President David Granger: Chairperson, Toshao Lenox Shuman; Honourable Prime Minister, Moses Nagamootoo; Honourable Vice President, Sydney Allicock; Ministers of the Government; Members of the National Assembly (on both sides); Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Chairman of the National Toshaos Council (NTC), Toshao Fredricks; Toshaos; members of the NTC executive; distinguished guests; special invitees; members of the media; ladies and gentlemen.
As Toshao Shuman told you the United Nations General Assembly ten years ago on the 13th of September 2007, adopted the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. So we in Guyana, next month, will be observing the first decade of the declaration; the declaration recognises the right of Indigenous peoples to belong to the indigenous community. It is in their own community that Indigenous people would be better able to practise, preserve and promote their distinct way of life.
Guyana possesses perhaps more than 212 Indigenous villages and communities. These are widely dispersed across the country. They have a population of nearly 80,000 persons or 10% of the national population. The Indigenous peoples have rights to about 30,000 square kilometres or about 14% of our national territory. It is no easy task for so many communities over such a vast area, from Arau to Orealla, from Maruranau to Masakenari. Many communities are isolated, separated by long distances from the main administrative centres of their regions. Communication and transportation are difficult. This situation presents challenges to finding solutions to the myriad problems which confront the Indigenous communities in our country.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples therefore, would be a meaningless scrap of paper if the State did not take account of the quality of life within the Indigenous communities where our people live. The state must aim at improving the situation of the Indigenous people as members of the community, as citizens of this country.
The National Toshaos Council under the Amerindian Act is responsible for promoting good governance and I’m glad to see the words are part of the ambitious motto of this conference. The NTC is responsible for the preparation of plans and for improving the quality of life of the Indigenous peoples and their communities. The council must do so; the council must try continuously to improve the social and economic conditions of their people and their communities.
It was in an effort to propose solutions to the grave problems facing the communities that I proposed a Ten-point Plan of Action for Hinterland Development in my first address to this council on the 18th of August 2015.
It was in an effort to propose solutions to the problems facing the communities that I proposed the establishment of a five-member National Indigenous Peoples Authority (NIPA) to ensure faster implementation of decisions of the NPC and other agencies and I did so when I addressed this council on the 22nd of August last year. It is now the 21st of August this year. This is my third address.
Ladies and gentlemen, you will recall that the proposed National Indigenous Peoples Authority was aimed at ensuring that adequate administrative expertise and organisational structures were available to support improvements in the Indigenous peoples quality of life. That is what I called good governance. The Government of Guyana through the Ministry of the Indigenous Peoples Affairs and together with the National Toshaos Conference has an obligation to work together towards the improvement towards economic and social conditions of Indigenous peoples in several ways.
First of all, as the Vice President correctly said, is Education. We must work together to improve the standard of education in terms of the three A’s: Access, Attendance and Achievement, especially in the primary and secondary schools in our hinterland communities. Indigenous communities must not be left behind. I have personally visited Annai, Bartica, Kabakaburi, Kumaka, Kwakwani, Mabaruma, Whyaka, Mainstay and my wife, Sandra, has visited other communities to hand over boats, to hand over buses and bicycles. We’ve adopted the motto: ‘Every Child in School’ because we want to ensure that every child can get access, every child can attend and every child could get an opportunity to achieve. All of these areas you know are not on the coastland, they’re in the hinterland. They’re populated mostly by Indigenous people. Good governance must come first in the field of education. We are not satisfied, we are trying to get children in school and we want you to help us to achieve that objective.
Governance is also important in economic development. We have to work together to create jobs for young people where they live, in their communities. We have to reduce poverty and you have to eradicate unemployment. As the Vice President said, the Hinterland Employment Youth Service (HEYS) and as I know personally the Youth Entrepreneurship and Skills Training (YEST) programme have been working to help young people, particularly young people of Indigenous descent in hinterland areas to become self-employed. As you heard, communities in the Rupununi, in the Potaro-Siparuni and in the Barima-Waini are already embarking on agro-processing, they are adding value to their natural resources and farm produce.
The Government and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs will continue to promote small and medium scale industries within communities to provide work and to generate wealth to our women and our young people. There must be good governance in the environment. We must work together to reduce environmental hazards, especially water contamination and land degradation. We would like to protect our communities form the hazard of floods.
We know that swollen rivers recently inundated communities in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni, Potaro-Siparuni and the Rupununi regions. These regions are very susceptible to the El Nino cycle of drought and floods. We are working to provide year-round pure water supply for these communities, but we must also work together to prevent the pollution of our rivers. These rivers are used by our communities for cooking, for cleaning, for drinking and for washing. Pollution caused by reckless mining and logging threatens the lives and the livelihoods of our people and their communities.
And more important Toshaos, ladies and gentlemen, is good governance in the area of social protection. We have to take these social issues seriously. They cannot be swept under the carpet. We must work together to reduce the incidence of alcoholism, of incest, of murder, of people trafficking, of non-communicable diseases, of prostitution, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and suicide within certain communities. My wife told me of an experience when Prince Harry, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth came here last year. He was introduced to a girl with a little baby. So the Prince asked her, “’How old is the baby?’ It is six months, three days. And ‘How old are you?’ ‘I’m twelve’. There’s nothing to be proud there. She should be in school, not in the maternity ward.
Ladies and gentlemen one particular community, tragically, has had an average of seven suicides per year, every year over the last decade. One community alone has had an average, not a total, an average of seven suicides per year not a big community either, for the last decade. These are not matters which could be ignored; these are problems that have to be solved. Anti-social behaviour undermines the cultural fabric of communities and lowers everyone’s quality of life. We must work together also to protect our hinterland and border communities from the threat of transnational criminal syndicates. We cannot have a situation in any region where foreign aircraft land and deposit contraband substances and no one saw, no one heard; no one knows what went on.
We have to take responsibility for our security because these transnational characters do not wish us any good. They will destroy your households, they will destroy your families, they will destroy your communities and they’ll erode the entire concept of good governance that we are trying to uphold at this conference today. These criminal characters will bring violence and death; they will sucker our young people into criminality and inflict harm on our way of life.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Government of Guyana cannot ignore these everyday living conditions in our hinterland communities. The government will continue to work through the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs to solve the persistent problems of hinterland underdevelopment. This council too, the National Toshaos Council, must also be concerned about the economic and social problems … I said last year that the National Toshaos Conference is not a talk shop, it’s a workshop; it’s a forum for planning, it’s a forum for problem solving, it’s a platform for performance. It is a means to strengthen the administration, to advance the social and economic development of villages and to provide good governance throughout our country.
I therefore, urge the council to adopt the administrative measures needed to improve the quality of life of our communities. I assure the council of my administration and my ministry’s support to provide a good life to all of the Indigenous people of Guyana.
May God bless you. I thank you.