Over 400 Akawaio and Arecuna men and women met for a land conference on February 28 – March 2, in the village of Phillipai on the Kukui River in Guyana. The gathering proved to be the largest such meeting in recent times, and focused on land rights for indigenous communities across the Upper Mazaruni, deep in Guyana’s forested interior. Communities in the Upper Mazaruni have been fighting for their lands for decades, including through the courts. Six communities filed a lawsuit in 1998 seeking to secure title to their whole territory; that case is still pending, and a ruling is expected this year.
The Upper Mazaruni land rights case is important because for the most part Guyana has not recognized the full territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Instead, it has titled communities village-by-village, leaving large swathes of traditional indigenous territories open to incursions by mining and logging interests. With a new government in office since 2015, it is hoped that Guyana will reverse this policy, leading to recognition and protection of traditional indigenous lands throughout the country. Change is indeed afoot, with the government committing publicly to revise the Amerindian Act, the main piece of legislation relating to indigenous rights in Guyana. In addition to advancing human rights, this could have tremendous implications for forest protection. Guyana remains 85% forested, and indigenous peoples play a critical role in maintaining that forest cover.
The land conference in Phillipai served to kick off participatory research on land tenure in communities throughout the region. This research seeks to inform Guyana’s land titling process, and maps created should help resolve pending issues. RF-US is collaborating on these activities with the Amerindian Peoples Association, the Forest Peoples Programme, and local representative organizations, with support from the Norwegian Agency on Development Cooperation (Norad).