New law should empower the Amerindian
-consultation on new Act told
Many views on land, elected chiefs and alcohol
By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
May 13, 2003

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The empowerment of the Amerindian was the theme which ran through the individual submissions made to the Technical Team receiving recommendations for the revision of the Amerindian Act.

At the final session for public presentations of submissions at City Hall on Sunday, a small but vocal set of speakers made lively presentations to the technical team which is headed by attorney-at-law Arif Bulkan.

Hubert Wong felt that the empowerment must be done in the context of creating an institutional mechanism in which the Amerindian enjoyed the same privileges, such as educational opportunities, as other Guyanese.

Wong said it was going to be a tricky process as many Amerindians themselves would want laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol and for the Minister of Amerindian Affairs to keep control over the welfare of Amerindians.

But he described the current Amerindian Act as “the most oppressive piece of legislation” still in existence in this country. And while he felt that the whole act should be discarded in favour of Amerindian integration into wider society, it was not practical at this time “because of the forces that still impinge on the Amerindians in the country.”

Also sharing similar sentiments were pilot, Captain Fazel Khan and attorney-at-law, Llewellyn John of the Guyana Association of Local Authorities (GALA) and Chairman of the Guyana Action Party, Edwin Glenn. They all agreed that the act may have been seen as appropriate at the time it was created in a bid to demonstrate from a legal standpoint that Amerindians needed protection.

Wong felt that three sections in the current act which should be struck out were the question of the rights of Amerindians to the sub-surface minerals found from beyond six inches below the surface of the earth; secondly, the clause pertaining to the consumption of alcohol; and the government’s representative who under the act has the complete right to do whatever he/she feels concerning Amerindian welfare.

John submitted that any revision of the Amerindian Act should be viewed against a background that there was today a clamour for advancement of the democratic process in the management of affairs in Amerindian communities.

He suggested the reduction of the powers of the government representative under Section 12 which gave him or her the power to take possession of, retain, sell or dispose of the property of an Amerindian. Other members of the audience suggested that this section be removed in its entirety as it was paternalistic.

Instead of the appointment of captains, John suggested that democratic elections be held. This process, he said, should be upgraded to the system under which elections for local government in the villages and rural communities were held.

The making of regulations by the minister responsible for Amerindian Affairs prohibiting any rates and customs which in the opinion of the minister were injurious to the welfare of Amerindians should be frowned upon. He said such regulations should not be left entirely to the discretion of the minister but to an established body including Amerindians.

In addition, he noted the need for preservation of elements of Amerindian history and culture, such as the language of the Wai-Wais.

Khan, who has worked among the Amerindians as a pilot for some 30 years felt that the revised act should only be a temporary piece of legislation effective for some two to three decades from now.

He said that one of the worse things would be for the government of Guyana to continue to segregate its people by law. He said Guyana does not have the resources to keep people apart as it would be easier in a process of coming together.

He recalled the early 1950’s when Amerindians then needed protection just like the indentured labourers at the time. He noted that the office which protected indentured labourers did not exist any more and he asked how long more would the Amerindians need exclusive laws for protection.

He had seen abject poverty among the Amerindians and suggested that education should become a priority. The issue of education and training was also emphasised by three other speakers including former TUF (The United Force) member of parliament, Michael Abraham and the chairman of the Guyana Action Party.

He would like to see the Amerindian child have the same access to a primary, secondary and university education as any other Guyanese. He had suggested that President’s College be used as a residential school for such students and others from hinterland and communities around mining areas.

Optician Don Gomes, who submitted a written presentation on behalf of a number of hinterland students attending tertiary institutions in Georgetown, supported the deletion of the provision that prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol to Amerindians. His submission also looked at the empowerment of the Amerindian.

The issue of `Who is an Amerindian’ was also a subject of debate and there were several recommendations.

Khan said that there was already a national registration and census taking in Guyana so he did not see the need for registration for Amerindians.

But one student felt that some commission should undertake that task and registration should be voluntary as there would be persons of mixed race who would by affirmation claim they were Amerindians.

Khan questioned the current act which made provision for communal ownership. He did not see the reason why an Amerindian could not own a house lot in his/her community as in other parts of the country.

Bulkan noted that the approach to ownership in indigenous communities around the world was communal. There are moves in part of Latin America such as Peru to move to individual ownership, which he said had not been a great success. However, he noted that outside of the Amerindian communities, Amerindians had the right to own a house lot.

Khan recommended that there be a survey of Amerindians who had moved out of the village system to see whether they were doing better or worse than they were doing 20 years ago. He said a number of Amerindians were involved in various professions and trades and had been successful.

Glenn felt the country’s leaders needed to strengthen the socio-economic base of Amerindians as quickly as possible through education and training.

He said that in education the curricula should pay attention to those aspects that address exploitation and referred to the denial of rights to Amerindians to what was deeper than six inches below the surface of the soil. To deal with the issue of exploitation he suggested training in the field of law - to include criminal law, international law and constitutional law; geology; and research.

He said Amerindians needed to know that the progressive hi-tech world had used up its natural resources and was currently using up these resources at a tremendous rate. “Countries like Guyana, whether you like to hear it or not, are being put aside as a reserve” by organisations claiming to be conservationists. He said, “they are looking really at how you regard your natural resources... When they are ready they will come with some fancy trade agreement” and the resources would be lost.

Another individual Ashton Simon, recommended that the word Amerindian be deleted and be replaced with the word indigenous. He suggested that the act should clearly define the land issue in terms of what was an Amerindian and what was an Amerindian area, district, village and settlement.

Simon recommended a system of taxation for business entities using Amerin-dian lands. This would include the aircraft owners association, tourists, contractors, cattle dealers, entrepreneurs, miners, foresters and researchers among others. He suggested that tolls be extracted from non-Amerindians travelling by road through an Amerindian community.

This could be the responsibility of a ‘First Peoples Commission.’

He suggested that this commission would have wide-ranging powers to deal with the issue of Amerindian welfare including Amerindians girls who were forced into prostitution.

Several other speakers including Wong and Khan felt that the issue of gender discrimination and exploitation were dealt with adequately in gender related laws and any provision for the female Amerindian should be in keeping with the laws of the wider society under the broader ambit of the constitution.

Another contributor, Ramjit felt that there should be included in the revised act an agricultural development blueprint providing for Amerindians who depended on subsistence farming.

He noted that Amerindians lived on some of the best soil for certain types of non-traditional agricultural produce but because of a lack of agricultural knowledge many hunt for three to four days for wild animals.

Instead they could have been tending poultry or cultivating their land.

Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues said she was happy to hear the recommendations transferring some of the powers to the communities or other bodies. However, she cautioned that in transferring that power some persons might be left open to further exploitation. She gave the example of one captain telling her that someone stole the community’s royalties of $300,000 from under his pillow. Yet there was evidence to show that he had made purchases to the value of that money.

Rodrigues said that in another case she was forced to use her “executive powers” under the Amerindian Act to remove a former captain of Orealla because he could not account for millions of dollars at a time when no funding agency wanted to fund any projects in the village.

She said that after every election many members of the councils including the captains were found guilty of neglecting their duties and the people come to the minister to ask to remove the elected officials. Emphasising the need for education and training to combat ignorance, she said that many communities were unaware of illicit businesses and entered into agreements in which they were the losers. These cases were then left to the Amerindian Affairs Ministry to deal with.

Rodrigues felt that the issue of who was an Amerindian should be left to the captains.

In relation to education, Rodrigues said that the ministry was working to include Amerindians in scholarship schemes at the secondary and tertiary levels.

But some participants felt that there should be no concessions made for the Amerindians to be granted certain scholarships for professional development but that they must earn this on merit just like other Guyanese students.

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