President David Granger: Thank you for that kind introduction. Madam Chairperson; Honourable Sydney Allicock; Vice President and Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Honourable Valerie Garrido-Lowe; Minister within the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Honourable Dawn Hastings; Minister within the Ministry of Communities; Members of the National Assembly; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; I recognise the Head of the United Nations Development Programme here, Ms. [Mikiko] Tanaka, welcome.
Regional Chairman, Mr. Devanand Ramdatt; Regional Executive Officer, Mr. [Rupert] Hopkinson; Members of the RDC; Members of the NTC and of course, first and foremost, Mr. Joel Fredricks himself, the singing pastor, the singing Chairman; Members of the National Toshaos Council – and I’m glad to see Toshao Shuman has given work to the tailors in her community; Members of the Mainstay/Whyaka Village committee; special invitees; Members of the Guyana Defence Force Guard of Honour, thank you for your excellent performance; Members of the media; visitors.
I am happy to be here and I am honoured to [have been] invited to address you this afternoon at the Mainstay/Whyaka. I was happy to learn of the history of this village and anytime I see a Fredricks or a Pearson I know I will be speaking to a historical person, that is in future. But it’s good to be here; we did have a pleasant night, we came in from Mabaruma and, rather than go to Georgetown, we decided to spend the night at this very pleasant resort.
I’m glad that the Toshao gave us permission to be here and to join in the celebrations today and, of course; I would like to congratulate the Toshao himself on his election as Chairman of the NTC.
Mainstay/Whyaka is part of the huge Lokono community, the largest indigenous community in Guyana, and this community itself occupies 33 square kilometres and, as you know, it is a very vibrant community. The indigenous people themselves are over ten per cent of our population and they control about fourteen per cent of our territory; but that territory is spread all over the ten regions of Guyana from Arau in the west to Orealla in the east; from the Aruka in the north to Aishalton and Achiwuib and Masakenari in the south.
It is a very complex community made [up] of nine different nations as we’ve have heard today. We have the Arecuna, the Arawak, and the Akawaio; we have the Wapishana and the Wai-Wais and the Warrau. We have the Makushi and all nine nations come together to form this huge indigenous community comprising ten per cent of our population. So, we are very happy that despite differences and diversity, we are one nation, we are one State with one Constitution and we have one future – that future together.
Today, this year we celebrate our 50th anniversary of independence, but for all those fifty years we have been plagued with a threat to our territorial integrity by what is now the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. For fifty years we have had to bear the burden of having our western neighbours threaten us, scare off investors, send gunboats into our waters and obstruct our development.
So, this is not a problem for the Arecuna alone in the western Essequibo or for the Akawaio or for the Arawak. It is not a problem from the Lokono; it is a problem for all Guyana. It is a problem for the Guyana Defence Force, not the Lokono defence force; it is our problem and we have to stick together.
We have a common future and we must see ourselves as being more united, not less united. We have to combine our energies to resist the aggression that we’ve faced and in a few days’ time I will be going to the United Nations where I hope to meet the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, to implore, to beg him, to ask him to ensure that this territorial dispute, which has obstructed our development for fifty years, is taken to a juridical settlement so that our children from now on would not have to face this burden but will be able to live lives which are free of the threat of external aggression. That is my mission when I go out to the United Nations in a few days’ time.
My brothers and sisters, today we celebrate not only Indigenous Peoples Day – Heritage Day, but we also celebrate the system of government that we have enjoyed; and I am glad to see here the Chairman of the Regional Democratic Council. I’m glad to see here Vice-President Sydney Allicock; Ministers Dawn Hastings-Williams and Valerie Garrido-Lowe. They represent the regional administration and the central government but right here in Whyaka we also have another form of government- the village administration, a municipal administration.
So when we speak of government, we don’t only speak about the central government, we also speak about the regional government; we also speak about municipal government and these three forms of government have to work together. We cannot be apart, we have to work together to improve the condition of all of our people. We meet today under the motto, Our culture, Earth’s Future, and you know when we speak of earth – I want to remind you of a saying right here on the continent of South America. I don’t know if this saying is included in other people’s cultures, but it is said: when God made the earth, he told human beings, “Take what you want, but pay for it.” Take what you want, but pay for it.
So, when we speak about the earth’s future, we can cut down all the trees we want but we will pay. We can throw the Styrofoam in all our creeks and rivers, but we will pay. We could take all the gold out of the earth and the diamonds, leave big holes, breeding mosquitoes, but we will pay. So, when we speak of this motto, ‘Our culture, our future – Earth’s Future’, we must remember that we are speaking of ourselves. Culture doesn’t drop from the sky. It is what we do and what we believe. Our future is a reflection of what we do today.
We are happily placed on a portion of this globe called the Guiana Shield. It is a blessed place. I told the Biodiversity Congress a few weeks ago that the Guiana Shield is the second Garden of Eden. We are the lungs of the earth; there is no other place like the Guiana Shield with so much fresh water, with so much pristine jungle.
The beautiful flora and fauna and, of course, beautiful people; and we have to protect the Guiana Shield to the west of us, we have Venezuela and Columbia, to the east of us we have Suriname and Cayenne; to the south of us we have Brazil but we are in the middle of the Guiana Shield. We are the heart of the Guiana Shield and you are right that we are the earth’s future. If we foul up the Guiana Shield, if we foul up Guyana, we will foul up the lungs of the earth, we will foul up the fresh water of the earth.
So, central to our existence, central to our government’s policies, central to Whyaka/Mainstay is that ‘green’ economy and if we are not careful with our economy, we are going to pay a price. We were warned and we must now fulfil our obligation to this great mission.
So as we celebrate our heritage, we have to keep our eyes on the future. As we celebrate tradition, we have to think of transformation and today is particularly happy for all of us because we celebrate the life and the labours of our visionary, Lokono – Steven Campbell.
My brothers and sisters, a few days ago I was in New Amsterdam, Berbice and I reminded the students of the Berbice High School, the other BHS, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school establishment, of a saying by Dean Inge; and Dean Inge said: “The proper time to influence the character of a child is a hundred years ago”. The proper time to influence the character of a child is a hundred years ago and that is why tradition is so important; because when you see a child you see his or her parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and if the parents were wild and reckless, if the grandparents were irresponsible, you will see the behaviour reflected in that child’s behaviour.
So we, too, have an obligation to our children – that if the children are to be productive citizens, we their parents and grandparents have to make sure that we plan for their education, plan for their upbringing, plan for their welfare. And again let me remind you of another proverb coming from another continent, the Fante proverb, and that proverb says: “You educate a man, you educate an individual, you educate a woman you educate a nation.”
And I say this because I am particularly concerned about the education of our girl children who will become mothers and if they are not allowed access to the best education. They will not be able to transmit those values to their children and their grandchildren. I know men well, I am a man myself, but women will transmit those values because they are the mothers who will make sure that their children are properly educated.
So, my brothers and sisters, today we face in Guyana the challenge, not only of continuity, doing what our forefathers did, but we face the challenge of change. Change is continuous and constant; we can’t stop change and we mustn’t pretend that change is of no consequence. I remember being a young man on the Cuyuni River and I saw a Carib man with nothing more than an axe and a cutlass building a house – not a single nail, not a single screw, not a single hinge.
He cut down the trees, he took off the Baramani bark, he cut the troolie for the roof and he alone, with no help – with one axe and one cutlass, built a home. Of course that was fifty years ago when I was young. But the axe has given way to the chainsaw and the saw has given way to the sawmill. So now it is not just one man with an axe; it is now one man with a sawmill cutting left right and centre.
Again, when some of us were young, somebody would go into the gold mines with a battel but now people are going in with dragger – dragger working day and night. People live on their dragger; it’s like a floating hotel. A dragger collapse in the river, children can’t go to school, the dragger block up the whole river. When we were young, people were paddling koreals as you can see in the dance to go to school but now people are rushing through the rivers with 250 horsepower Yamaha.
Just a few days ago, my wife had to go to the hospital to comfort the mother of two children who were killed in a riverine accident. These rivers are no longer for koreals and ballyhoos- change has taken place. So we have to be more careful.
Long ago, we were happy to eat some tasso, farine, cassava-bread; nowadays is hot dog, cold dog, hamburger, cheeseburger, all sorts of burger. Now-a-days we are happy with our chowmein and rice and the people who produce our farine and cassava bread find that life is very difficult. Change is taking place so we cannot pretend that we are in some sort of dream world where we can do the same things that we did fifty or sixty years ago and continue to get good results. We have to make choices and our lives are the totality of all the choices that we make because, when we speak of culture, we speak of human behaviour, we speak about attitudes, we speak of beliefs, we speak of customs, values, we speak of accumulated knowledge, we speak about costumes. But we also speak about a world view- how we ourselves do within this community, within this country, within this continent, within the Caribbean? How do we see ourselves? And sometimes there is a clash; there is a clash of cultures.
Those of you who were present at the interfaith service a few days ago would see that there is a clash of cultures in which a person made some remarks, which are remarkable only for his ignorance, but we have to make a choice and that choice must be between progress and prejudice.
We have to make a choice between integration and segregation and, once we make those choices, we have to work strenuously to ensure that our people all over the country receive the benefits of the development of this great country and this great continent. But comrades, ladies and gentlemen, residents of Mainstay/Whyaka, we must make sure that we know what the problems are because we can bring people who don’t know what the problems are and they prescribe solutions. It’s like going to a doctor; he doesn’t know what is wrong with you, but he gives you medicine.
You know, long time ago when I was a schoolboy my headmaster told me the story of a boy who was searching for a shilling; many of you don’t know what a shilling is but a shilling long ago was made out of real silver. It is a coin, twenty-four cents, and this man comes up to him and said, “What are you looking for?” A shilling! He was under a streetlight; he was looking for a shilling. He said, “Where did you lose it?” “Oh, I lost it in the bush,” he said, “Well, why aren’t you searching in the bush?” He said the bush was too dark, so he has come under the street light to search for his shilling. Well, he will never find the shilling. But he is leaving where the shilling is to go to another place but he’ll never be able to find that shilling.
I would, therefore, like to suggest to you, Mainstay/Whyaka, that we search for our problems where those problems exist. People are what they learn and if people ask themselves the wrong questions, they will get the wrong answers. The first thing that we need to ask ourselves is – Are we a community of equality? Equality is the basis of modern society. There must be equality under the law – equality of opportunity. Our Constitution guarantees equality; in fact I would say that Amerindians, indigenous people, are more equal than others because there are special clauses in our Constitution to preserve your language, to preserve your culture and to preserve your land. [Applause.]
But Constitutional guarantees, although they are necessary, they are not sufficient. We must do more if we are to erase inequality, if we are to eliminate poverty and if we are to eradicate the sort of prejudices we heard about. In so doing we have to protect our women, we have to protect our girl-children from abuse. We have to ensure that they are treated equally inside our communities and outside of our communities.
We must continue to do everything possible to ensure that children have equal access to public services, equal protection under the law so that they are not treated in a disadvantageous manner. So, let us keep in mind the paramountcy of that principle of equality and no Guyanese girl or woman should be exploited or abused. That is a collective responsibility of all of our communities and inequality is a problem because if people are not treated as equal, they are going to be exploited and exploitation is the greatest sin on earth. Exploitation of labour, exploitation of women and children, exploitation of minorities is a sin and we must make sure that we preserve that principle of equality.
The second thing I would like to remind you about, particularly in light of ensuring that there is equality in Guyana, is the importance of education. Education for young people in Guyana is mandatory, it is compulsory; parents can be punished for not sending their children to primary school. It is therefore essential that in everything we do, all of the plans we make, we ensure that children can get to school and get the best education. I am disturbed that four thousand of our boys and girls in this little country of Guyana, three quarters of a million people, four thousand boys and girls are dropping out of primary and secondary school without completing their education.
It is a travesty, it is a tragedy, it will lead to catastrophe if our children are not kept in school – if there is illiteracy and that education must take us way beyond the classroom. I’m glad there is a Toshao here from Karawab. Some of you don’t know where Karawab is, you will probably never go to Karawab but let me tell you something about Karawab. If you have a cell-phone and you want to communicate, you have to climb a coconut tree in Karawab; so I tell the people of Karawab when they buy a cell-phone tell the vendor to give you a coconut tree too because that is the only way you can communicate. But if we are speaking about education, we are speaking about information, communication and technology.
It means that the whole country must be able to communicate with one another; everybody must enjoy access to the information super-highway that is part of education. That’s part of the responsibility of government; that is part of the responsibility of the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs to make sure that all of our indigenous communities have a high and continuous level of interconnectivity.
Coming to Mainstay, the first question I asked – I didn’t even ask if they have a roof – I asked if they have WiFi because the President of the country cannot be out of touch; and every citizen will learn and I have committed myself as the years go by. I can’t do it all together, I have to bail out GuySuCo with the money, I have to bail out this, bail out that- fiber optic cable. But I would like to ensure that every person going into a public building, if that public building is a school or hospital and the airport, that there will be WiFi. [Applause.]
Every single public building in this country, particularly the schools, and it must start at the Cyril Potter College of Education because you can’t speak of One Laptop per Family unless you speak of One Laptop per Teacher. The teachers have to teach the children. [Applause.]
Thank you, teachers. So, my brothers and sisters, education is a principle and the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs know what I mean by that and that is one of the important administrative functions of that ministry.
The third point I would like to raise is the question of jobs. Employment is crucial to the family. Employment is essential to every single community and we must aim in Guyana at full employment – fulfilling occupations. There was a time when you saw an indigenous woman in the city or the town and, sadly to say, you could almost be certain that that person was a domestic. You go into the mines; that person is probably a diver. You go into other areas – that person is probably a hunter, a trapper producing wild meat for somebody else.
Those days are over. We want to see coming out of Mainstay/Whyaka: accountants, attorneys, doctors, architects, engineers, we want to see the highest possible levels of qualifications. I’m not saying anything is wrong in mining; you can be a mining engineer. There is nothing wrong with running a hotel or a restaurant but we want to see Indigenous people, African people, Indian people, Chinese, Portuguese in control of their economic lives and livelihoods but you can only get that employment if you have the education, if you have the managerial experience and the expertise.
So if you’re a school dropout; if you can’t even spell cat, if you can’t spell dog your employment opportunities will be limited and that is why education is so pivotal, so critical because you have to go to school first if you are to enjoy the benefits of full employment and we want to see more entrepreneurs in Guyana.
Yes, the forefathers and most of the migrants: the Africans, East Indians, Chinese and Portuguese came here as labourers to work for other people on the cotton and sugar plantations. The indigenous people had their own communities largely, in what we now call the hinterland but the people who get rich in the world are the people who make goods; the people who make things and sell them. The people who have to buy those things will always be at a disadvantage to the people who sell those things. So you may work like the devil on the sugar plantation but then you have to go to the shop to buy icing sugar or refined sugar.
You may produce all the bauxite you want but when you want aluminium you have to go to somebody else. You may produce all the timber you want but when you go in the bedroom is MDF, MDF that is what you have to confront. You will produce all the hymaras, hymaras you say coming from Karawab but when you go in the restaurant is sardine and sausage.
My brothers and sisters all the trees you have around you and you are sitting down on plastic chairs; for every plastic chair it means we are losing a job; for every sausage we eat it means we are losing a job; for every MDF table we write on we are losing a job. My brothers and sisters we have to get machines. We have started many programmes and I congratulate the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs for re-launching the Hinterland Employment Scheme for young people.
I congratulate the Ministry of Communities represented here by Minister Dawn Hastings for launching the programme for SLED- Sustainable Livelihood Programme for young people and it’s a joy to see the graduates of these programmes selling plantain chips; selling honey made in Guyana, bottled in Guyana. So we have resources and we have a generation of entrepreneurs; let us help them with the machines and the mills; let us help them too to embark on this ‘green’ economy.
On the 1st of October in a few days time, we will be celebrating National Tree Day not National Tree Planting Day but National Tree Day so plants up your communities and the logo for this year’s celebration will be the breadfruit tree. When I was at Bartica where I grew up and by the way the Barticians call that body of water there made by the Mazaruni, Cuyuni and the Essequibo River- a lake. So they are part of the lakes; they say so, not me. But I agree with them. But part of that economy, that ‘green’ economy, should be, to ensure that we generate energy in a sustainable manner and this is one of the problems, we are too dependent, we are addicted to gasoline, it’s like somebody addicted to drugs. Any time we think about light, we think about a generator but power is all around us.
My watch is a solar watch. The wind can generate power; the water can generate power so let us make use this year and for future years of the sources of generating electrical power. We have not done enough and many of the regions occupied by the indigenous people suffer first and they suffer most because these fossil fuels are much more expensive.
You go into Kamarang and ask them how much for a litre of gasoline and then you will see that gasoline is more expensive in Kamarang than it is on the coastland but we can’t continue living like that because many of our regions can only enjoy reliable communications by boats and engines and if we do not have those engines we will not be able to travel from place to place but when we get to our destinations we must make sure that energy generation; that the vehicles we use at Bartica, and at Lethem and Mahdia and Mabaruma and at Anna Regina are powered not with gasoline but with other forms of energy- with solar energy with battery energy.
And finally my brothers and sisters, we celebrate in Guyana our democracy and between 2015 and 2016 we were able to have not only General and Regional Elections but Local Government Elections. As I pointed out earlier, at the central government level there is democracy, at the Regional Democratic Council level there is democracy, at the neighbourhood level and at the village level we have democracy; the quality of life of all of us is determined by the quality of that democracy. [Applause.] If you elect a quack you will suffer from quackery. It is your responsibility to put people in office at the village level, at the NDC level at the regional level and at the central government level who care for you and who can fulfil your needs.
But what are those needs? Do not be like the boy who lost his shilling and went under the streetlight; be true to yourselves and ask yourself- what are the problems facing our communities? And let us work together to solve those problems at central, regional and municipal level.
Is there a problem with alcoholism? Are young people drinking too much? Let us solve the problem because they are destroying their lives by excessive alcohol consumption. Is there a problem with incest and rape in our communities in which older men are abusing underage girls? Let us solve the problem of incest and rape. I go the hospital, my wife goes to the hospital and a significant number of the underage mothers come from the hinterland.
Their bodies are not ready to deliver children but some abusive male, very frequently, has made that child pregnant and she’s not ready, she doesn’t understand what’s taking place and when you see her body, that child – the girl should be playing [games] not getting children.
There is trafficking in persons; we get reports from Suriname; we get reports from Venezuela; we get reports from inside of Guyana. It is a scourge. I have spoken to some of these girls who have been trafficked; they’re traumatised, they’re afraid to speak to anybody because of their experiences.
Is there a problem of disease? Sometimes you fly over the Potaro-Siparuni Region; you fly over the Cuyuni –Mazaruni Region; you fly over the Barima-Waini Region and you see these gaping holes in the ground looking like abscesses, looking like sores but they are mined out areas- huge pools of stagnant water.
You go in some rivers and you will see coconuts floating, plastic water bottles, Styrofoam, the result is that some of these stagnant pools and creeks become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. It is mosquitoes which bring malaria. It is mosquitoes which bring dengue and ‘bigfoot’; it’s mosquitoes which bring filaria. It is mosquitoes which bring zika and chikungunya. There is a public health problem and that is a problem that must not be ignored. These vector borne diseases are not acts of God; they are acts of human beings, careless, reckless human beings and we must pay attention to solving those problems, protecting our citizens and our residents from these vector borne diseases. It has started to happen, as soon as you look at that baby, you say, ah, ah, this is not Brazil. This is not Colombia and Costa Rica; this is Guyana. Let us not pretend that there is no problem.
My brothers and sisters, there is a problem. Today we celebrate our culture and our future but think particularly of our children’s future and our country’s future. I say hard things but that is why you elected me, to say hard things but I tell you that unless we make hard decision now your life will not be easy.
You know, in a previous incarnation when we went and exercise we will say train hard, fight easy. So, I encourage you now to think hard so that the lives of our children will be easy; with that in mind our government has committed to revising the Indigenous Peoples’ Act. So that we get a fairer Act after consultation with all of the indigenous communities of our country; there will be a new or revised or reformed Indigenous Peoples’ Act under this administration. Let us work together in all of our communities to bring to the table the changes which need to be made to reform that former Amerindian Act so that we can have an Indigenous Peoples’ Act that is supported by the government, supported by the regions, supported by the communities.
In this regard also, I have committed and we are recruiting people to serve on the Indigenous Lands Commission. One of the great contributions of Stephen Campbell; fifty years ago, just before he died when he went to London to participate in the ‘independence talks’, was to ensure that indigenous lands rights were protected and in 1966, under the then administration led by Forbes Burnham the Amerindian People’s Land Commission was established under Mr. Patrick Ford and that made the first ruling to ensure that the indigenous people were given the lands that they were entitled to. The work is still incomplete and our administration has committed itself to establishing the Lands Commission to ensure that there is equity in the distribution of these lands.
My brothers and sisters, it has been a good day and I hope you continue to have a good Indigenous Heritage Month but I urge you to look to your children and their future and to do everything possible to protect that future, to protect our children from abuse. But indigenous policy in Guyana does not exist in a vacuum; it is not like that boy looking for his shilling under the streetlight, it must go into the places where the problems exist, problems do not solve themselves, human beings at central, regional and neighbourhood level have to solve those problems.
Desperate diseases require desperate remedies so this is the time to convert our promises into performance and to transform our potential into prosperity.
My brothers and sisters, once again I’m happy and honoured to be here. I would like to commit our government to ensuring that there is a good life for all of us, for all of you, for all of the two hundred and twelve indigenous communities in Guyana.
I wish you a happy Heritage Month.
May God bless you!
May God bless your children!
And may God bless Guyana!