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Delivering an address at the opening of the conference Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Ms. Carolyn Rodrigues, said the biggest challenge facing her Ministry and the Amerindians in Guyana is to make the indigenous communities viable through the implementation of economic projects.
She noted that because of the logistical problems associated with remote villages it is essential that economic activities are established within the communities themselves, moving away from depending only on the traditional subsistence means of living.
In this regard, the minister pointed out that the canning of the Heart of Palm in Region 1 (Barima/Waini) and an organic pineapple processing facility at Mainstay on the Essequibo Coast by Amazon Caribbean Company are two such projects. Most of the employees at these two facilities are Amerindians, she added.
Ms. Rodrigues told participants that one of the “front burner” issues being dealt with by the Government is land rights for the Amerindians, which is also a similar issue for indigenous peoples in other countries. However, while the problem is similar its resolution has to be found within the uniqueness, history and culture of every country.
The establishment of a National Protected Areas System (NPAS) where the indigenous people live would also be of economic benefit to them when it is implemented, the minister said
She disclosed that of the 120 indigenous communities in Guyana, 76 have communal titles with mining rights on these lands being retained by the state, while 36 of them have been demarcated.
The demarcation and surveys to determine the boundaries of Amerindian lands that began in 1996 have had varying responses from the communities mainly because of the manner in which the process was executed, the minister observed, pointing out that there was poor communication on the matter with the indigenous people.
In addition, she said some Amerindians are of the view that individual titles should be issued rather than communal ones because the latter cannot be used as collateral to obtain loans from commercial banks.
She also noted that the need for the revision of the Amerindian Act of 1951 in order to keep up with the dynamics of present day developments, and in this respect consultations have been completed and the recommendations are to be compiled in a summarized report which should be ready during next year. The establishment of an Indigenous People’s Commission is to come on stream shortly, she added, explaining that its establishment was delayed because of the absence of the main opposition party from parliament for some time.
President of the Amerindian peoples Association (APA), Tony James, drew attention to participants of the environmental problems being caused in indigenous communities through mining operations.
However, he made it categorically clear that Amerindians recognize the need for growth and therefore are not against such operations in principle, but are concerned that they are executed in an environmentally friendly manner.
Head of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, Mr. Richard Bourne, said a three-year study funded by the European Union (EU) was conducted to seriously examine the living conditions and rights of indigenous people within the Commonwealth, noting that the Commonwealth has been lagging in this respect compared to other parts of the world.