More than 100 people from 15 indigenous Wapichan communities gathered together last week in the village of Shulinab, Guyana, to celebrate joining The Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights — a worldwide campaign launched on March 2 in support of Indigenous Peoples and community land rights.
The Global Call to Action encourages governments around the world to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ rights to the lands they have held in practice for generations; at the event, Elder Elizabeth Andre urged the government of Guyana to recognize the entire Wapichan territory. “We want all our lands titled together,” she said. “We do not want divisions and gaps. We want our lands whole. My mother is very elderly. I want her to see our territory legally recognized so she may die peacefully, knowing that our people and our future generations are secure on our collective land. We look to our new government to take action now. We have waited long enough.”
The Wapichan villages have sought full legal recognition of their ancestral territory since before Guyana declared independence in 1966. In 1967, Wapichan leaders submitted a petition for collective legal title over their entire territory to the Amerindian Lands Commission. Fifty years later, they only have formal legal rights to about 15 percent of their lands, and much of their territory remains vulnerable to land-grabbing, destructive logging, and illegal mining.
Paulinus Albert, a Toshao (village leader), said that “By joining this global campaign for indigenous and community land rights our villages aim to raise the national and global profile of our long struggle for this Wapichan territory. We want the whole of Guyana and the world to know how much we love our land and how we need it fully secured for our present and future generations to come.”
The gathering included cultural activities, including dances and a film screening, as well as discussions about the community’s ongoing struggle to secure their lands. Participants also viewed aerial images taken by community-owned drones which reveal the deforestation caused by mining in the Marudi area. People from the southern villages rang new alarm bells about the encroachment of Brazilian gold miners on the pristine forest areas around Blue Mountain, a sacred site for the Wapichan people.
The Wapichan have ramped up their efforts to secure their rights in recent years, mapping their territories with GPS and satellite imagery and developing detailed plans to care for them. Their planned community forest of 1.4 million hectares would be one of the largest in the world; they also plan to ban industrial development and to sustainably use and manage their natural resources. In recognition of these efforts, Wapichan representatives received the Equator Prize at the Paris conference on climate change.
After so many years, the Wapichan are hopeful that the government may finally be ready to listen to their calls. They applauded the President of Guyana’s pledge to hold discussions between the government and Wapichan representative organizations to determine the steps needed to legally secure their collective territory. Gavin Winter, great grandson of the late Henry Winter who submitted the Wapichan land claim in 1967, said, “In the year of the 50th Anniversary of Guyana’s independence, our villages want the land issue settled once and for all. We welcome the President’s commitment to start talks with the Wapichan people on measures to settle our land issue. We are seeking a fair, open and effective settlement process that will fully recognize our collective land rights.”
Preliminary meetings with the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MIPA) are expected in the coming weeks, and formal talks could begin by May. The villages are also asking that the Norwegian-funded Amerindian Land Titling (ALT) Project implemented by the UN Development Programme to adopt participatory and rights-based approaches to advance land rights in compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“We stand ready for the talks and we will continue to push for land rights justice for our people,” said Nicholas Fredericks, Toshao of Shulinab Village. He urged the UN and Norway to ensure that their land titling project was in line with Wapichan rights as established by the Constitution and international treaties. “There is a genuine opportunity now with the land talks planned and the ALT project to set best practice for securing Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories in Guyana and other countries.”
Read more about the event here.