Georgetown, March 3rd: More than one hundred people from 15 communities of the indigenous Wapichan people of the South Rupununi District of Guyana, South America, have gathered on 2nd and 3rd March to celebrate joining a global campaign in support of indigenous peoples and community land rights. The women, youth, village leaders and elders met in the mixed Makushi-Wapichan Village of Shulinab to re-affirm their commitment to secure their 2.8 million hectare ancestral territory in the Rupununi savannahs and tropical forest of the Upper Essequibo basin.
The gathering involved public songs and dances by culture groups from the Villages of Shorinab, Sawari Wa’o, Sand Creek and Kraudar. Speeches on the land struggle were also presented by Village Toshaos (elected leaders) and villagers. Activities included a public screening of the Wapichan representatives receiving the Equator Prize award from the United Nations in Paris last December; alongside a film “Territories of Life”, made by the NGO Life Mosaic, telling the stories of land rights struggles of indigenous peoples around the world. Participants also viewed information collected by a Wapichan community monitoring team showing deforestation caused by mining in the Marudi area, including aerial images taken by their own community-owned drone.
Elder Elizabeth Andre of Aishalton Village told the crowd meeting at Shulinab that:
"Since I was a little girl I used to hear my daddy talking about the land, naming our creeks, rivers and mountains. He talked about the need to have our land rights respected. I never believed that after all this time, which is nearly 60 years now, that nothing would have been done to properly protect our territory. We want all our lands titled together. We do not want divisions and gaps. We want our lands whole. My mother is very elderly. I want her to see our territory legally recognized so she may die peacefully, knowing that our people and our future generations are secure on our collective land. We look to our new government to take action now. We have waited long enough".
Many villagers and leaders present in the meeting called for fair and effective actions to title their collective land. Several people raised concerns about accelerating pace of destructive mining around Marudi Mountain. People from the southern villages also rang new alarm bells about the encroachment of Brazilian gold miners who are now rapidly approaching pristine forest areas around Blue Mountain, which is a sacred site of the Wapichan people.
In responding to these challenges, participants underlined the collective support of all their Villages for membership of the Global Call to Action on Indigenous Community Land Rights being launched globally this week by indigenous peoples, communities and a coalition of international social justice and development NGOs, including Oxfam, Rights and Resource Initiative and Forest Peoples Programme. Paulinus Albert, Toshao of Potarinao Village and Chairperson of the South and South Central Rupununi Districts Toshao Council said:
"By joining this global campaign for indigenous and community land rights our Villages aim to raise the national and global profile of our long struggle for this Wapichan territory. We want the whole of Guyana and the world to know how much we love our land and how we need it fully secured for our present and future generations to come…"
The gathering of the Wapichan villages applauded the President of Guyana for his written agreement to hold formal discussions between the government and Wapichan representative organisations on steps needed to legally secure their collective territory. Gavin Winter, great grandson of the late Henry Winter who submitted the Wapichan land claim to the Amerindian Lands Commission in 1967, said:
"The independence agreement with Britain required that issues relating to Amerindian land rights be resolved through secure land title over our traditional lands. This agreement has still not been fully implemented. Most of our traditional Wapichan territory in the South Rupununi remains untitled and insecure. In the year of the 50th Anniversary of Guyana’s independence, our villages want the land issue settled once and for all. We welcome the President’s commitment to start talks with the Wapichan people on measures to settle our land issue. We are seeking a fair, open and effective settlement process that will fully recognize our collective land rights and enable us to own, govern and control this territory that we call Wapichan wiizi".
It is expected that preliminary discussions with the government will start in meetings with the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MIPA) in the coming weeks, and that formal talks might begin by May. The Villages are hopeful that a good faith process can be agreed for delimitation, demarcation and titling of all of their territory in line with indigenous peoples’ rights and international standards. The villages are also asking that the Norwegian-funded Amerindian Land Titling (ALT) Project implemented by the UNDP adopt participatory and rights based approaches to advance land titling to the full satisfaction of the communities and in compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In a speech to the villagers and Wapichan land rights campaigners, Nicholas Fredericks, Toshao of Shulinab Village, said:
"UNDP and Norway have to be sure that their land titling project is fully in line with our rights as established in the Constitution of Guyana and in international treaties signed by our country. There is a genuine opportunity now with the land talks planned and the ALT project to set best practice for securing indigenous peoples’ lands and territories in Guyana and other countries… we stand ready for the talks and we will continue to push for land rights justice for our people".
In closing remarks, participants expressed their solidarity with the Akawaio and Arekuna peoples of the Upper Mazaruni in their long land struggle. They likewise communicated support for all indigenous peoples in Guyana seeking secure land rights, including the Villages of Nappi and Parashara, whose traditional lands are threatened by land grabbing in the Central Rupununi. Everyone present also underlined their solidarity with indigenous peoples in other countries across the world working to secure their land rights.
- The Wapichan people of SW Guyana are settled in 17 communities and make a living from small-scale farming, hunting, fishing and gathering combined with free-range ranching, a little cash cropping (mainly peanuts) and traditional artisanal mining for cash income. Community land is occupied, used and managed collectively according to traditional tenure practices, customary law and land use agreements between neighbouring villages. Village Councils manage and control lands around in each village in collaboration with elders and traditional resource user groups, while the South Central and South Rupununi District Toshaos Council is the collective representative and coordinating body for the whole of Wapichan territory.
The Wapichan villages have jointly sought full legal recognition of their lands since before independence from Britain in 1966. In 1967, Village leaders submitted a petition for collective legal title over their entire territory to the Amerindian Lands Commission, which was tasked under the independence agreement to settle Amerindian land claims. Fifty years later the Wapichan people only have title to a fraction of their ancestral territory around their main villages (about 15%).
Most of the Wapichan’s untitled collective land remains vulnerable to aggressive land-grabbing, destructive logging, and illegal mining. Over the last two decades the Wapichan Villages have stepped up their efforts to mobilise their people to protect and secure their territory against land grabbers and destructive development. Since the late 1990s the communities have worked to develop detailed maps and plans to care for their lands, forests, wetlands and natural resources. They have managed to map their territory using GPS and satellite imagery. Collective actions have also included research on customary tenure systems and sustainable resource use, land use planning, and community-based forest monitoring, including use of a community drone.
The Wapichan communities propose to create one of the world’s largest community forests over 1.4 million hectares, where they plan to prohibit industrial developments and look after habitats of importance for wildlife, game animals, birds and fish. The villages have agreed that they will still be able to hunt, fish, and harvest construction materials and bush medicines within the conserved forest according to custom and village rules on sustainable use of resources.
- District Toshaos Council (2012) Thinking Together for Those coming behind Us
- David, B et al (2006) Wa Wiizi Wa Kaduzu: Our Territory - Our Custom
- Pearce, F (2015) Where They Stand, Forest Peoples Programme, Moreton in Marsh
- We Built a drone
- The Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights is a growing alliance among communities, indigenous peoples, local civil society organisations and international NGOs to call for action and close the gap between the 10 percent of land currently under the control of indigenous peoples and local communities and the 50 percent that is estimated as their customary right. The alliance is calling on governments, intergovernmental bodies and international agencies to take actions to double the global area of land legally recognized as owned or controlled by indigenous peoples and local communities by 2020. See http://www.landrightsnow.org/
Photographies of the event are available here:
Nicholas Fredericks: tel: (592) 6043548, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tony James: email@example.com