Land COI debacle: Inquiry paused as President intervenes

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…special body established to implement five-point policy

President David Granger has proposed a five-point intervention to ensure that the work of the Lands Commission of Inquiry meets the needs and addresses the concerns of all stakeholders. During a meeting with Executive members of the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) at State House on Wednesday, the Head of State stated that there was nothing sinister in the setting up of the Commission. The intention however, was to correct existing anomalies regarding individual and communal lands. “There is no mischief or no malice on my part or on the part of the Government or the Commission to deprive people of their lands,” he said.

In addition to the plan, a special body will be established comprising of representatives of Indigenous peoples organisations including the National Toshaos Council (NTC) to ensure that the President’s interventions are properly executed so that the Commission’s work can move forward smoothly.

President David Granger flanked by Trevor Benn and Minister Joseph Harmon during their discussions with members of the Amerindian People’s Association at State House

So far, Commissioner of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission, Trevor Benn is the designated point of contact for the Government.

Following the setting up of the Commission in early March, several Indigenous groups and individuals have expressed dissatisfaction. President Granger said the matter has now become highly politicised and, as such, he will be meeting with the various Indigenous Peoples’ organisations.

The five points that the President outlined are a comprehensive review of all literature that has to do with Amerindian land titling, particularly as it relates to ongoing programmes; consensus building on the Terms of Reference; strengthened adherence to the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) so that communities are fully involved in the process; the reconciling of the positions of the Government, the Commission and that of Indigenous People’s organisations; a review of the Amerindian Act of 2006 and halting the work of the Commission on matters specifically related to Amerindian lands until all the outstanding concerns are addressed.

Minister of State Joseph Harmon, who was also present at the meeting, informed that aspects of the Commission’s work related to lands other than those belonging to Indigenous peoples will proceed as scheduled. “The inquiry will continue where that is concerned but in so far as it has to do with Indigenous peoples’ land, the Commission’s work would be put on hold, pending the outcome of what is going to happen with the body that will be set up,” he said.

With regard to the Amerindian Act, Minister Harmon explained that law revision is a very lengthy process and as such it would not be possible to conclude this matter within the life span of the Commission. In light of this, he said that only the “injurious elements” of the Act will be addressed for the purpose of fulfilling the mandate of the Commission. A more holistic review of the law will follow later.

Executive Director of the APA, Jean La Rose said “this is a good step in the sense that we are able to discuss these issues, we are able to air our concerns and focus on how we can move forward… Hopefully, at the end of these discussions we will arrive at a common position.”

In March following the announcement of the CoI, the Government came in for much criticism after several sections of the Indigenous community said that free, prior and informed Consent of Amerindians and their elected leaders were not sought before the establishment of the body. The Opposition also came out in support of the Indigenous community pointing out that the lack of consultation on the issue directly stampeded on the rights of Guyana’s first peoples.

APA’s Impartiality

Wednesday’s meeting with the APA, however did not set well with sections of the Amerindian community. This was conveyed as some Amerindian leaders questioned the fact that the President chose to meet with the APA, rather than representatives from the National Toshaos Council, an elected body.

What is of most concerned however is the fact that Executive Director of the APA, Jean La Rose, was on the A Partnership For National Unity (APNU) national top up list for the 2015 elections. As such leaders are questioning why the APA, which in the past sought international funding and representation for Amerindians, now seems to be “cozy” with the Government. Among the concerns of the Indigenous leaders are whether the APA is not as strident as it was before and whether they are seeking to undermine the elected NTC.

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