President vows to unlock a new era of rapid transformation for Guyana’s First Peoples

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President Dr Irfaan Ali and Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo with supporters during the 2020 election campaign trail

Full Address by His Excellency Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali President of the Republic of Guyana on the occasion of the launch of Amerindian Heritage Month 2020

Amerindian Heritage Month 2020 is being commemorated this year in unusual circumstances. While the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has tempered this year’s observances, it has failed to totally cripple our ability to honor and celebrate with our Amerindian brothers and sisters.

My fellow Guyanese and in particular my Amerindian brothers and sisters, I am happy to greet you at the start of Amerindian Heritage Month though under difficult circumstances. The People’s Progressive Party Civic Government will continue to work in a holistic manner to ensure that the policies and the programmes we create to address this pandemic will bring relief to you at the community level, household level and more importantly, that it will see us riding out this difficult period in our history together, united and at the end of it, we must all be strong.

Today, we commence celebrations with all of you- the Akawaios, the Arecunas, the Arawaks, the Caribs, the Patamonas, Wai Wais, Warraus and the Wapishanas, all of you who form a valuable part of the rich heritage of our homeland.

Whether you live in the mighty Pakaraimas, the sprawling Savannahs of the Rupununi, in the Upper Mazaruni, the Cuyuni, the North West District, in the rainforest or along our rivers, you are the ones who first inherited this land and who have treasured and protected it for generations. I want to assure you that your Government will never underestimate the value of this heritage, neither will we ever take you for granted.

It is for this reason that we have always recognised your rights to land, territories, self- determination and economic empowerment.

Our strong commitment to your inclusion in nation building is already being reflected in our actions. We thank you, every one of you for your consistent support for the People’s Progressive Party Civic, which I represent but more importantly, for your support in ensuring that not only that the PPP Civic formed the new Government but that I stand here as your President. I thank you sincerely and do appreciate the support you have given us.

It is for this reason that we have always recognise your rights, rights not only to your land but rights to economic empowerment, rights to self-determination, rights for social justice, economic justice and I want to assure you that your Government will be building an agenda moving forward that will reinforce those rights, that will ensure that you and every one of your communities benefit equally from the development pie of our country, that we will ensure social programmes, economic programmes, stimulus programmes reach every single one of your communities. One of the first tasks I did as President was to work with Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo, who has responsibility for Finance and your subject Minister, in reprogramming resources that were there. Some of these resources have been already reprogrammed to bring back the solar panels programme to your households, to give you back the one laptop programme in your communities, to give you electricity in your communities. US$10M has been reprogrammed for this from an Indian line of credit.

So, I want to assure you that the priorities you engaged me with during the campaign; I had the distinguished task of moving in every single of your communities, talking to all of the leaders, talking to the people from the communities. I understand your needs. I feel your needs. I know the areas of weakness. You communicated this to me directly and today, I want to assure you that I am committed even stronger than I was during the campaign to ensure that this government, your government work on fulfilling the aspirations and needs of your communities in giving you a stronger life, better life, a secure future and one in which the young people in your community can be proud of and know that every single Amerindian community has a sustainable and viable future.

Our strong commitment to your inclusion in nation building is already reflected in our actions. Today, not only were five talented Amerindians sworn in as members of the National assembly to comprise the 12th Parliament of Guyana but we were supporting for the first time, the Deputy Speaker of Amerindian heritage. You would have also known by now that we have appointed our first United Nations Ambassador, another Amerindian who is one of your own, Ms. Carolyn Rodrigues- Birkett, who was the first Minister of Amerindian Affairs. You will see many more appointments of persons of Amerindian heritage and those appointments are not made for any other reason than the fact that they are talented Guyanese and they deserve the appointments that were made. We are sure and confident that they will make a strong contribution to Guyana and Guyana’s development.

I join in commending the Minister of Amerindian Affairs, the Honorable Pauline Sukhai and her Ministry for their resourcefulness – considering the limitations of time, money and social restrictions – in organizing today’s virtual launch. I applaud their innovative efforts in finding creative and virtual ways of celebrating Amerindian Heritage Month 2020.
My Amerindian brothers and sisters, I want to assure you that as soon as the situation permits, I will be in every single one of your communities. I will be there listening to you again, talking to you, working with you as we develop a common agenda in taking your priorities forward.

The theme this year… “Fostering traditional practices for a safe environment” is fitting in the context of the challenges presently facing our country. This theme emphasizes the key role which cultural assets, including indigenous knowledge, traditions and customs, and lifestyles, can play in ensuring a safe environment. Indeed, as we confront the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, indigenous traditional practices will form a key part of the arsenal of measures intended to stem the virus’s spread.
While there are many threats still to be tackled in your villages as in many other parts of Guyana, the foremost threat at this moment is that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in this regard, I assure you that your government remains resolute in ensuring the safety of indigenous communities, not just at an individual level but the issues of food security. We will be announcing measures very shortly that are aimed directly at every household in the hinterland to bring relief, to bring ease and to improve your living standards.

I have directed the Minister of Health to fast track hinterland interventions and measures and he has advised me that following sweeping consultations currently underway with Amerindian leaders, emergency measures will be announced shortly.

Amerindian Heritage Month 2020 also marks the return to comprehensive Amerindian development which was placed front and center by previous PPP/Civic Administrations.

Sadly, over the past five years, there was an unfortunate regression in your development which we shall immediately reverse. Not only will we reverse the backward steps imposed by the Coalition government, but we will unlock a new era of rapid transformation for the hinterland communities and our First Peoples.

And we will not wait for the COVID 19 Pandemic to subside. My Government will soon initiate a virtual consultation with the National Toshaos’ Council to chart the course of the delivery of our Manifesto promises.

Guyana’s First Peoples can be assured that under my administration, your economic and social empowerment will be non-political and non-negotiable:

As promised in our Manifesto:

• We will ensure greater participation by villages in government projects and increased representation of Amerindians on Government Boards;

• The Amerindian Act will be revised and strengthened importantly, in consultation with local leaders to reflect your evolving needs;

• Food production will be expanded, and food processing will be increased to bolster hinterland food security;

• Skills training relevant to the oil and gas sector will include Amerindians, and business facilitation mechanisms will be enacted to allow agriculture development in indigenous communities and to allow access to university and technical education and to tap into the opportunities created by the local content policy;

Our local content policy must be able to create opportunities for Amerindians. It must be able to take your development aspirations into consideration and it must be able to reflect your development needs, also.

• Amerindians can look forward to improvements in social services. Health facilities will be increased, upgraded and better equipped to provide enhanced and more accessible health care across the hinterlands.

• Indigenous children can look forward to a higher quality education, including through the use of Information Communication Technologies, the provision of more and better-trained teachers and the award of scholarships.

• Hinterland water infrastructure and the electrification programme we started, will be expanded through the use of alternative energy technologies such as Solar and Hydro power.

We know that land is central to indigenous peoples’ development. That is why previous PPP/C Administrations made Amerindian Lands Demarcation and Titling an absolute priority. The PPP/Civic Government wanted to ensure that indigenous peoples are not deprived of their rights to the lands which they occupy, utilize and to which they are entitled. And so, my administration will immediately restore the Land Project and establish a special mechanism to resolve land disputes.

The protection of Amerindian rights, the preservation of their culture and your political, economic and social empowerment will always be central pillars of the PPP/Civic Government policies. We will ensure that Amerindians are not left behind in the transformative developments, which will sweep our country into a modern future over the next few years. Amerindians, like every other ethnic group that make up our diverse society, are guaranteed equitable benefits from national development under my Administration.

That is why the benefits for your empowerment which were so heartlessly snatched away, will be restored:

• Community Development Plans (CDPs) will be reintroduced to ensure that you are able to determine the sustainable livelihoods that you desire;

• We will rehire those 2,000 Community Service Officers (CSOs) who were dismissed by the Coalition Government, and we will restore the School Grants which were taken away.

• We will return to our 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.

During our campaign, we listened to you, as we did in all communities across the length and breadth of our country.

You told us what you want for infrastructure and we listened to you.

You told us what you want for education and we listened to you.

You told us what you want for economic livelihoods and we will deliver bigger and better than we did before.

You told us what you want to make life easier, to reduce the cost of transportation. Yes, we listened. We heard and you are going to see concrete steps in successive budgets to address these needs. You also would have mentioned to us the renumeration for Toshaos and Leaders. We listened and it is also part of our agenda going forward.

You called for the establishment of a permanent well-staffed, well-equipped and fully supported Secretariat building. Yes, we heard you and we are committed to this.

The firearms of your farmers and leaders will be returned, as will your dignity and respect.

You will benefit from a special budgetary allocation for housing and home improvements, and government at every level will function with the inclusion of qualified and talented Amerindians, as we have already done in the 12th Parliament.

My brothers and sisters of the hinterland and riverain communities, though this Heritage Month finds us under the crushing burden of the COVID 19 Pandemic with tremendous and regrettable loss of life among us, it also comes on the brink of our social and economic transformation as a nation.

My Government takes its obligation to ensure that the benefits to be derived from our new-found oil and gas resources in the coming years, are equitably distributed among all of our peoples, with no policy to take away and deprive Amerindians of their rights to these resources.

We value your contributions. We honour your heritage and sacrifices, and we will do everything in our power to help you realize your dreams and aspirations.

This historic year of the preservation of our cherished democracy, offers renewed hope for all of us, hope of a better quality of life and a more secured future for all; a more integrated Guyana, for the environment, for each other and together, we charter the way forward for a safer, mor secure Guyana in which all of us can proudly be a part of and can say the development of our country is linked to the development of our communities.

Thank you very much. God bless you. Stay safe and remember to adhere to the protocols and guidelines of the COVID-19 Task Force.