19 February 1997

Little progress in the recognition and demarcation of Indigenous lands in Guyana

The Government of Guyana recently approved its budget for 1997. Included therein is 50 million Guyana Dollars (approximately 365,000 US Dollars) for the demaraction of titled Indigenous territory. This amount may be sufficent to demarcate 2 or 3 titled areas, assuming that non-essential overhead costs are minimized. The World Bank has offered a further US200,000 for demarcation and is prepared to make aditional financing available. However, the Government of Guyana has failed to respond to the offer, raising serious questions about their willingness to legally recognize and demarcate Amerindian lands.

Land titling began in Guyana with the passage of the 1977 Amerindian Act. Certain communities that did not receive titles in 1977, received recognition in a 1991 Amendment, particularly the Akawaio of the Upper Mazaruni region whose land was slated for a hydroelectric project at that time. The 1991 Amendments came during Guyanas last general election. 1997 is also a general election year and Government rhetoric about Amerindian rights is increasing. The Government views Amerindians, who comprise about 8% of the population, as an important voting block with the potential to influence the outcome.

Meanwhile, a substantial number of communities remain without titles to their ancestral territories and many more complain that the titles that they do have are inadequate. The latter state that titled areas do not include all of their ancestral lands and do not correspond to their traditional territory. Once contiguous Amerindian territories have been divided up by the Government so that they are now intersected with so-called 'State-owned' land. Coupled with Government claims to sole ownership of subsurface minerals, this has faciliatated the entrance of multinational mining and logging companies and small-scale miners from the coast and Brazil.

The Government states that it does not give mining or logging concessions in Amerindian areas, but evidence on the ground indicates otherwise. Moreover, the vast majority of Amerindian territories have yet to be physically demarcated creating widespread confusion as to the precise boundaries of Amerindian areas. Conflicts, occasionally violent, between communities and miners have resulted.

The entrance of small-scale miners, especially from Brazil, into Amerindian areas has resulted in a virtual epidemic of malaria and a predictable list of negative social effects. Alcoholism, prostitution, drug use and violence are on the increase. Amerindians are also increasingly participating in the mining industry, most often as low paid labourers, with the most dangerous jobs. This has also had negative impacts on community life, especially for Amerindian women who are forced to fend for themselves in the absence of men. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a 1985 decision involving the Yanomami in Brazil stated that Governments have affirmative legal obligations to take preventative measures to counteract the impact of small-scale mining on Indigenous peoples.

The presence of multinational mining and logging companies is also extremely troubling. These companies are granted concessions without the knowledge, let alone the participation of affected communities. There is no mechanism for incorporating Amerindian participation in land use decisions in Guyana and the Government appears content to routinely ignore Amerindians in the granting of concessions, even when titled Amerindian land is involved.

Two mining companies, Golden Star Resources and Broken Hill Property Co. recently entered into a deal with the Malaysian, Barama Timber Company to prospect for gold and diamonds in Barama's timber concession. Presumably one will cut timber while the other explores or mines for minerals.

The OMAI mine disaster, which dumped up to 3 million cubic litres of cyanide- and heavy metal-laced wastes into the Essequibo river is a frightening reminder of the consequences of uncontrolled industrial mining. As the events, both preceding and following the OMAI disaster indicate, the Guyana Government is either incapable or unwilling to adequately monitor the activities of industrial mining operations. The same can also be said for logging operations, which go virtually unregulated. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are presently co-financing an Environmental Protection Agency and draft legislation on the environment has been submitted, but concrete results have yet to be seen and the Government is attempting to open up more of the country for resource exploitation.

Amerindian cultural integrity, survival and future development are inseprably related to their lands. 75 percent of Amerindians in Guyana are subsistence farmers and hunters; therefore, their physical survival is also related to the productive capacity of their land, the existence of habitat for game animals and water quality sufficient to support fish which is a primary source of protein. The continuing failure to fully guarantee Amerindian land rights, including the full demarcation of the boundaries thereof, and the failure to monitor and control the activities and environmental and social effects of mining and logging operations, poses a severe threat to the well-being, human rights and continued survival of Amerindian peoples in Guyana.

For further information please contact:

Forest Peoples Programme
1c, Fosseway Business Centre
Straford Road
GL56 9NQ
Ph. 44.1608.652.893

Forest Peoples Programme / World Rainforest Movement (UK Office) 1c Fosseway Business Center, Stratford Road, Moreton in Marsh, GL56 9NQ, UK Tel: 44 (0)i608 652893 Fax: 44 (0) 1608 652878 Email:

The World Rainforest Movement's International Secretariat is at: Casilla de Correo 1539, Montevideo, Uruguay Tel: 598 2 496192 Fax: 598 2 419222 Email: