Saturday, March 05, 2005

Indigenous rights groups recommend changes to draft law provisions

In a Stabroek News report from Guyana, dated Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, it was reported that indigenous rights groups, including the Amerindian Peoples' Association (APA), the Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG), the National Amerindian Development Foundation (NADF) and the Guyana Organisation of Indigenous People (GOIP), escalated their efforts to secure revision of some of the controversial new provisions of legislation being proposed. First, Cabinet will consider the proposed legislation, then it will be taken to the national assembly for a vote on its enactment.

In fact, indigenous groups have been most concerned about the powers to be wielded by the Minister for Amerindian Affairs. The Minister, Carolyn Rodrigues, explained the need for her active involvement in the internal affairs of Amerindian communities: "Everyday I meddle because everyday you have complaints coming from the village." In addition, she argued, Amerindian councils have in the past tried to establish rules that were in conflict with the Constitution. One of the points of contention is whether the Minister should approve new Amerindian Council rules, or whether their collective National Toshao's Council should be charged with the approval process. After all, as the Co-President of the Guyana Human Rights Association observed, only if Councils established rules that were in fact in direct violation of the Constitution would the Minister need to be involved--otherwise, there should be no need for approval of all rules.

Under the proposed draft legislation, any rule or amendment to a rule made by a village council would not come into effect unless the council consults the community general meeting and gains two-thirds approval. After that, it must be approved by the Minister and published in the Official Gazette.

Representatives of the various indigenous bodies were also dismayed that the new legislation did not employ the term "indigenous peoples" as was proposed during the first round of consultations almost three years ago. Dr. George Norton told the meeting that the word "Amerindian" is a misnomer as the people are neither Americans nor Indians and he said he found it difficult to accept a title that was based on the misconceptions of past eras. Norton said that "indigenous peoples" apart from being used in the constitution also has a legal meaning, as legally it applies only to those descendants of pre-colonial inhabitants.

Dr. Desrey Fox, a linguist, argued however that also the term "indigenous peoples" was problematic for its part because it seem to deny the birthright of other groups of people born in the country who also have a claim to nativity. Fox's proposed solution was to have the communities use their ancestral names or the term "First People." One might also note that the organizations present at the meeting varied in the use of "Amerindian" or "indigenous peoples" in the very names of their organizations.

Ways of defining and establishing who is "Amerindian" also provoked some debate among the participants at the meeting. The draft proposes that an Amerindian would be defined as any citizen of Guyana who belongs to any of the native or aboriginal peoples of the country or any descendant of such a person.

Yet, some of the indigenous representatives at the meeting argued that definition was too broad. According to the newspaper report, it "could mean that third or fourth generation descendants without the traditional physical features or any connection to a village would be recognised by the law."

Attorney Arif Bulkan, active in the rounds of consultations, worried that a restricted and racial definition of Amerindian would shut out persons who identify with the indigenous way of life, and that it is important to see Amerindian-ness as something more subsantive than visible physical features alone. The APA's Jean La Rose wondered about citizens who did not belong any of the nine recognized nations in the country.

On the subject of research in Amerindian communities, the groups were also concerned about the rigorous criteria for entry into the villages as is set out in the draft, specifically for scientific and other research. The draft proposed that any person wishing to carry out any research must obtain the permission of the village council, the minister and permits required under any other written law. The person would also have to provide the village council or the minister with a full written report of his/her findings, a copy of all recordings made and a copy of any publication containing material derived from the study. The person would also be required to get the permission of the council, the Culture Minister and other agencies before making any commercial use of the research.

What participants questioned again was whether the consent of the Minister was needed, even after a local council had given its permission. Rodrigues said it was a safeguard because in the past persons have posed as tourists to get into communities and then later published reports that the councils themselves disputed.

McCormack, of the Guyana Human Rights Association, felt the criterion was ominous as it left the Minister to interpret what is scientific research while also allowing her to prohibit research that did not meet the government's approval.

For more information, contact:

Fergus MacKay
Three Guyanas and Legal/Human Rights Programme
Forest Peoples Programme
Ph./fax 31-20-419-1746

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