People Understand -- Land is Crucial
Indigenous Fight for Land Titles
Indigenous leaders are suing the government of Guyana to gain title to a large block of land for their communities -- the first such lawsuit to be brought before the courts in that South American nation.
Six indigenous Amerindian chiefs filed their claim last week with the Guyana High Court. They are seeking title to about 7,700 square km of land, only about half of which is recognized as beloning to indigeneous groups.
''Our communities have been requesting title to these lands, which we know to be ours'' since 1967, the AmerIndians said in a statement, distributed by the Washington-based Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment.
In their lawsuit, filed on Oct. 27, they also asked the High Court to issue ''a declaration that the Amerindian people of Guyana are entitled to full and equal protection of the provisions of the Guyana Constitution''.
They further requested the court to declare that sections of the Amerindian Act -- a law concerning Guyana's indigenous peoples -- are unconstitutional and discriminatory in that it allows the government to take Amerindian lands without compensation whereas the constitution prohibits this.
Amerindians, who make up six percent of Guyana's 750,000 people, have long complained of discrimination by successive governments of this multi-ethnic nation. The majority of Guyanese people are of Asian Indian origin, while there is also a large African minority as well as Chinese, Europeans and people of mixed race.
''Successive governments have not dealt with our land rights concerns,'' the chiefs said in their statement. They explained that in 1959, the government of what was then British Guiana had recognised their right to about 3,000 square miles (7,700 sq. km) of land around their villages, located in the eastern region of Upper Mazaruni River.
In 1967, one year after independence from Britain, a governmental commission visited the country's Amerindian communities, but 31 years of inaction followed.
''Indeed, our communities have been requesting title to these lands, which we know to be ours, since the Amerindian Lands Commission visited our communities in 1967,'' the chiefs said. ''Since then, we have attempted to discuss this matter on many occasions without result.
''In fact, we have written over 20 times to the government, both past and present, on this issue.''
Many parts of Guyana's hinterland, including the Upper Mazaruni region, are rich in gold and diamonds which are mined both by Guyanese and Brazilian small-scale miners, and North American multinationals awarded special privileges by the government.
In 1995, tons of cyanide spilled from the operations of a multinational corporation transformed hinterland rivers into poisonous wastes, and Amerindian communities and environmentalists have often accused small-scale miners of polluting river systems in the hinterland.
The Upper Mazaruni River, where the communities are located, has not been spared this type of environmental degradation. Much of it ''is unfit for human use,'' the Amerindian leaders said. ''our fishing grounds have been destroyed and we can no longer catch fish in the river. The water is making us sick, especially our children.
''We take this step today not only on behalf of our communities but also on behalf of future generations of Amerindians, our children and their children's grandchildren so that they may live and prosper on our lands as our ancestors did before us, into the next century and beyond.''
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