In an impassioned address on the occasion of the launch of Amerindian Heritage Month on Tuesday, President Irfaan Ali laid out his administration’s plans and programmes for the development of Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples for the next five years.
It was indeed a detailed plan, which included several critical components aimed at ensuring that Guyana’s First Peoples are not excluded in any way from the national development agenda; and many are optimistic that the President’s vision will indeed come to fruition.
The Amerindian Heritage Month theme this year, “Fostering traditional practices for a safe environment”, is fitting in the context of the challenges presently facing our country. According to the President, the theme emphasises the key role which cultural assets, including Indigenous knowledge, traditions and customs, and lifestyles, can play in ensuring a safe environment. The President correctly pointed out that as Guyana confronts the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous traditional practices will form a key part of the arsenal of measures intended to stem the spread of the virus.
That said, it is quite clear from the President’s message that he has a full grasp of the challenges facing hinterland communities. There is no doubt that much more needs to be done, both in terms of policy design and implementation and in resource allocation, to ensure that economic vibrancy is returned to Indigenous communities, and that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are fully protected.
For example, the issue of land titling has always been a matter of concern to Indigenous communities. However, over the last five years or so, no real progress has been made in ensuring that Amerindian lands are demarcated and titled. After the APNU/AFC Government took office in 2015, the project ground to a halt.
To its credit, the new Government has acknowledged that land is central to Indigenous peoples’ development, and always treated Amerindian lands’ demarcation and titling as a priority. In this regard, the President has promised to immediately restore the Land Project and establish a special mechanism to resolve land disputes.
Further, it was very encouraging to hear that several development projects which were scrapped would be restored by the new Government. These include rehiring of the approximately 2000 Community Support Officers (CSOs) who were terminated by the previous APNU/AFC Government when it took office in 2015; reintroducing Community Development Plans (CDPs) to ensure that Amerindians are able to determine the sustainable livelihoods they desire; and returning to the ground-breaking partnership forged through the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) and advance the innovative “OPT IN” feature which allowed villages to benefit directly from the proceeds of carbon-trading services.
In his address, the President also promised that Amerindians can look forward to improvements in social services such as education, health care and water. He said health facilities would be increased, upgraded, and better equipped to provide enhanced and more accessible healthcare across the hinterland. This indeed is badly needed, as many hinterland residents have to travel extremely long distances to access basic medical services.
Many health institutions in the hinterland still do not offer the level of services required by patients, and hence patients are forced to travel to Georgetown at very high cost.
The same situation exists relative to educational opportunities for Amerindian students. Many hinterland schools still do not have their full complement of trained teachers, and are not equipped with IT technologies, thereby limiting the students’ ability to achieve their full potential. Amerindian students must be able to have the same access to educational opportunities as others in any part of the country.
That said, we believe there is need for more collaboration between the Government and other development agencies to support and fund community development projects and skills training etc, which would see Amerindians having better access to opportunities to advance their lives.
Also, the relevant Ministries, such as the Amerindian Affairs and Labour, along with the responsible NGOs, must step up their efforts to ensure that Amerindians are not exploited in any way. Over the years, there have been several complaints that Amerindians have been forced to work in terrible conditions, sometimes even being abused by their employers.