Award recognises combined efforts of Amerindian People’s Association - Jean La Rose By Neil Marks
Guyana Chronicle
May 19, 2002

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“I do not see it as recognition of my work. I didn’t work in isolation. I worked with the communities. I worked with other people. I see it as recognition of the combined efforts of the organisation. I have been with the organisation longer than anybody else. I have seen a number of projects take place.” - 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Jean La Rose

“PEOPLE use the word ‘buck’ without really understanding how we live and why”.

That impertinence, noted back in her University days, had a lasting effect on Jean La Rose, but what she didn’t know was that the quest she set out on to help her people, would lead her to winning an award so prestigious as to be called the “Nobel” environmental prize.

Ms. La Rose, originally from the Amerindian settlement of Santa Rosa, was recently awarded the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists for her role in seeking to protect Amerindian lands from mining in Guyana.

She was named the 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for Central and South America.

Goldman recognised La Rose’s continuous work for recognition of Amerindian rights and an end to destructive mining “that is devastating Guyana’s rainforests and Amerindian communities”.

Transnational companies own mining concessions on about 30 per cent of Guyana’s land.

In 1977, the government declared the entire Mazaruni River a mining district, although this area is the home to 11 communities of the Akawaio and Arekuna tribes of Guyana’s indigenous people.

“Jean’s work is a strong reminder of the power of community organising and education”, said founder of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Mr. Richard N. Goldman.

La Rose is currently leading the work of the Amerindian People’s Association of Guyana, which came into existence in 1991.

La Rose recalled that one day she received a call from the offices of the Goldman Prize, informing her that she had won the award.

She was nominated anonymously.

Nominations were submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organisations and individuals representing 55 nations.

“I really didn’t at that time understand the implications of winning the award. That was certainly good news for me… ”, she told the Sunday Chronicle.

With the shock of the moment over, La Rose assessed the reason for her winning the award, and is rather modest.

“I do not see it as recognition of my work. I didn’t work in isolation. I worked with the communities. I worked with other people. I see it as recognition of the combined efforts of the organisation. I have been with the organisation longer than anybody else. I have seen a number of projects take place”, she said.

When the selectors of the award were down to the final five in her category, La Rose came out on top of the other nominees including two from Brazil and one from Ecuador.

Back in Guyana, La Rose had a number of reasons for feeling good about winning the award.

“Just around that time, it was really a depressing period for me. Because some of the work we were doing was not getting the response we were looking for,” she recalled.

“We face a number of difficulties in the organisation. I was really feeling discouraged at that point. So when I heard the news, I thought at least somebody recognises that you’re doing something. That was very good news,” she added.

La Rose attended two award functions in the U.S.A.

The bigger award ceremony was held on April 22 in San Francisco, where the Goldman Environmental Foundation is located.

The second ceremony, which was held in Washington D.C. on April 24, was better for La Rose, as she met people she knew.

The Goldman Foundation set up what La Rose called “useful meetings”, affording her the opportunity to meet with, as requested, Guyana’s Ambassador in Washington, officials of the World Bank and the Organization of American States (OAS).

Further, La Rose, along with the other five winners, attended a Congressional briefing of the U.S. Congress, at which they were afforded two minutes each to speak.

Guyana’s winner feels that the award has actually put Guyana on the map.

Most of the times she would have to preface a conversation with an explanation of where Guyana is, “because a lot of people did not know there was a country called Guyana”.

“They knew of Venezuela and Brazil. But they did not know there is this country just next door. Very often, in talking to people, I had to precede it with ‘We’re located here, we’re the only English speaking country in South America and that sort of stuff’” La Rose explained.

Sitting comfortably at her Crown Street, Queenstown office, where the Association’s offices are located, La Rose told of what the biggest achievement of the Association has been.

“It hasn’t reached the zenith point yet, but the fact that the communities are now aware that they have certain rights and knowing what means of redress are out there that they can use to improve their situation, I think is the biggest accomplishment of the APA,” La Rose said.

She admits, however, that some communities are still unaware of their rights and cannot stand up and represent themselves. But the fact that many are, gives La Rose, a single mother, a deep sense of accomplishment.

“We really have progressed in making people conscious of what their rights are. We have made an impression in making them see the way of approaching things, like making agreements with companies,” she said.

Previously, La Rose said the communities were signing up agreements without knowing what the real implications were, and as a result, they ended up being exploited.

The bulk of La Rose’s work has been the fight to end destructive mining in the Mazaruni River.

She had a stack of pictures on her desk, and showed me how children have no other option than to bathe in the river. A dredging operation is nearby.

“If you have dredging, the water for bathing, cooking, washing, etc. cannot be used. A lot of communities have complained about things like diarrhoea, vomiting, skin rash, and as you travel along the river, there is the evidence of mercury (contamination of the water)” La Rose noted.

The dredging operations of the Mazaruni River have also had negative social implications, with La Rose pointing to cases of rape, and just last year when five young Amerindian males were beaten.

La Rose’s work and that of the Association is based on advocacy for the rights of the communities which depend on the environment for their survival. .

“We still depend on the environment. We still hunt for the labba, the deer, the agouti and use the river to get ‘bush’ fish”, she said.

La Rose joined the APA in 1992 as a volunteer worker and started full-time in 1994.

She will use some of her award winnings to first of all fix the Association’s computer printer, “and end that harassment,” she said with a laugh.

She will also use her prize money to see the smooth running of a number of upcoming meetings planned by the Association.

This includes the APA General Assembly at the Mainstay community this month end, and a women’s conference at the end of July.

La Rose is also planning on starting a scholarship programme for Amerindian women.

She is thankful to the many people who supported the Association over the years, “without whom things would have been more difficult”.

The indications are clear. La Rose will continue her fight for the rights of Guyana’s first people.