• Indigenous peoples in Guyana

    Indigenous peoples in Guyana

    Indigenous peoples – or Amerindians as they are identified both collectively and in legislation – number some 78,500 in the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, or approximately 10.5% of the total population of 746,955 (2012 census). They are the fourth largest ethnic group, East Indians being the largest, (40%), followed by African Guyanese (29%) and self-identified “Mixed” (20%). As a former British colony, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America.

Indigenous World 2019: Guyana

Indigenous peoples – or Amerindians as they are identified both collectively and in legislation – number some 78,500 in the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, or approximately 10.5% of the total population of 746,955 (2012 census).1 They are the fourth largest ethnic group, East Indians being the largest, (40%), followed by African Guyanese (29%) and self-identified “Mixed” (20%). The Chinese, Portuguese and Whites constitute tiny minorities. Amerindians refer to these non-indigenous people as “coastlanders” since most of them are settled on the coast in Regions 3, 4 and 6. As a former British colony, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America.

The Amerindians are grouped into nine Indigenous Nations, based on language. The Warao, the Arawak and the Carib (Karinya) live on the coast (mainly in Regions 1 and 2). The Wapichan, the Arekuna, the Makushi, the Wai Wai, the Patamona and the Akawaio live in villages scattered throughout the interior (mainly Regions 7, 8 and 9). Amerindians constitute the majority of the population of the interior, in Region 1 (18,000) where they represent 65% of the residents, and in Region 9 (20,000) where they constitute 86%. The natural resources of these regions – rainforests and minerals, including bauxite, gold and diamonds – are legally under the control of national government agencies or are within titled Amerindian Village Lands. The poorly regulated exploitation of these resources by multinationals as well as by illegal miners and loggers is one of the challenges faced by the indigenous peoples. Their primary concern is therefore to achieve full recognition of indigenous land rights (Native Title) so that they can defend their ancestral territories (customary lands) from mining and timber companies.

The land tenure situation of Amerindian communities is their major perennial concern. The Independence Agreement from the United Kingdom (1965) included a land titling process. Recommendations regarding this process from the Amerindian Lands Commission (1967-1969) have never been fully taken up by successive governments. Requests made for collective district titles have been dismissed, resulting in the fragmentation of traditional territories into small areas under individual village titles. The process has also been a protracted one, and many communities are still without title.

The Constitution of Guyana in its Preamble recognises “the special place in our nation of the indigenous peoples” and recognises “their right as citizens to land and security and to their promulgation of policies for their communities”.2 There is a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MoIPA – formerly the Ministry of Amerindians’ Affairs MoAA); and Guyana endorsed the UNDRIP in 2007. Guyana is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

The land titling process made little progress in 2018. By far the year’s most positive development for Amerindians was the government’s Hinterland  Employment  and  Youth Services programme (HEYS). Most other news was of election promises from 2015 still unfulfilled, indeed not even started.

Amerindian communal land rights

The coalition of APNU (A Partnership for National Unity) and the AFC (Alliance for Change), which won the national elections in 2015, has reduced its efforts to resolve the perennial arguments over land rights. The Amerindian Land Titling project (ALT, USD 10.5 million),3 a Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) project funded by Norway under a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), was intended to complete the formal land titling promised to Amerindians under the 1965 Independence Agreement. Communal land titling had stalled under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government.4 Ninety-seven (97) Amerindian Villages had paper titles by 2009, or approximately two-thirds of the eligible communities with at least 250 inhabitants during the five years preceding the titling process. The government has provided inconsistent figures for land titling since 2009.

Contrary to the simple procedure specified in the State Lands Act of 1972 and subsidiary Regulations of 1974, the PPP complicated the hinterland titling process in 2010 by dividing it into two stages, without legislative backing, and requiring a hitherto unnecessary physical demarcation of boundaries,5 to be undertaken only by accredited surveyors. There being no accredited Amerindian land surveyors, the survey crews were Chinese and coastlanders, who often disagreed with the Amerindian communities over boundary locations. Completion of land titling thus became a fraught and uncertain process. Without any publicity, the incoming coalition government closed the ALT unit in mid2015, so no Amerindian titles were issued or extended between 20162018.6 The UNDP recruited a new international adviser in September 2018 and a new phase may be agreed for hinterland land titling to restart in 2019.

The High Court case of the Akawaio and Arekuna Amerindian villages 

Under the 1951 version of the Amerindian Act, some indigenous areas were defined as districts. The villages of Paruima, Waramadong, Kamarang (Warawatta), Kako, Jawalla and Phillipai in the Upper Mazaruni have long sought a collective legal title as one Akawaio/Arekuna district.7 After more than two decades of government prevarication, the seven villages finally took their case to the High Court in 1998; however, there have been repeated postponements since, including in 2018. Several other groups of Amerindian villages have likewise requested collective rather than individual communal titles, as this would allow them to follow their traditional ecological practices of semi-nomadic rotational agriculture that prevents the exhaustion of soil fertility, as well as to defend their customary territory against the imposition of mining licences by coastlanders. It is unclear why the seven villages do not use other channels to press their case forward, nor why other Amerindian nations, such as the Wapichan in the southern Rupununi, do not support the Mazaruni villages as the same arguments apply to much of Amerindian customary land in Guyana.

Overlap of property interests impedes Amerindian land titling

Since the 1972 State Lands Act, granting of absolute title over Amerindian customary lands has depended on whether other parties hold mining or logging licences, which are expressions of property and which take precedence according to the law in Guyana.8 Maps acquired and compiled by the Forest Peoples Programme9 show large areas of Amerindian customary lands covered by adjacent (wall-to-wall) blocks of mining concessions. These concessions are cheap to acquire and to hold as “evergreen” licenses.10

As these concessions are handed out so freely by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), the mining blocks present a severe obstacle to Amerindian communities trying to secure title to their customary lands. One recent example is the struggle between the community of Batavia, which received Amerindian communal title in 2018, and gold miner Rickey Ramnarine, who had held two mining blocks since 2002 but had not worked them previously.11 Another example is in the South Rupununi sub-region, where the long-running dispute between the  Wapichan  Amerindian  communities  and  the  Canadian-owned Romanex Guyana Exploration Company continued in 2018. The dispute concerns access to gold in the Marudi Mountain concession, which was allocated to Romanex. Among the various disagreements, the environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) submitted by Romanex did not include consultations with the affected Wapichan communities, while Romanex has in turn complained that a mediated settlement with Amerindian miners working on the Romanex concession was broken by the indigenous miners.12

Neither the PPP nor the coalition government has been willing to place a moratorium on mining concessions while the Amerindian land titling process is being finalised. In addition, in 2017-2018, the coalition government declared townships overlapping some Amerindian customary lands, without any attempt to implement the UNDRIP-style free, prior and informed consent which successive governments have undertaken to conduct.13

Revision of the Amerindian Act 2006

The revision of the Amerindian Act addressed half of the recommendations made by indigenous communities in 2003 but disregarded their concerns over land insecurity.14 In 2018, the coalition government claimed it had started consultations on the revision, as promised by the 2015 election manifesto. However, that consultation seems to have been confined to one sub-district inhabited mainly by Arawak (Lokono) Amerindians, and there is no published schedule for broader consultations.15

Addressing Amerindian unemployment

After the May 2015 elections, which saw the PPP lose power, the new coalition government scrapped the PPP’s Youth Entrepreneurship and Apprentice Programme (YEAP). This programme targeted young unemployed Amerindians recruited by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, providing 198 of them with training to gain basic computer skills and technical skills regarding the installation of solar panels.16  The youths were also to serve as Community Support Officers. The intention was to recruit three or more young people in more than 169 communities and to pay them G$ 25-35,000 (US$ 125-175) per month to assist the elected Amerindian Village Councils (AVCs) or community councils (CCs) to manage village affairs.17 Training and supervision were minimal, and only families supportive of the PPP were allegedly contacted, with the scheme widely derided as vote-buying.18 The high level (40%) of formal unemployment is a consequence of the low quality of schooling, itself caused by the poor quality of housing for teachers and the poor prospects of promotion for teachers in hinterland locations. Youths leaving secondary school often do not have the academic grades even for entry-level positions in formal employment in the private sector or with government agencies. Men seeking income and adventure therefore tend to work as manual labourers in the dangerous artisanal hydraulic mining for gold, often without formal contracts or assured pay, while women may enter equally precarious domestic service in urban areas.19 The Hinterland Employment Youth Service (HEYS)20 is the coalition government’s response to the youth unemployment rate in the interior and riverain areas of Guyana. Over the 2015-8 period, it has been under the responsibility of Junior Minister Valerie Garrido-Lowe of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MoIPA).21 The HEYS scheme stems from President Granger’s promise to the National Toshaos Council (NTC) in 201522 to train Amerindian youths from the hinterland (Regions 1, 7, 8 and 9). HEYS has no ties to political parties and its objectives are to improve the Amerindian youths’ standard of living and thereby contribute positively to the development of their communities.23 From 2016 to 2018, cohort 1 of HEYS trained 752 youths with six months of classroom remedial teaching and six months of business development. The intake of cohort 2 almost doubled to 1,302 youths. HEYS recruited more youths per village but with fewer villages covered by the available budget. HEYS pays G$ 30,000 (US$ 140) per month per person for the 12 months of training but then allocates a lump sum of up to G$ 50,000 (US$ 250) as a business starter grant. The MoIPA claims that 869 small and micro-businesses have been started in the four target regions. Another 300 sprang up in the other six administrative regions during 2018,24 from the budget of more than USD 4 million. Some HEYS graduates have pooled their starter grants and are running multi-person enterprises. HEYS also provides post-course monitoring and mentoring of the start-up companies. In total, in the budget statement for 2019, the Ministry of Finance claimed that 2,054 small businesses had emerged, 1,300 of them by 1,965 trainees in 2018 alone.25 HEYS aims to recruit from 215 Amerindian villages and communities but it is uncertain whether the allocated budgets will allow such expansion.

Amerindian business contracts

If continued, the HEYS programme may help to address the complaint that Amerindian business contractors almost invariably fail to gain government contracts compared to (non-indigenous) “coastlander” companies. They complain not only about bias in the selection of contractors but about the poor quality of construction work delivered by “coastlander” contractors in the hinterland.26

In parallel to the HEYS programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has provided a loan of US$ 7.9 million and a grant of US$ 0.5 million for the Hinterland Environmentally Sustainable Agricultural Development project (HESAD), to which the Government of Guyana has added US$ 2.4 million and beneficiaries are expected to contribute US$ 0.3 million. HESAD aims to benefit 30,000 people in the hinterland, most of whom will be Amerindians, in 4,500 poor households, 30% youth and 50% women.27 Progress on this project seems slow, with only US$ 0.5 million from IFAD and US$ 0.2 million from Guyana budgeted for 2018.28

Amerindian Development Fund (ADF) with cash from Norway

The ADF provides cash from Norway to support Amerindian development planned at the village and community levels. The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has stimulated 10-year village improvement projects (VIPs),29 38 of which had been completed by the end of 2018 with a budget of more than US$ 1 million.30

Allegations of broken promises to Amerindians

By mid-July 2018, the National Toshaos Council (NTC) was protesting that five promises made during pre-election campaigning had not been implemented: the establishment of a Lands Commission; full recognition of Amerindian land rights; revision of the defective Amerindian Act of 2006; constitutional reform; and award of a plot of urban land to build a permanent home for the NTC.31 At the annual NTC conference, President Granger denied breaking any promises and instead urged the Amerindian leaders to focus on community development.32

Reports in the independent press indicate that the coalition government is following the preceding 23 years of PPP government by largely ignoring the Amerindian population except during election time. Discontent in this regard led to the launch of the new Liberty and Justice Party in January 2019, which will not be exclusively Amerindian but claims to represent Amerindian issues in ways that are not obvious in the two main parties.33

Notes and references

  1. 2012 Census, Compendium 2 at http://bit.ly/2TphLwE
  2. See Constitution of Guyana, Preamble, Cap.1:01, p.26 at http://bit.ly/2TkiKxZ
  3. See Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund, “Amerindian Land Titling” at: http://bit.ly/2Tp3FLo
  4. The PPP has been the ruling party on several occasions, most recently between 1992 and 2015 (ed.)
  5. See Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), version 3, Appendix V: Status of Amerindian lands, the Process for Amerindian Lands, May 2010, pages 118-119 at http://bit.ly/2ThsMjo
  6. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2SMvCwr and Stabroeknews at: http://bit.ly/2SIQNQ8
  7. George, Laura and Oda Almås. 2014. “Amerindian lands and resources in the Upper Mazaruni under siege. Key ” In APA, FPP. 2014 Indigenous peoples’ rights, forests and climate policies in Guyana. UK: Forest Peoples Programme.
  8. Mining concessions are issued by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and logging concessions by the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC). Both Commissions have some minor procedural requirements for identification and assessment of prior Amerindian claims and rights but generally pay no attention to the implementation of their own procedures. See Mining Act 1989, section 111, the “quiet enjoyment” clause at http://bit.ly/2TaC8hu ; GFC applications procedure for SFEPs 1999, appendix 1-4, section 4; Forests Act 2009, section 5 (2).
  9. Griffiths, Tom and Jean La Rose. 2014. “Searching for justice and land security: Land rights, indigenous peoples and governance of tenure in Guyana” in APA, 2014, op. cit.
  10. Walrond, W., Heesterman, L.J.L., Goolsarran, J., 2015. Guyana Geology and Mines Commission Management and Systems Review. Inception Report. (Mines Division, Land Management Division, Geological Services Division). Georgetown, Guyana.
  11. See Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2STq7vU
  12. See Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2SNiNSJ and http://bit.ly/2SLgJuv
  13. See Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2SMvU6v
  14. See Land of six peoples at http://bit.ly/2SODZrt and http://bit.ly/2SLrHjA
  15. See DPI Guyana, “Consultation for revision of Amerindian Act 2006 begins” at http://bit.ly/2TioOa5
  16. Ministry of Finance budget speech for 2014, para 110, at http://bit.ly/2Tjx4Xj
  17. Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2Tip5tD
  18. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2STroDc
  19. Information from field interviews and focus groups in 2013 and 2017; see also Pierre, Laureen Adele, “The Role of Training in the Development of Amerindian Communities in Guyana: A Qualitative Case Study” (2016). Doctoral dissertations. At http://bit.ly/2SISb5i and http://bit.ly/2SN3zwY
  20. See MoIPA at http://bit.ly/2SR0s7a
  21. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2SNkG1v
  22. All elected leaders of AVCs and CCs are automatically members of the
  23. See MOIPA at http://bit.ly/2SR0s7a
  24. See Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2SGtcQb
  25. Ministry of Finance, “Budget 2019 Speech” at https://finance.gov.gy/?p=6335
  26. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2SGtWEX
  27. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2SRvuf6
  28. See Ministry of Finance at http://bit.ly/2SLqOYl (PDF)
  29. See MOIPA at http://bit.ly/2SM1Qb7
  30. See Ministry of Finance at http://bit.ly/2SLqOYl (PDF)
  31. See Guyana Times at http://bit.ly/2SLt5mi
  32. See Kaieteurnewsonline at http://bit.ly/2SRvE6c
  33. See Stabroeknews at http://bit.ly/2SU0Zpb

Janette Bulkan is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia, Canada. She was previously Coordinator of the Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana (1985 to 2000) and Senior Social Scientist at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, Guyana (2000 to 2003). Janette carries out long-term collaborative research with indigenous peoples and local communities in Guyana. Her research interests are forest governance, indigenous natural resource management systems, forest concession systems and third-party forest certification systems. 

John Palmer is a senior associate in tropical and international forestry with the Forest Management Trust, an ENGO based in Montana, USA. His experience of Guyana dates back to 1974, including UK-funded consultancies on forest finance and Iwokrama in the 1990s, and studies from 2006 onwards on the history and many illegalities in the forest and mining sectors. Guyana also figures in his current work on certification standards for quality of forest management.

Jerry Maedel is a GIS Analyst focusing on Indigenous People’s mapping issues. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Faculty of Forestry, UBC.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand