyana, concluding: “Almost every conflict today is attributable to 2 things — Amerindian refusal to demarcate and Amerindian failure to claim land. In both cases Amerindians listened to the APA.”

NGOs like the APA, she said, “own no land and have no say in what happens in Amerindian communities.” She also criticized the foreign funding for the new project.

Indigenous mapping
After consulting the village elders on what they considered important sites around the village, the mapping expeditions were set up. Image courtesy of Peter Gaté.

“The EU and liberal democracies like France are undermining Amerindian self-determination and collective rights when they give money to NGOs,” Janki wrote in her email. “The Europeans need to respect collective Amerindian rights.”

Unpicking the complex history of land rights in Guyana, including claims and counterclaims, is a long and tricky process. Though the Upper Mazaruni court case began in 1998, the claim goes back to Guyana’s independence from Britain in 1966.

Separating the remit of APA’s new project from its other activities is also difficult, as there is much crossover.

“I know it is confusing as most of APA external funding overlap over similar projects,” Gaté said. “It took me a while to understand this, and I now attempt to keep budget distinguished for better accountability.”

Revising the Amerindian Act

Halvorson of the RFUS told Mongabay that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the APA and district councils had gathered recommendations from the councils and villages about revising the Amerindian Act. Asked whether the legal approach being advocated is the right one, given the protracted Upper Mazaruni court case, Halvorson said: “It is a slow process but it’s slow because there’s lack of political will and lack of procedures to recognize territories and customary lands.”

The APA is not alone in its calls for revising the act. In 2020, the APA and the National Toshaos Council (NTC), the representative body for Guyana’s elected toshaos, released a statement that, according to a local newspaper, declared the goal of revising the act as “a high priority for Indigenous peoples in Guyana.”

In September, President Irfan Ali promised the Amerindian Act would be revised. However, the same article noted that “there has been no sign over the last year … of any attempt at the level of the Attorney General’s Chambers or at the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs for the start of this process.”

Mapping activities Indigenous
The APA team leaving for the next village, Kamarang, to continue the mapping activities. Image courtesy of Peter Gaté.

A glance through the archives shows the minister of Amerindian affairs, Pauline Campbell-Sukhai, reportedly accused the EU of “turning a blind eye to the NTC who is the legitimate representatives of the Amerindian peoples” when it awarded a grant to the APA.

Mongabay reached out to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs but was unsuccessful in arranging an interview.

Other ongoing APA projects include an EU-funded 24-month project aimed at “improving the economic and social outlook of Indigenous women and children.” In addition, RFUS and the Forest Peoples Programme have spent several years working with the APA on a series of land tenure assessments. The most recent report, released in February, highlights continued threats to Indigenous peoples’ land security, including demarcation errors, map problems and land conflicts.


Banner image: Indigenous activist speaking at a protest during COP25 in Madrid. Image courtesy of Friends of the Earth International / Flickr.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:

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