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Date: Tue, 31 Aug 1999 23:34:34 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: RIGHTS-GUYANA: Amerindians March For Land
Article: 74404
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.7256.19990901091612@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** reg.carib: 261.0 **/
** Topic: IPS: RIGHTS-GUYANA: Amerindians March For Land **
** Written 9:08 PM Aug 30, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:reg.carib **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Amerindians March For Land

By Bert Wilkinson, IPS, 30 August 1999

GEORGETOWN, Aug 30 (IPS) - They will cross huge mountains, defy snake-infested jungle swamps and swim across rivers all in the name of making a point to the Guyana government.

Come early October, 10,000 Amerindians- about a fifth of their number- from all of the country's nine tribes will embark on a 1,000-kilometre march from Guyana's southernmost tip to Georgetown in a show of disgust at the way authorities have been dealing with the distribution of land to them.

The historic march, by a group, traditionally considered docile, will begin at Akutho in the heart of a village inhabited by a tribe called the Wai Wais, move 300 kms to the main southwest town of Lethem and through dense jungle to the capital, all the way picking up members of other tribes.

The procession that is expected to involve women, children and even the infirm riding in bush trucks, will last at least a month with large groups of experienced hunters going ahead to ensure a ready supply of food for those on the journey.

The issue is what organisers call a deliberate plan by the governing People's Progressive Party (PPP) and previous administrations to delay implementing recommendations that would give the country's 55,000 Amerindians about 40,000 sq kms of titled lands.

There are great precedents for this. We all know that our ancestors crossed great land masses from Mongolia in Central Asia to North, Central and South America. They crossed the Pacific Ocean, the largest, to many lands around the world, so this march should not be anything to us, says Colin Klautky of the Guyana Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP).

Our ancestors have done this before and now it is our turn, he adds.

The government last year sent in a team using all kinds of fancy equipment and came up with land areas that are smaller than what we had. They should settle the issue once and for all, says Christine Lowe, an Amerindian school teacher and rights activist.

The issue has been festering for several years. At the close of the 1960s, a British land rights commission had recommended that Amerindians, comprising six percent of the country's population be granted titles to an estimated 40,000 sq kms of land. Guyana's total land area is 215,000 sq kms.

It all started from a petition carried to Queen Elizabeth in 1965 by late Amerindian activist Stephen Campbell as preparations were being made for Guyana's independence from Britain in 1966.

A commission was later established and handed in its recommendations to the then Forbes Burnham government. One of the main recommendations - the award of large areas of land to these indigenous people - has never been fully adhered to by any administration..

Signs of trouble in the indigenous communities over the rights issue flared up in late 1968 when a group, calling for a separate homeland, attacked government buildings, killing seven policemen and controlling the main town of Lethem for several days.

Guyana Defence Force soldiers, using commercial aircraft, eventually put down the rebellion, arrested a few ringleaders and restored order. Many of those who participated settled in neighbouring Brazilian towns, but many have also been returning in recent years, attempting to reclaim their lands.

As an indication of how serious they have become, a group from the western Upper Mazaruni District last year took the administration to court with the aim of settling the issue.

In doing this, they have taken heart from victories from other indigenous groups in New Zealand and Australia where some governments have been both forced to pay financial compensation and to revert ancestral lands to tribes.

Now the court action is being bolstered by an unprecedented march on the capital and planners say they are confident it will win widespread sympathy.

In the last two years, government officials have been photographed handing out titles to land to several communities. Even in this, leaders say, the awards have been below expectations and in some cases, traditional hunting grounds have been handed out to foreign mining and timber companies.

Klautky says authorities are also reluctant to grant titles to communities that are mixed, meaning those in which tribe members have married people from other races.

They had better solve this question or the situation could get out of hand, he says.

So far about 10,000 sq kms of land have been doled out to just under 50 percent of communities entitled to awards.

Organisers say they are also using the march as a means of bringing together and uniting members from all nine tribes to ensure they get what he calls a fair piece of the pie as we are the pre-Colombian people.

There is also a grouse regarding new villages, meaning those which have relocated in recent years. Activists argue that these have to be recognised as well, given the traditional nomadic nature of Amerindians.

And while planners are careful to distance themselves from a political agenda, several of their better known activists, have, in recent months, been mooting the idea of a distinct Amerindian party that could in fact hold the balance of power in the country, with at least six seats.