President David Granger: Thank you and pleased be seated. Thank you for that kind, overgenerous introduction, Ms. Dorick. Chairperson, Mr. Ovid Williams, I wish you could hear his CV, very interesting. Honourable Moses Nagamootoo, Prime Minister and First Vice President and Mrs. Sita Nagamootoo; Vice President Sydney Allicock, Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs; Ministers of the Government; Members of the National Assembly; members of the Diplomatic Corps; heads of the indigenous organisations; TAAMOG, APA, and LADF; Toshao, Chairman of the National Toshaos Council, Mr. Joel Fredericks – and I do look forward to coming to Mainstay next week; Toshaos; distinguished invitees; members of the media; ladies and gentlemen; Guyanese:
I am happy to be here this evening to see the displays of culture, like I was here last evening – and it is true that the motto or the theme of this month “Our Culture, Earth, Future” – and certainly I think we are all happy to be able to witness the culture that we saw this evening and last evening from the young indigenous girls and boys.
This is a month of celebration and I’d like to begin by wishing you a happy Indigenous Peoples’ Month, Indigenous Heritage Month. It is a celebration of the breadth and the wealth of Guyana’s indigenous cultures. It is a month to savour our diversity. It is a month to take action to preserve this rich culture, to protect, to promote and to preserve the customs and traditions of our Indigenous peoples – the Akawaio, the Arawak, the Arecuna, the Carib, the Makushi, the Patamona, the Wai-Wai, the Wapishana and the Warrau.
Our Constitution says that ”Indigenous peoples shall have the right (not may) to the protection, preservation and promulgation of their languages, cultural heritage and way of life.”
That is a right and we saw this evening a demonstration of that right and, every year in September, on the first of September, we renew our commitment to ensure that that right is not diminished in any way. Indigenous communities are the repositories of the cultural heritage of our first peoples. The protection, preservation and propagation of values and traditions and the way of life of Guyana’s indigenous peoples, therefore, must take place within those villages, within those communities.
Ladies and gentlemen, the cultural heritage of our indigenous communities, unfortunately, is under threat. The slow pace of economic growth threatens communities.
Limited economic opportunities over the past two decades have caused some distress and even some migration. Communities have lost some of their human capital and if you went to neighbouring towns in Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname you would see many Guyanese of indigenous origin in those places, usually in search of employment.
Social problems have increased. We know that educational standards in the hinterland communities lag behind those of the coastland. Vector-borne diseases take a toll on human health. Environmental degradation caused by reckless mining and logging affects the hinterland more than any other part of the country. Rivers have been polluted. The infrastructure – aerodromes, bridges, roads and stellings – is inadequate.
In some cases there has been alcoholism, abuse of minors, trafficking in persons and, as a result, the quality of life in some places in the hinterland has deteriorated. But our indigenous people are the custodians of the patrimony of our hinterland. It is they who protect our natural assets through their intimate relationship with nature and through sustainable agriculture, fishing, forestry, hunting and mining.
The customs of our indigenous peoples, passed down through centuries, can be preserved and protected only if we have cohesive communities, free from the threat of social decay and economic decline. The indigenous cultural landscape is complex. As you’ve heard, indigenous culture is not monolithic. The indigenous community in Guyana is not monolithic. To start with, it consists of nine indigenous nations speaking different languages.
Indigenous peoples constitute over 10 per cent of our population and they control over 14 per cent of our national territory, over 30,000 square kilometres.
Ladies and gentlemen, indigenous communities generally are remote and distant from the main population centres. They consist mainly of small settlements, many of which are scattered or isolated and accessible only by air transport, by foot or by river. The management of scores of these communities as you’ve heard, over 212 such communities – that management is compounded by the complexity of development issues.
Indigenous communities, therefore, need very strong structures of government but because of the small numbers of some communities and the large or great distances between them, it is often difficult to give them the quality of governance that they need and they deserve. These threats, however, if left unchecked, could hasten disintegration and hinder the ability of indigenous communities to propagate their values, their traditions and their way of life.
As you know, there are three principal structures which govern indigenous communities. First is the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, second is the National Toshaos’ Council and third, the Village Councils themselves.
The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, despite what the Toshaos were told by a certain opposition member the night before the NTC conference convened, is in charge; and it is malicious for anyone to tell the Toshaos that the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has no power and that indigenous affairs in this country are directed by Dr. David Hinds and Mr. Eric Phillips. It’s malicious and people who know better should not try to divide our communities with such arrant lies.
The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has work to do but its work is more complicated than the work of other ministries because it’s controlling populations scattered over 30,000 square kilometres, in over 200 communities in all ten regions. It is not easy.
Under the Act, the Ministry has to work with other ministries if it is to fulfil its mandate – its mandate to hinterland development, including matters such as hinterland electrification and resource management. Education, health, physical infrastructure, security responses have to be coordinated with the respective line ministries responsible for these sectors. This produces a more fractured and time-consuming process than is present in other ministries of the government because other ministries can focus their attention on more densely settled communities on the coastland and elsewhere, but the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has a much more difficult task, a task complicated by the needs for transportation and communication.
Secondly, we have the National Toshaos’ Council which was established under Section 38 of the Indigenous Peoples’ Act or the Amerindian Peoples Act, whichever you choose to call it. The functions of the NTC are prescribed under Article 41, and they include the promotion of good governance in indigenous villages; preparing strategies for poverty reduction; and improved access to health care and the provision of sustainable management of village lands and natural resources. But the NTC meets only once a year and we’ve just come to the end of one such meeting.
Possibly, some of its decisions and deliberations could be unnoticed and decisions could be unimplemented if there is no mechanism to pay attention to them. The NTC is now in the process of requesting the establishment of a permanent secretariat, and I promised to take this matter to Cabinet and I’m very confident that Cabinet will not hesitate to approve a grant of land for the establishment of that secretariat. It is what Mr. Allicock would call an investment (that’s a Cabinet joke) – it’s an investment. So we want to see a strengthened National Toshaos Council but this council must be reinforced with the expertise to plan and to maintain constant communication with these 212 villages.
At the third level we have the village councils, and the village councils could be guided by Toshaos, but very frequently they do not possess the organisational structures or the managerial expertise or the financial resources to effectively discharge their functions. Their budgets are small and they are reliant on subventions from central government.
So we have three levels of administration: at the Ministry, at the Council and at the Village. The question is whether as presently constituted, these three levels of governance in the indigenous communities are adequate to cover these complex issues over such a great distance.
No administrative or organisational apparatus or architecture has ever been created to assist these principal organs to administer indigenous peoples’ affairs. This is unlike the coastland where any village knows that it belongs to a Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) and every NDC knows that it belongs to a Regional Democratic Council (RDC). These councils operate every day, continuously, and the Ministry of Communities is in touch with these councils on a continuous basis. Up to today we were in touch with the Georgetown City Council.
We need, therefore, ladies and gentlemen, some administrative agency which would ensure that decisions which are made by the NTC and decisions which are made by the National Assembly through the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs are in fact implemented and that is what I want to speak to you about.
Yes, culture is important but culture will be under threat unless we have the apparatus and the mechanism to ensure that those communities are prosperous. If they are weak and vulnerable, culture will suffer.
So we are proposing once again, an administrative agency, within the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, to ensure that decisions which are taken by the NTC are in fact implemented right down to the village council, right down to the individual farmer or hunter or miner.
Implementation is the muscle of progress and intentions will remain mere words without implementation. Governance structures are needed to address the problems which keep our indigenous communities unequal to those in other parts of the country.
It is for this reason that I proposed the establishment of a National Indigenous Peoples’ Authority (NIPA) to the National Toshaos Conference. The NIPA will have the human resources, will have the administrative apparatus, will have the financial clout to ensure that decisions are in fact implemented.
They will be supported by a planning unit within the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs so that, even before the financial year starts, plans could be designed to ensure that the communities are given the resources they need to develop.
So ladies and gentlemen, these government structures are important for strengthening the administration of indigenous peoples’ affairs in Guyana and, if we are to ensure that the culture of indigenous people is protected, is preserved, and propagated in accordance with that constitutional injunction, we have to create the mechanism for so doing.
So this is basically what I mean to say – that we are aware of the differences between the communities more or less west of the Essequibo and those east of the Essequibo. Of course there are indigenous communities all the way to the Corentyne River at Orealla and Siparuta and all the way to the well-known Cuyuni, at Arau and Paruima and Kaikan; but we need to build the structures. Speaking about them, talking about them, singing about them is no longer enough. No village, no community must be left behind.
So your government is calling for the establishment of a strong implementation mechanism to support the work of the ministry and the council; and we are confident that this administrative apparatus will yield a cultural dividend, as we saw this evening. It will provide us with the environment that is conducive to protecting indigenous culture.
The proposed NIPA will strengthen the ministry and the council. So I need not go further. I await the findings of the National Toshaos Council and I await the advice of the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs which will be given to Cabinet, so that we can progress into financial year 2017 to make sure that there is a firmer basis on which the indigenous economies could be established and be allowed to develop.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first day of the month of September, a month committed to the memory of Stephen Campbell, who in many respects was the pioneer of legislation to protect indigenous peoples’ land rights and the first indigenous lands commission was established in the year of independence, fifty years ago – 1966. Unfortunately Stephen Campbell did not live to see that commission at work but we remember him and his service. We remember the service of indigenous peoples in all of the communities in all nine nations.
We are aware there are threats to the culture of indigenous peoples; and we feel that, in order to sustain those cultures and values and traditions and conventions on which we all depend and which we all admire, we need to build a stronger structure of governance.
With these words I would like to commend and congratulate the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs for this launch. I’d like to thank all of the artistes who performed and I’d like to ask that when the celebrations are over, we put in place a form of government that would ensure that the people of Guyana, regardless of where they live or their ethnic origin, will all enjoy a good quality of life.
I thank you and may God bless you all.

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