It was revealed during the opening of the National Toshaos Conference (NTC) that the Government has, in the past two years, invested over $50 billion in Indigenous communities and $1.7 billion in economic boosting investments, all part of its commitment to the development of Indigenous communities.
During the conference, which started on Monday and is being held for five days at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC), President Dr Irfaan Ali iterated to the hundreds of Indigenous leaders, how important their rights are to the Administration. Ali said the Government takes seriously all issues affecting the Indigenous people, from land titling to economic empowerment.
He gave some insight into exactly how much the Administration has spent on Indigenous communities, though he shied away from comparing it to the previous five years. All he would say is that persons would be “mesmerised” if a comparison was done, but it would enable them to make a determination on which Administration has the welfare of the Indigenous people at heart.
“In less than two years, when you take the current and capital expenditure, in less than two years your Government has invested more than $50 billion in Amerindian communities and Amerindian people.”
“If you look at that as a percentage of the whole budget, you will be blown away. And at a different forum, we’ll do the political comparison. But if you look at that as a percentage of what was invested between 2015 and 2020, you would be mesmerised,” President Ali said.
Other investments President Ali spoke of was in the area of water, explaining that the Government intends to ensure Indigenous communities have 100 per cent access to clean water by 2025.
“If you look at water, we have been able to increase our coverage in less than two years, in terms of access to water in hinterland communities, from 46 per cent to 63 per cent. And the target is to take it to 75 per cent by the end of this year. We have made it clear, for Amerindian villages, water will remain a social good.”
“What that means is that for your villages, as long as we’re here, you will not have to pay for that water. That will be a cost that the Government will absorb for you. For you and your communities, it (water) will be treated primarily for its social good and value, not as an economic commodity.”
The conference, which attracted Toshaos and village leaders from over 200 communities, is being held for the first time since 2019.
Meanwhile, the opening of the five-day conference also saw two absolute grants and five certificates of titles being distributed to the Indigenous leaders from Regions Two, Seven and Nine.
The villages of Capoey (extension) and Mashabo (extension) in Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam), were the recipients of grants. Meanwhile, certificates of Titles were given to Mainstay-Whyaka (extension) and St Monica (extension) in Region Two; Tassarene and Kangaruma in Region Seven (Cuyuni-Mazaruni) and Yupukari (extension) in Region Nine (Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo).
The President also announced an increase in stipends for the Toshaos, from $30,000 to $45,000. Their deputies also received an increase from $20,000 to $30,000.
Senior councillors of Amerindian communities will meanwhile benefit from a $15,000 to $25,000 hike in their stipend, while the stipend for regional councillors from the 10 administrative regions will move from $10,000 to $30,000. As Ali put it, this is the Government fulfilling its commitment to the Indigenous people.
“These are commitments we have made and commitments we have fulfilled. Not just because we want to do it, but because you are no different from the rest of the population, and you must be treated in the same respect, with the same dignity and honour like all of the population. Those are the fundamental principles that we adhere to, that we support,” he said.
This year’s conference is being held under the theme “Good Governance and Fast-Tracking Amerindian Development.” Prime Minister, Retired Brigadier Mark Phillips, Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai and other Ministers of Government and members of the diplomatic corps were present at the opening of the NTC.
While there had been some criticism that the conference is being coordinated by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs and that the NTC was not involved enough in the preparations, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Lenox Shuman, himself a former Vice Chairman of the National Toshaos Council, noted that based on information reaching him, efforts were made to involve the NTC.
“In the absence of a substantive NTC executive, who do you consult with? Based on the information I got, the Ministry had reached out to the NTC secretariat for a variety of things, which the secretariat did not provide. So, it fell on the Ministry to undertake the planning of the conference,” Shuman said.
He nevertheless welcomed the hosting of the conference and the fact that it could be held despite COVID. Additionally, Shuman noted that the Indigenous leaders have a great opportunity to air their concerns and consolidate their grievances, allowing the Government to act on it.