30 August 2008

Guyana's Indigenous Peoples on the Periphery

An article in The Guyana Review titled, "Guyana's Indigenous Peoples: Still Languishing on the Periphery" (posted May 28, 2008) features an interview with David James, the former head of the Amerindian Peoples' Association (APA).

David James, who is the legal adviser to the APA, outlines some of the shock being suffered by indigenous communities in the face of the invasion by loggers and miners, and foreign corporations:
Those communities that have borne the brunt of the environmental damage are very resentful. They are resentful of the social effects of mining and timber harvesting – especially mining – which include the introduction of large amounts of alcohol, illicit drugs and prostitution camps. These activities take place either within the mining areas or close to the mining areas.

There are cases in which some communities are so resentful of these practices that they have sought legal redress. There are at least three cases that I am aware of where communities have initiated legal action to protect their rights. The success in these cases has been limited primarily because the court process is very slow.

What the communities feel is that their protection is best assured through the granting of full rights including sub—surface rights. This would mean that they would have full ownership of the resources and better control of those resources. Of course access also means that they would benefit from those resources.

James also describes the many ways that the rights of indigenous communities have been severely undermined by natural resource development, and the limited recourse they have under the law, especially as they do not possess rights to that which lies beneath the soil they live on. James calls for a revision of Guyana's Amerindian Act to bring it in line with the government's own endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

There is a need for the Amerindian Act to be amended particularly because in 2007 the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved by the General Assembly. That Declaration ought to be the guide for legislative reform in any country. The Amerindian Act was passed before that Declaration was approved but the approval of that Declaration essentially means that those states that have voted for it are saying that they consent to abide by its very lofty principles. Therefore, the Amerindian Act as it stands now falls far short of many of the rights standards that are contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

James ends the interview by describing the overall environment of confrontation between indigenous communities and the state. To the extent that earning foreign exchange to help purchase foreign imports continues to be the dominant developmentalist logic in Guyana, I don't think James is wrong in showing a lack of optimism for the future.

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