Guyana: indigenous peoples continue to be left out

Guyana: indigenous peoples continue to be left out

During May, the Norwegian Government announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Guyana to contribute US$230 million towards the country's Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS). It only remained to be decided which financial agency would act as the intermediary with the fiduciary responsibility to make sure the monies were handed over with due care. Would this be the World Bank and what standards would the World Bank follow to supply this money?This question was repeatedly asked of World Bank employees who advised that the World Bank would have to apply its 'safeguards'. These are the standards which Bank staff are obliged to follow to ensure that the Bank's projects are not damaging, and are part of its normal 'due diligence'.

The World Bank's safeguard on indigenous peoples is quite strong, even if not perfect. Indeed, two previous World Bank projects, proposed for Guyana to develop the country's protected area system, had to be shelved because the Government of Guyana was not prepared to revise its policy towards indigenous peoples to properly recognise their rights. So when, in early discussions, the World Bank staff made clear to the President of Guyana that if he wanted the Norwegian money to flow through the Bank then they would have to apply their 'safeguards', the President was apparently displeased. There was an impasse.

The Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) wrote a detailed letter to the Norwegian Government pointing out that not only the World Bank, but also the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), had requested the Government of Guyana to change its laws and policies towards indigenous peoples so that they recognised their rights. The APA asked the Norwegian Government to insist on respect for their rights. The reply from the Norwegians was equivocal, spoke only in generalities and avoided direct reference to the legal issues raised.

By early June, the reasons for this reticence had become plain. The Guyana Government was insisting that the World Bank should adopt 'creative instruments' for passing through the Norwegian climate funds, which would allow it to avoid applying the Bank's 'safeguards' to all its projects. According to the Guyanese press (June 2010), the Norwegian Government had agreed to this 'creative' approach, which would suggest that it may be keener to move money than to guarantee rights. Under the new arrangement the World Bank will pass on the Norwegian monies to Guyana once it has reached 'certain benchmark applications'. The monies will then be released to other 'partner entities' once they submit project proposals related to the country's Low Carbon Development Strategy, but they will then only have to apply the specific safeguards required for that project by the delivery agency.

Just how badly the indigenous peoples of Guyana are being left out became clear in a new report just issued by the Amerindian Peoples Association (Our Land, Our Future). Reviewing the past decade of Amerindian participation in policies and projects on their lands, the report details the rapid expansion of mining in Guyana as mineral prices have soared on global markets. Small- and medium-scale gold mining have intensified and new technologies have expanded operations into new areas. Exploration permits for other minerals, including for uranium, now cover about two-thirds of the country, while new prospects to develop bauxite, with associated hydropower and smelting plants, pose major threats both near the mouth of the Essequibo River and in the heart of the Pakaraima Mountains.

Whereas the impacts of mining on the Amerindians are very severe, the study found no evidence that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) has been serious about curbing damage. Social and environmental impacts include forest loss, polluted waterways, mercury contamination, criminality, drug abuse, and sexual exploitation and abuse of very young Amerindian girls. Amerindians themselves are also heavily engaged in mining with serious consequences for health, nutrition and their own cultures. Cases from Regions 1, 7 and 9 focused on in the study reveal that, even where efforts are made to help communities raise their concerns with the Government and companies, these agencies ignore community voices. In one case the GGMC has even defied a court ruling calling for mining to be halted on a community's traditional land. Permits are being granted to miners without due consultation with communities, and their right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is being ignored.

The current disagreements between the Amerindians and the Government of Guyana over its natural resource management plans are only likely to be resolved if legal and policy adjustments are adopted which recognise the Amerindians' rights in line with Guyana's obligations under international law. New initiatives are also needed to control mining, mitigate social and environmental impacts and ensure that Amerindians participate in plans for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in fair and transparent ways that respect Amerindian rights to their territories and to give or withhold their free prior and informed consent to measures that will affect them.