Guyana: Wapichan people speak up once again for their lands and forests

Water, fishery and forest resources on Wapichan lands in Guyana are threatened by the uncontrolled expansion of mining
By
Tom Griffiths

Guyana: Wapichan people speak up once again for their lands and forests

In April and May 2013 the Wapichan people of southern Guyana sent clear messages to the government that all mining and other developments must respect their customary land rights and uphold the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Wapichan villages are now in renewed dialogue with the government on measures needed to recognise and secure their lands, including plans for the establishment of a major community forest in the Upper Essequibo basin.

Mining lottery causes major concerns

In April this year, Amerindian villages in the South Rupununi were alarmed to learn that the national government was planning to sell off mining lots in the Upper Kwitaro River area, which holds special spiritual and livelihood significance to the Wapichan people. The same area has high conservation value and is part of the land title extension request of Aishalton Village (see Figure 1). The area of new mining blocks forms part of the traditional lands of the villages in the South Rupununi and potentially affects the lands and resources of villages neighbouring Aishalton, including Achawib, Kraudar, Morora Naawa, Awarenao and Shii. All these villages have sought formal legal recognition of their property rights over the forests and savannahs of the Upper Essequibo since prior to independence from Britain. A formal petition for recognition of land rights was made through submissions to the Amerindian Lands Commission (ALC) in 1967.

Street protest

The Wapichan people only found out about the government’s extractivist plans just days prior to the formal government lottery of mining rights held in the local town of Lethem at the end of April. Once the news was out, Villagers were upset that the government had not fulfilled its duty to consult and obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Despite the short time frame, people got organised and travelled to Lethem to protest in the streets where they communicated serious concerns about the official mining plans impacting on their livelihoods, lands, waters and forests.

As a result of this action, a week later the Minister for Natural Resources attended a meeting in Aishalton Village on 4 May to further discuss the mining lottery with villagers. More than 200 villagers from six Amerindian Villages attended the meeting, including elders, women, youths, Councillors and Toshaos, from the villages of Aishalton, Achawib, Karaodaznao, Awarewao and Morora Naawa and Shorinab. Different community groups also took part in the meeting, including representatives of the South Central Peoples Development Association, (SCPDA) the Rupununi Weavers Association, Aishalton’s Women’s Group and the South Rupununi Conservation Society.

Powerful plea for respect for land rights 

The Wapichan participants in the meeting made powerful statements calling on the Guyana Geology and Mines commission (GGMC) and the Ministry of Natural Resources to fully uphold their collective land rights in all plans and decisions on mining in the South Rupununi and throughout the country.

A woman resident of Morora Naawa Village and founder member of the Rupununi Weavers Association affirmed:

As first people of Guyana we have never signed a treaty: we never gave up our lands; we still own it… the South Rupununi people need a commitment, that we will have the lands recognised that our great grandfathers have requested.

Addressing the Minister, another Wapichan woman and current President of the Weavers Association proclaimed:

The forest is our hospital, it is our home, it is our supermarket. It is our university.…We don’t want your lottery here.  The land is ours, we will manage it; we are crying for it.  We are not stupid people any more. We are strong Wapishana people… 

Villagers explained that the upper Kwitaro watershed is of vital importance to local livelihoods and food security as major fishing, hunting and gathering grounds are located in the affected area. The villagers also highlighted their strong spiritual and historical attachment to the area slated for mining, and called for full protections for fragile ecosystems and areas of cultural importance.

 

 

 

Our people need issues to be addressed. These issues concern the environmental impact of mining in the Kwitaro Area. Our problem is that the proposed mining blocks lie within the headwaters of the Kwitaro River, and the people of this region depend on the Kwitaro as a source of food and water. These are the people who will suffer from mining activities in this area. So why has the GGMC not consulted with the people before lands were put up for lottery? [Toshao, Morora Naawa Village]

 

 

Call for rights protections and support for community forest

 

 

Several participants reminded the Minister that the Wapichan villages have already presented a positive plan for their area to the government, including plans to set up an extensive Wapichan Community Conserved Forest. In the meeting, representatives of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs confirmed that Aishalton Village had indeed applied for an extension to their title in 2011, but advised that the Ministry had not seen any maps of the area in question. This was puzzling for participants as the Wapichan Village Councils had presented a land use plan with maps directly to the Minister of Amerindian Affairs in early 2012. Participants queried how the GGMC could hand out mining rights when they must have known that the area is part of Amerindian lands under request for title:

 

 

We Wapishana people were only told that our land was part of the blocks in the lottery three days before the land was made available. Why didn’t the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs consult with the Ministry of Natural Resources with regards to this issue, when they knew that the issue of extensions was involved? How can it be that the GGMC says that they had no knowledge that the blocks were in Wapishana extension areas? [Representative of Aishalton Women’s group]

 

 

Promised dialogue 

 

 

In response to these powerful interventions, the Minister advised the gathering that no further mining blocks would be auctioned in the area of concern. Participants welcomed this pledge, but also called on the government to give firm guarantees that any mining blocks already handed out by the lottery process at the end of April would be fully revoked and the land fully returned to the community, not just those blocks that have not yet been registered. 

 

The government has not made any committments on this latter request, and has so far only promised to look at the “arrangements” for the mining blocks and hold further meetings with the concerned villages.

 

Further dialogue with the government is planned this month. Communities continue to work together to try to persuade the government to shelve all its harmful mining development plans, to secure community land rights and to put in place robust mechanisms for free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in all GGMC and Ministry of Natural Resources decisions affecting Amerindian lands and forests.

 

 

Mining conflicts on-going

 

 

As communities await more meetings with the government, controversial mining development plans around Marudi Mountain continue to cause concerns.  In June, the women’s group of Aishalton and other villagers took peaceful direct action by forming a human chain around a large excavator passing through village lands without adequate prior consultation with the Village. After police were sent to the protest and the mining company involved agreed to enter into dialogue with the village on land and livelihood rights, villagers allowed the mining machinery to pass, despite unresolved concerns. At the same time, key members of the community involved in organising actions to challenge mining have become the subject of a smear campaign and intimidation in the government-run national press. Community leaders have rebutted false allegations and are now considering legal actions against the newspapers involved.

 

 

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