A velvet revolution in the Rupununi Feature
Stabroek News
September 16, 2001

There's a revolution going on in the Rupununi . Don't be alarmed there are no guns. Just the emergence of a fundamental but long denied belief that residents of Region Nine know what is best for their future development, rather than bureaucrats on the coast .

The catalyst for this change has been GAP Leader Paul Hardy who has gained almost mythic proportions in the region . His critics have described him less charitably and anyone remembering his fleeting and stiff-suited appearances in the election campaign might wonder what all the fuss is about. But Hardy just back from Brazil and relaxing on the balcony of his Queenstown home in a shirt and a pair of jeans says wryly that it was all part of a grand plan to deprive the opposition of anything to aim at . In fact once Hardy gets talking he is a smooth raconteur and has an endless supply of amusing tales of his life in Brazil and the Rupununi .

Many persons also doubted his genetic credentials in the elections asking if he was a true Amerindian . He is actually a member of the obscure Atorad tribe which he says now only has seven members . Moreover Hardy claims to sleep in a hammock every night and there is a bit of the restless nomad about him, constantly travelling from his language schools in Northern Brazil stopping in Lethem and on to Georgetown . He seems to be forever on the move.

Others tried to cast him as a remigrant who lived all his life in Brazil and England and that he was just a political opportunist- of course a quite redundant expression .

But to understand Hardy's and GAP's popularity one has to understand that Lethem is really more Brazilian than Guyanese and does not dance at all to a Georgetown rhythm . Many families have members living or working across the border. Residents don't travel to Georgetown to do their shopping . They go to Boa Vista. There is no Guyanese television or radio. Many like Hardy are fluent in Portuguese. The greater sin for Hardy if there was any, would have been for him to go live in Georgetown and then to return claiming to speak for the hinterland.

Meanwhile if there was only one good thing to come out of the hurried changes to the constitution for the March elections it was that at last a region of this country is being truly represented in Parliament by one of it is own residents .

And for Region Nine that person is GAP's straight talking , Shirley Melville. Too straight talking for some people including regional bureaucrats not used to a woman no less an Amerindian calling the shots. Melville along with GAP Regional Chairman Vincent Henry have made it very clear that the Regional Democratic Council is the elected body which gives the orders .

But as Melville points out the times they are a changing .

The prevailing attitude amongst citizens of Region Nine towards Georgetown is one of sympathy. As Melville puts it with a smile: "Everyone there is all stressed out trying to live like Americans" and she finds the city dirty and frightening , wanting to leave almost as soon as she arrives.

The Rupununi is in a time warp but a good one where children still say good morning to their elders , "please" and "thank you" are not foreign words and cursing is almost unknown . There is none of the rowdiness of the bus park here, and Melville tells any outsiders misbehaving not to bring their dirty coastlander habits here. In Lethem people seem to spend a good deal of time sitting quietly under old mango trees waiting for planes . Despite the stereotypes Melville says the people of Region Nine are exceptional and brilliant people. Others too have noted the high literacy rate in the region. The education system still remains largely intact from the sixties and the dedication of the teachers is renowned. Melville recalls how teachers walk for days, climbing 3000ft mountains to deliver school supplies.

There is a pioneering , self- reliant spirit which is far different from the coastland ethos.

And that is why it has been so galling to the people that for many years, in fact ever since the uprising of 1970 they have been alternately neglected or told what to do by a central government that has little respect or understanding of the region's needs. For example across the border Brazil has built a integrated system of roads, while Guyanese are restricted to their homes during the rainy season - roughly March to August - because many of the roads become rivers . If you want to reach Lethem from the North Rupununi you have to cross the border and travel down on Brazilian roads to Bon Fim and then cross back !

Hardy's connection to the region's Amerindian tribes through his much respected father made GAP's victory unsurprising for many observers in the region . Of course on the coast he was an unknown commodity . He recalls how during the campaign he went to a village and gave a long detailed speech on the party's plans for the community. He then asked the gathering if they had any questions. The captain rose and simply asked " How is your father?" That depth of connection is why many observers believe that politics in Region Nine has been turned on its head and will never be the same. The region is likely lost forever to the PPP and the PNC and other Amerindian regions could very well follow suit come 2006. And should one ever doubt Hardy's ambitions he prefixes a statement by saying, "When I become President and you can print that!" Then he hurries inside to hunt for a Brazilian newspaper which suggests how nice it would be for a friend of the country to be Guyana's next leader.

But before all of that can happen GAP must bring development to Region Nine despite being beholden to the purse strings of central government which might not see such progress to their benefit .

For Melville that means lobbying for improvements in health care facilities which for many years have been deplorable with lack of drugs, staff and equipment. She says at the moment the Lethem hospital has had no resident doctor for six weeks. And in a true example of representational democracy she spoke to Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy when last at the National Assembly. He did say that one has been appointed. It is fast becoming a familiar practice of taking the residents' concerns to Georgetown and then reporting back to her constituents.

In the self-reliant spirit of the Rupununi, programmes are also underway to educate people about healthier diets introducing greens instead of the traditional staples of cassava , fish and meat.

With the bridge across the Takutu river the GAP-led RDC negotiated with the contractors to get employment for 30 people and for the Brazilian catering company to buy beef from Rupununi farmers. Melville is heartened by the attitude of Minister of Public Works Anthony Xavier to consult with the region on development with the bridge and road.

Like many Lethem residents she is concerned about security issues with the advent of the bridge although her worries are more about coastlanders coming in to the area. She does not envisage any large invasion of Brazilians to the region as they are mostly well employed across the border.

More fundamentally GAP and Melville are looking to raise the consciousness of the Amerindians towards their rights and towards handling the inevitable changes that a road would bring. For too long they have been intimidated. Melville has stipulated that in any future negotiations over land rights, interpreters must be included because subtle differences in language can cause misunderstandings.

As regards education, schools are now teaching Wapishana and Macushi and even printing native language books. Radio broadcasts are sometimes in indigenous languages. GAP is also working to revitalise systems long neglected by past administrations including meetings between heads of regional departments such as education and health.

Melville, a mother of four, who settled in the region 12 years ago does not see herself as a traditional politician. She is simply continuing her work for the community but in a different role. Her first priority is to the people of Region Nine and she would rather resign than become a rubber stamp or compromise that commitment for political expediency.

She continues her work with various organisations such as the Rupununi Weavers Association and other NGO's. The Amerindian people have endured for 10,000 years she says. It is time for them to take their rightful place as an equal partner in Guyana.

Meanwhile GAP leader Hardy has been on three trips to Boa Vista to negotiate on the bridge and other matters on behalf of the government. Of course he is in full support of the project and says the government must look to make it a success with top quality roads and modern facilities at the border. The economic benefits for such a small country to be a hub for the economic giant Brazil would be huge. He notes how seriously the Brazilians are taking the project and expects them to push for a swift completion of the road to the coast.

Hardy has come in for criticism from some of his supporters who consider it a sell out that he is negotiating for the government. But Hardy says he is in a unique position and sees it as a service to the country. He says he could never have joined the cabinet when asked by the President after the elections. "All my professional life I have been the decision maker and good at forming working teams. It would have been difficult to work with restrictions and I could do far more for Guyanese outside the Cabinet ."

Neither did Hardy take up a seat in the National Assembly because he did not see that GAP would have a national role to play. But he predicts that in the next Parliament the party will be the crucial power broker and then his presence would be needed. As of now Melville as a regional representative makes more sense.

It seems that GAP and its political ally the WPA have drifted apart since the elections. Many saw the alliance as mostly political expediency and not a true meeting of beliefs. One WPA activist commenting on the religious fervour of meetings with GAP said she had never prayed so much in her life! Hardy says he has only seen Dr Roopnaraine a couple of times since the elections and says the "WPA is very much on their own," although he would hate to envisage a Guyana without them. Meanwhile Hardy says his party's registration has jumped from 11,000 before the elections to 26,000. Although most of this support still remains in Region Nine, membership has doubled in Region 4.

Hardy consistently refuses to see the party as representing Amerindians. He says the problems that affect Amerindians are not unique and concern poor Indians and African Guyanese alike. The party might be from the Rupununi he says, but its message is for everyone. GAP is a party from the grass roots of the savannahs and like the large mango trees of Lethem is starting to cast a shadow over Guyanese politics .