Rodrigues defends Amerindian Bill against salvoes from groups

By Faizool Deo

AMERINDIAN Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodrigues is refuting the claim by three Amerindian groups that the 2005 Amerindian Bill does not meet the needs of Amerindians in the country.

On the contrary, the minister feels the bill has come a far way from the Amerindian Act of 1951, and once implemented, will give Amerindians much more than they ever had.

At a press conference Tuesday at the Side Walk Café on Middle Street, Georgetown, members of the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG) and the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP) voiced their concerns about the Bill, which they dubbed ‘unacceptable’.

They charged that discrimination against the indigenous peoples remains entrenched and manifested in the bill, and their rights to lands, resources and to self determination are neither adequately recognised nor protected.

At a post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, Ms Rodrigues indicated that the bill is not a product of the government, but rather comprises recommendations of the Amerindian people, who were an integral part in the consultation period prior to the formulation of the legislation.

“Forty-six of the 76 recommendations which were made at the consultations we took into consideration,” she said. “One of the recommendations that we took is that the communities could lease land; before they could not. We were advised by the international consultant not to do that, but we did it still.”

The minister said that unlike other countries, Guyana is making it very easy for Amerindian people to acquire land, and the bill stipulates that Amerindians can make claims for lands after occupying them for 25 years.

The groups of Amerindians looking for changes to the bill argue that it gives the minister too much power.

They are quoted as saying in their documentation presented to the media on Tuesday that, in the bill, the minister is vested with “arbitrary and draconian powers” that are incompatible with indigenous peoples’ self determining status and the exercise and enjoyment of other rights and fundamental freedoms.

But Rodrigues said her ministry will only be called in to address situations that could not be dealt with at other levels.

“Every day in the ministry captains come to us with problems which they can resolve by themselves, and we will say to them you can do that by yourselves you do not need us. But there are cases when the council would come to us to make a decision, but this is always a last resort.”

Another issue she put to rest is that of the presumed procrastination on her ministry’s part in implementing the Indigenous Peoples Commission, which is to represent the Amerindian people.

She said her ministry would be happy for the commission to be put in place, but several factors are preventing this from happening.

But there is another grouse that worries the three Amerindian groups.

“What Guyana has done is to include in our national laws some international laws, so we have at least seven international covenants which have been included in our national laws. The Amerindian Act should be compatible with the laws. We are saying at present that it is not. So if it’s passed as it now reads, then we can challenge it in court, because it will be in contravention of the Constitution,” APA representative David James contended.

Rodrigues remarked that even if all the demands of the Amerindian groups opposing the bill are met, she still feels that they will go to court.

But she assured the indigenous people that the bill, once implemented, will enhance the well-being of the nation’s Amerindian population.