Wapichan people in Guyana present territorial map and community proposals to save ancestral forests

Several participants said that the Wapichan land use planning and mapping work has the potential to become a model for other IPs

Wapichan people in Guyana present territorial map and community proposals to save ancestral forests


  • Completion of a community digital map of traditional use and occupation of Wapichan wiizi (territory) by Wapichan mappers and a GIS specialist.
  • Community map is based on thousands of waypoints geo-referenced with satellite imagery.
  • The land use map has been finalised through multiple validation meetings in Wapichan communities as well as consultations with the Makushi and Wai Wai communities to the North and South of Wapichan territory.
  • Over 80 community consultations and workshops have been carried out to compile the innovative territorial plan titled Thinking Together for those Coming Behind Us.
  • The land use plan includes proposals to establish a Wapichan Conserved Forest and contains dozens of inter-community agreements on actions to secure land rights, promote sustainable use of resources and enable self-determined community development.
  • Participants at the Wapichan map and plan launch event in Georgetown, Guyana, praised the work as a potential model for other indigenous peoples in Guyana, and throughout the world.

On 7 February 2012, more than 50 people attended a public event held at the Umana Yana (traditional meeting house) in the capital of Guyana (Georgetown), where leaders of the Wapichan people from South Rupununi District in south-west Guyana presented a community map of their traditional lands alongside a community plan for caring for the natural resources within their territory. In presentations made by the Wapichan communities’ Toshaos (leaders) and local organisation, the South Central Peoples Development Association (SCPDA), participants heard about the origins of this work and how the map and plan were developed. They also learned about key proposals in the territorial plan and the next steps for its implementation.

Patrick Gomes, Toshao of Morora Naawa Village and Chair of the South Rupununi District Toshaos Council explained that the completion of the map and territorial plan is the most recent part of a long-running Wapichan campaign to secure legal recognition over their traditional lands:

The Wapichan people are struggling for our rights to be recognised and we have been in this struggle for years and years. We have sought recognition of our land rights since the time of the British. After independence, our leaders submitted applications seeking recognition of our lands to the Amerindian Lands Commission (ALC) in 1967, yet we still did not achieve full recognition. In 2000 we started to map our lands in order to show how we use them and how we are attached to them.

Toshao Gomes highlighted that international standards on human rights affirm that indigenous peoples have the right to own, manage and control lands that they have traditionally used and occupied, and this is a key reason why the Wapichan communities carried out the mapping to provide evidence of customary land ownership. Treaties like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ratified by Guyana, also contain recognition of the need to respect and protect customary land use (e.g. Article 10c of the CBD). In order to complement information on the land use map, the South and South Central Rupununi Districts Toshaos Councils also carried out a community-based “10c project” to document traditional land use practices and customs, which resulted in a much acclaimed report titled Wa Wiizi Wa Kaduzu: Our Territory, Our Custom published in 2006.

Gomes told participants that this community research has been used as a baseline for a further major District Toshao Council (DTC) project carried out between 2008-11 to compile a land management plan based on customary law and local systems of governance, to promote sustainable land use, support local livelihoods and to protect Wapichan territory against harmful development. After 5 years and more than 80 community-based consultations and workshops, the end result is a detailed territorial plan titled Thinking Together for those Coming Behind Us that contains Wapichan customary laws and agreed principles for caring for the land, as well as many agreed actions for specific places within the territory.  

He explained that this comprehensive document has been developed to guide community land use planning and decision-making, to demonstrate that the Wapichan people have their own system of customary rules and local capacity to govern their territory.

In describing how the digital territorial map was made, indigenous mapper and Toshao of Sawari Wa’o Village, Angelbert Johnny, explained:

The mapping work took several years (2000-5). It was based on working with our elders, land users and knowledgeable people in our villages. They guided our mapping trips and we mappers visited many places. We climbed mountains, travelled along creeks and followed our traditional trails. Trips could sometimes last up to three weeks in the forest. It was hard work. Land use was carefully recorded by hand, as well as by GPS, in field log books which came in handy to cross-check information. Draft maps were validated and corrected among our communities in a painstaking process from 2006-2011. I can say that the end result is a detailed map that it is accurate!

In her presentation on how the territorial plan was drawn up, Claudine La Rose, of Shorinab Village and a member of SCPDA’s technical field team, highlighted the importance of working in local languages in community discussions on land rights and land use planning:

All the public meetings, workshops and validation activities were conducted in our Wapichan language and in some mixed villages we used Makushi and Wai Wai too. This was key to ensuring effective participation. A lot of thought went in to translating key concepts and we worked closely with our own Wapichan literacy tutors. Everything was validated page by page with villagers, including the agreements on common title boundaries, land title extensions and community development.

In talking about the contents of the plan, Mr Kid James of the SCPDA told participants that the plan contained agreements on land rights matters, including common boundaries between villages for land title extensions, which have been developed fully in line with the Amerindian Act and in ways consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). He told the participants about chapters on different kinds of land (ecosystems) found in Wapichan territory, including forests, savannahs, mountains, waters and wetlands. Participants heard about chapters on different land uses, including farming, hunting, fishing, gathering, ranching and the use of fire, as well as important places such as spiritually sensitive locations, cultural heritage sites and valuable wildlife sites.

Mr James explained that the territorial plan also sets out the Wapichan vision for development in their communities:

We want to follow our own development path and make sure that development proposals coming from others fit with our own priorities. We want to be sure that the direction of development for our people is truly in line with our rights and where we want to get to.

He added:

Our plan also contains proposals for institutional strengthening and further work to consolidate Village Rules on free, prior and informed consent. We plan to set up a Council of Elders in each village to advise on cultural issues, land use and development matters. We plan to identify and support local traditional leaders (men and women) to help implement our decisions, including agreements on controlled burning.

During an open question and answer session, participants, including government officials, members of parliament, NGOs, international organisations and representatives of the media, congratulated the Toshaos on the results of all their hard work over the past decade. Several participants shared their view that the Wapichan land use planning and mapping work has the potential to become a model for other indigenous peoples throughout Guyana and in other countries.

At the close of the meeting, Toshao Gomes said that sharing the experience with other indigenous peoples in Guyana and elsewhere is a key part of planned follow up work. In discussing next steps for implementing the territorial plan, he added:

One stage of our task has been completed, but now the work is just beginning. The challenge ahead is to put our plan to work. We wish to work together with government and other allies and friends to have our rights recognised, to finally secure our full land title extensions and to help us realise our vision for Wapichan territory. Let us work to make our plans like our proposal for the Wapichan Conserved Forest come to life.

Further information:

Press Release: Wapichan people in Guyana showcase community proposal to save tropical forests on their traditional lands: http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/rights-land-natural-resources/news/2012/02/press-release-wapichan-people-guyana-showcase-comm

Mr Kid James, South Central Peoples Development Association (SCPDA) – Tel: +592 617 4519 (mobile); Email: kidrodelo@gmail.com

Toshao Patrick Gomes, South Rupununi District Toshaos Council - Tel +592 687 4923 (mobile)

The Districts Toshaos Councils (DTCs) extend thanks to the many organisations that worked on the mapping project including the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), Local Earth Observation (LEO) and the GIS mapping consultant Gregor MacLennan. DTCs also wish to acknowledge the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) for provision of technical assistance and facilitation of the community mapping, research and land use planning projects. The DTCs, SCPDA and FPP all wish to express thanks to the many donors who have supported this work since 2000, including the W Alton Jones Foundation, Rainforest Foundation US, HIVOS-Novib Biodiversity Fund, Oxfam-Novib, the Michael John Eden Bequest, Size of Wales, IFAD, Swedbio and the European Union (through the EU delegation to Guyana). The views presented here are those of the DTCs, SCPDA and FPP and are not necessarily shared by the agencies that have generously supported this work. 

The DTC launch of land-use map and territorial plan in Georgetown was well attended, with more than 50 participants.
Tropical forests on Wapichan traditional lands support a rich diversity of wildlife including rare and endangered species.
Wapichan women discuss traditional knowledge on burning savannah grasslands.
Iokiñe Rodríguez