14 October 2005

Amerindian Act in Guyana

Amerindian bill unacceptable - says indigenous coalition

Stabroek News, Tuesday, October 4th 2005

A joint indigenous NGO coalition says the new Amerindian bill is unacceptable as some of its provisions represent a step backwards for indigenous people.

In a joint statement, the Amerindian Peoples Asso-ciation (APA), The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG) and the Guyana Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), are urging against enactment of the bill without major changes.

"Discrimination against indigenous peoples remains entrenched and manifest in the draft, and our rights to lands, territories, and resources and to self-determination are neither adequately recognised nor protected," the statement, which is signed by APA President Tony James, TAAMOG President Peter Persaud and GOIP Chief Mary Valenzuela, said.

The coalition said it had hoped that the new bill would fully recognise the rights of the indigenous peoples, and in particular, their rights to traditional lands and resources. However, after a review of the bill it has concluded that the bill is in some ways regressive and does little other than institutionalise government policies that have been rejected by the people.

To illustrate the point, it cited S59 (3) that requires demarcations prior to the grant of extensions to titled areas. In other areas, the coalition said, there is weakening of existing policy statements. "While we do acknowledge that there are some improvements in the draft Act, these improvements are for the most part obvious and minor."

As such, the coalition said, it held the bill to be insupportable in its present form. And while it noted that the Minister (Carolyn Rodrigues) had said that there had been 46 changes to the draft that was presented for consultations, it said the improvements were minor and failed to address the serious flaws in the draft of the bill.

"Where the draft Act failed to account for and secure our rights and interests, the bill does the same," the coalition pointed out, adding that "Where the draft Act vests arbitrarily and draconian powers in the Minister, the Bill, with a few minor exceptions does the same."

Another major contention was that enactment of the bill without substantial changes will contravene Article 154 A of the Guyana Constitution, which guarantees the international treaties that are incorporated into domestic law.

The group said that on certain issues, including rights to land, territories and resources, the bill is incompatible with international human rights laws, including those specified under Article 154A. It added that in other areas, the bill fails to address certain rights at all.

"Due to the incompatibility with the constitution and international human rights laws, the bill, assuming it is enacted in its present form, may be challenged in the courts and international human rights bodies," it said.

It also pointed out that Guyana's implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimi-nation - which is one of the treaties incorporated into law under Article 154A - will come up for Committee review next February. The coalition urged that the new bill not be enacted until the comments and observation of the Committee on the compliance with the convention.

On the issue of the use of the term "indigenous", the coalition said the majority of indigenous communities recommended this change and it felt that the exclusion of this recommendation in the bill was unjustifiable. "The Minister rejects our right to define ourselves and be recognised as indigenous peoples on the specious grounds that everyone is indigenous to Guyana and that because the term Amerindian is unique to Guyana - which it is not - we should continue to use this term." It also pointed out that the Constitution itself uses the term "indigenous peoples" to refer to the Amerindian people, and only them. In this regard, they urged that there be consistency with the Constitution. The bill is expected to come up for debate later this month.

Fergus MacKay
Coordinator, Legal and Human Rights Programme
Forest Peoples Programme
Ph/Fax: 31-20-419-1746

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