Indigenous Peoples' Representation in Guyana
By Sharon Austin
Guyana, where I come from, is a young country in the north of South America. Guyana was initially colonized by the Europeans, who brought enslaved Africans to work on their plantations in the 17th century. At the end of the 18th century, after several wars between the Dutch, French, and British, we ended up under British rule. Under British rule, indentured laborers and settlers from Northern India emigrated to Guyana. When Guyana finally got its independence in 1966, most of the population was of African and Indian descent. Throughout this history, the Indigenous population was decimated, as some of our lands were taken away from us and our customary systems were weakened.
Nowadays, the Amerindians from Guyana are grouped into nine nations: Arawak, Akawaio, Patamona, Arecuna, Wapishana, Macushi, Wai Wai, Caribs, Warrau and Arecuna; and they constitute the majority in the hinterland population. The constitutional and legislative provisions (Amerindian Act 2006) recognize our rights as Amerindians. Through this legislation, we got limited recognition of collective land rights.
The Amerindian Act also provides for the collective representation of Amerindians through the National Toshaos Council and the District Councils, which are the representative bodies of groups of Indigenous villages in Guyana that come together. However, in the last 15 years, the South Rupununi District Council is the only legally gazetted Council. The legal recognition of additional District Councils is important, as it will strengthen Indigenous peoples’ advocacy efforts for wider recognition and the protection of our rights.
In 2019, Nia Tero began extending support, through the Amerindian Peoples Association, to the District Councils of Upper Mazaruni and North Pakaraimas. The Upper Mazaruni and North Pakaraimas are some of the most remote areas of the country that are advocating for the protection of their customary, ancestral, collective lands from mining and other extractive activities. While the Upper Mazaruni and North Pakaraimas District Councils have existed for a long time, they are still yet to be legally recognized under the Amerindian Act of 2006.
To date, these two District Councils have presented their requests for gazetting to the government. Once gazetted, the District Councils are expected to operate through agreed upon terms of references, mandates, and procedures. Therefore, Nia Tero is providing support for institutional strengthening processes in the development of the terms of reference, mandates and procedures, and institutional planning of the District Councils. In addition, Nia Tero has provided telecommunications support that has enabled the Upper Mazaruni District council to install three internet access points. These are expected to improve communication and collaboration among the villages and between their external partners and audiences/stakeholders.
The District Councils strengthen the collective voices and representation of the Indigenous peoples of Guyana. Therefore, Nia Tero is committed to supporting their efforts to get fully recognized.