• 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 2020: 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.

The Amerindians are grouped into nine Indigenous Nations, based on language. The Warao, the Arawak and the Carib (Karinya) live on the coast. The Wapichan, the Arekuna, the Makushi, the Wai Wai, the Patamona and the Akawaio live in villages scattered throughout the interior. Amerindians constitute the majority of the population of the interior, in some regions accounting for as much as 86% of the population. The forest resources/timber on government-titled Indigenous lands (Amerindian Village Lands) are fully under the managerial authority of the Amerindian title holders, while minerals under the same lands remain ultimately under national government authority. The poorly regulated exploitation of these resources by multinationals, illegal miners and loggers is one of the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples. Their primary concern is therefore to achieve full recognition of Indigenous land rights so they can defend their ancestral territories from this exploitation.

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 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 and Guyana endorsed the UNDRIP in 2007. Guyana is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Legislative developments

The main concerns of the Indigenous Peoples (Amerindians) in Guyana continue to be associated with insecurity of resource tenure.3 In spite of external funding, the ministries and agencies made almost no progress in resolving claims or issuing full land titles in 2019.4 The pre-election promise in 2015 to revise the defective Amerindian Act (2006) received even less attention in 2019 than in 2018.

The legal uncertainty of the legitimacy of the government in 2019 has encouraged the representative coastlander-based Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) to become more vociferous5 about maintaining cheap and easy access to mining licences over much of the hinterland of Guyana, where Amerindian titled and customary lands are located, in the run-up to national elections scheduled for March 2020. The resistance of the GGDMA to enforcement of the environmental Mining Regulations (2005) makes Amerindian communities continually vulnerable to the environmental and social degradations associated with primitive artisanal hydraulic mining for gold. A joint Amerindian Peoples Association (NGO, also known as the Association of Padawong Amuk)/Forest Peoples Programme/Rainforest Foundation USA (APA/FPP/RF-US) publication on tenure in Region 7 again showed the gulf in understanding between coastlander government and hinterland communities about the need for and procedures about land tenure.6

Uncertain legitimacy of government in 2019

A Party of National Unity + Alliance for Change (political parties, APNU+AFC) coalition government was defeated in a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly (parliament) in December 2018. The incumbent government refused to comply with the constitutional requirement to hold a national election within 90 days and was not inclined to heed the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice that the no-confidence vote was valid. In spite of acting as if it had full authority, the legitimacy of the APNU+AFC coalition during 2019 was legally only that of a caretaker. The coalition government finally agreed to national elections in March 2020. Many legal processes and, indeed, the whole machinery of government have slowed down and become less publicly responsive in 2019.

Government support to Amerindian communities

The Minister responsible for Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MoIPA, Sydney Allicock) has not been successful in directing more effort to the needs of the Amerindian peoples. The Junior Minister for the MoIPA (Valerie Garrido-Lowe) has continued to promote the Hinterland Employment and Youth Service (HEYS) with vocational education and training and the provision of small-scale business start-up grants. A small number of development projects with Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund (donor fund from NICFI)/ Amerindian Development Fund (GRIF/ADF) finance have been supported in a few villages, based on the 25 Community Development Projects (CDPs) of the pre-2015 administration and continuing through the 50+ Village Improvement Plans (VIP, successor to and more comprehensive than the Community Development Project under GRIF/ADF) under the current government. A much larger number, 148 villages and communities, had completed their CDPs (phase 1 of the ADF project) by early 2019, resulting in 194 full-time and 387 new part-time jobs.7 It is difficult to differentiate ADF projects from works supported by the national budget, such as through the discretionary Presidential Grants, including water pipes, local electricity, buildings for schools and health posts. As usual, the leaked report at the end of 2019 from the Auditor General for 2018 noted accounting problems in MoIPA.8 Declining water levels in wells in southern and south-central Guyana because of longer and fiercer dry seasons have begun to be alleviated by more than 15 new wells 100-200m deep, drilled by a Brazilian army team working with GWI.9

Status of national and international development and climate projects

Closure of Norwegian-funded GRIF projects but some extensions The coalition government closed the previous administration’s Low Carbon Development Strategy immediately after the May 2015 election. There was no public announcement about the halting of the projects for Amerindian communities funded by the Norwegian International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI) through the GRIF. However, some projects have continued, perhaps intermittently, using the considerable unspent funds; it is difficult to be sure because of the inconsistency of government reporting and the failure to update the GRIF project web pages. It is unclear which projects have been funded wholly or partly by Norway because the 2019 national budget statement mentions neither Norway nor REDD+.

Since 2010, there have been several attempts to start and sustain development projects in Amerindian communities. Many of these have under-performed because of intermittent financial support and a lack of managerial training. During 2019, a small number of village-specific projects made better progress with more continuous government assistance and accumulated internal capability.10

Support for the International Year of Indigenous Languages resulted in a dictionary of the Patamona language and a children’s illustrated alphabet with 22 letters in Arekuna.11

The above-mentioned projects seem to have been more thoroughly planned than those of previous years but, quantitatively, government support is still tiny for an Amerindian population of 71,000.12

National Toshaos Council (NTC)

The annual gathering of Amerindian elected village leaders (“toshaos”) and senior councillors of Amerindian communities not (yet)  titled as villages is now organised by the NTC, a body prescribed by the Amerindian Act (2006) rather than by MoIPA. Although statutory, the NTC Secretariat relies on external donor funding through the World Bank-coordinated Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s readiness plan. This funding expired in December but covered the 2018-9 cost of rent for the NTC’s secretariat building, some support staff, equipment and consumables.13, 14 Unlike in previous years, the NTC tried to consolidate requests for 2020 budgets by themes, so that invited government ministers did not sit through repeated requests from toshaos for the same kinds of capital and operational funds.15 As usual, toshaos protested that government support was not adequate to deal with rising domestic violence, addiction to narcotic drugs and alcohol, poor housing, low education and poor policing.

Insecurity of resource tenure – the GRIF/ALT process

The messy and legally unnecessary two-stage land titling process initiated by the pre-2015 PPP government was further complicated by an administrative instruction from MoPIA in 2019 stating that requests for extension of Amerindian Village Land Title areas would be considered only if the applicants had completed their Village Improvement Plans to the satisfaction of the Ministry.16 This instruction further delayed progress, already slowed by administrative apathy in the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC), which is largely responsible for the technical aspects of the land titling process (boundary survey and demarcation), but also and more significantly by unexplained delays in Cabinet-level approval.17

The GRIF-financed Amerindian Land Titling (ALT) project commenced in October 2013 with a budget of US$ 10.7 million. ALT was intended to finish the titling of all outstanding land claims, including extensions. The project funded three staff in MoIPA and was administered by a further team in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The project document estimated dealing with 68 villages and communities eligible under the Amerindian Act (2006). It is unclear why titling remained incomplete over 2015-918 but it seems likely that the above-mentioned opposition of the GGDMA is one factor. At least one Minister claimed in the National Assembly that Amerindians already had too much land and were “avaricious”.19 The ALT project expired in 2016 and was extended for two years. An application was made in April 2019 for a further 5-year extension, and a 3-year period (2019-2021) has been agreed.20

At least one  workshop  on  the  grievance  mechanism  and  other components of the ALT project (developed in 2017) was held, in the Deep South of the Rupununi, the base of the current chairman of the NTC, in November 2019.21

No action still seems to have been taken in 2019 on the report of the independent mid-term review by Carlos Camacho-Nassar (December 2016) of the Amerindian Land Titling project. This report pointed out that the narrowly technical approach adopted by UNDP failed to take into account the political and social nature of land tenure, and failed to ensure an adequate communications system such that common misconceptions among Amerindian villages and communities, miners, loggers and government agencies continued to impede and derail the tenurial confirmation process. The report noted that UNDP’s administration of the project had failed to comply with UNDP’s own rules for communication and consultations and Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). The report focused on UNDP and MoIPA actions and inactions.22 Apart from the issues mentioned in the report, there are legal or operational deficiencies in government sub-ministerial agencies, which include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowing miners and loggers to operate without environmental impact assessments or environmental permits in spite of the conspicuous environmental damage caused by such activities, contrary to the Environmental Protection Act 1996, section 11 and schedule 4;
  • GLSC failing to draft correct boundary descriptions and map drawings for title documents, to train Amerindian land surveyors, coordinate with Amerindian authorities before undertaking demarcations, understand how to demarcate Amerindian lands with variable toponyms, have an objective system for dealing with overlapping land claims, have a system for dealing with river-defined boundaries when rivers change their course;
  • GLSC insisting on boundary demarcation when the State Lands Regulations (1974) explicitly excuses demarcations where boundaries are natural topographic features;
  • Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) issuing and renewing mining concessions over Amerindian lands even when formal land claims by Amerindians are being processed;
  • GGMC ignoring the Amerindians’ “quiet enjoyment” clause 111 in the Mining Act 1989 when issuing mining concessions;
  • Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) unilaterally constraining Amerindian rights in the 2009 revision of the Forests Act (Article 5 (2)
  • (e), compared with the greater acknowledgement of rights in Article 37 of the Forests Act 1953); and
  • GFC ignoring its own rule to avoid issuing State Forest Exploratory Permits over “any area that is occupied, claimed or used by Amerindians”; section 4 of Appendix 1 to the Manual of Procedures for State Forest Exploratory Permits, April

Some, but not all, of these problems are taken up in the several reports prepared jointly by the APA and FPP on land security and resource tenure in Guyana.23

Furthermore, in spite of the well-known problems resulting from poorly drafted or antiquated legislation, including the Amerindian Act (2006), State Lands Regulations (1974), Mining Act (1989), Environmental Protection Act (1996) and Forests Act (2009), it is not clear why the ALT project was developed or approved for Norwegian funding in advance of revision of the legislation and in spite of protests from civil society regarding the draft project document.

Continuation of the independent Land Tenure Assessment project The third study on land tenure assessment  was carried out in Region 7 during 2017-2019 in more than 20 villages and communities, including the six which have been challenging in the High Court since 1998 over the government refusal to provide a titled Amerindian District which would be more  ecologically  sustainable  and  socially/culturally appropriate than titles to individual villages. The government’s own surveyor, P. Storer Peberdy, recommended such Amerindian Districts in his 1948 report after years of extensive travels in the hinterland.25 The third study was carried out by the APA/FPP/RF-US with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (UK-DFID) and also NICFI, perhaps in recognition of the failure of the NICFI-financed GRIFALT project. “Our land, our life: a participatory assessment of the land tenure situation of Indigenous Peoples in Guyana, Region 7” provided a short history on Amerindian use and occupation, an account of efforts to secure government-recognised tenure, and a detailed report on each village. The 2019 study of 235 pages provides much more local-level information and opinion than ever before published, including the often unsuccessful efforts to obtain documents from government agencies.

Launch of the Tenure Facility project

Another tenure assessment exercise,26 with a project life of two years, was launched by APA and South Rupununi Development Council (SRDC, local government council) in July 2019 with multi-stakeholder finance from the Swedish-based International Land and Forest Tenure Facility under the Rights and Resources Initiative (funds from Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDCA), Ford Foundation and Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad)). The project will cover 27 villages and communities in the South Rupununi and provide a better basis for titling and demarcation over two million hectares. If achieved, the goals, objectives and actions specified for this project would substantially overcome the current hiatus in Amerindian land titling and tenure security.

Revision of the Amerindian Act (2006)

The defects of the Amerindian Act in respect of Indigenous resource tenure have been repeatedly reported. Sadly, there was no significant progress towards reform in 2019 despite government promises.


The stagnation in government action in 2019 was correlated with its doubtful legitimacy. External technical and financial support to civil society enabled some Amerindian hinterland areas to move forward in preparation for a new phase of Indigenous land security. However, the opposition of the politically well-connected gold miners was also entrenched. Although comprising 9% cent of the population in 2012, and probably a higher proportion in 2020, Amerindians show no sign of setting aside their inter-family and inter-village rivalries in the greater interest of forming a politically significant force or lobby, using their numbers to hold the balance of power. The creation, by an Arawak leader (Lennox Shuman), of a new political party in 2018 to challenge for the presidency seems to have stimulated little interest among Amerindians generally, as those already aligned with the People’s National Congress (PNC, political party traditionally associated with African Guyanese) or the People’s Progressive Party (PPP, political party traditionally associated with East Indian Guyanese) have stayed with those parties.

Moving forward on land tenure claims in 2020 looks like a continued uphill struggle for Amerindians, against uninterested coastlanders and the main political parties, the opposition of the land administration agencies, poorly drafted legislation, and ignorant judiciary and attorneys.


Notes and references

  1. 2012 Census, Compendium 2 at: https://statisticsguyana.gov.gy/wp-content/ uploads/2019/11/Final_2012_Census_Compendium2.pdf
  2. See Constitution of Guyana, Preamble, 1:01, p.26 at: https://www.oas.org/ juridico/spanish/mesicic2_guy_constitution.pdf
  3. Percival, Thandeka “Unity urged as toshaos confab begins”. Stabroek News, 8 October 2019: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/10/08/news/guyana/unity- urged-as-toshaos-confab-begins/
  4. “Govt’s policy has been to reverse Amerindian land rights – PPP”. Guyana Times, 7 October 2019: https://guyanatimesgy.com/govts-policy-has-been-to- reverse-amerindian-land-rights-ppp/
  5. “Miners demand ‘serious representation’ from political parties to earn their votes”. Kaieteur News Online, 16 December 2019: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2019/12/16/miners-demand-serious-representation- from-political-parties-to-earn-their-votes/
  6. Forest Peoples Programme Report on Indigenous Land Tenure in Guyana “Our Land, Our Life”. September 2019, accessible at: https://www.forestpeoples.org/ en/node/50479
  7. “Phase two of low carbon plan completed by 148 hinterland communities”. Stabroek News, 20 March 2019: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/03/20/ news/guyana/phase-two-of-low-carbon-plan-completed-by-148-hinterland- communities/
  8. “Gov’t failed to account for over $800M spent in 2018”. Stabroek News, 5 January 2020: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/01/05/news/guyana/ govt-failed-to-account-for-over-800m-spent-in-2018/
  9. “Water body presses for more collaboration with hinterland village councils”. Stabroek News, 13 August 2019: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/08/13/ news/guyana/water-body-presses-for-more-collaboration-with-hinterland- village-councils/
  10. Limitations on space do not allow us to detail those advances
  11. “Rivers View Toshao Kenneth Edwards receives Patamona Dictionary and Arekuna Alphabet”. Guyana’s Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, 29 October 2019: https://moipa.gov.gy/rivers-view-toshao-kenneth-edwards-receives- patamona-dictionary-and-arekuna-alphabet/
  12. Guyana World Population review, accessed January 2020: http://com/countries/guyana-population/
  13. The Minister of Natural Resources Co-Operative Republic of Guyana. “Minister Trotman meets with South Rupununi Development Council and National Toshaos Council ahead of National Toshaos Conference 2019”. 4 October 2019: https://nre.gov.gy/2019/10/04/press-release-minister-trotman-meets-with- south-rupununi-development-council-and-national-toshaos-council-ahead- of-national-toshaos-conference-2019/
  14. “Indigenous chiefs meet for annual conference”. News Room, 7 October 2019: https://newsroom.gy/2019/10/07/indigenous-chiefs-meet-for-annual- conference/
  15. Cit. (3)
  16. Guyana Times, 7 October 2019, accessed through: https://issuu.com/gytimes/ docs/guyana_times_wednesday_october_7 2019..
  17. Camacho-Nassar, Carlos. “Mid-Term Evaluation of the Amerindian Land Titling Project in Guyana”. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2014: https://www.latinamerica.undp.org/content/ rblac/en/home/library/democratic_governance/mid-term-evaluation-of-the- amerindian-land-titling-project-in-gu.html
  18. cit. (4)
  19. “Minister rejects toshaos’ call for apology over ‘avarice’ remark”. Stabroek News, 26 August 2017: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2017/08/26/news/guyana/ minister-rejects-toshaos-call-for-apology-over-avarice-remark/
  20. “Amerindian Land Titling project extended to 2021”. Kaieteur News Online, 19 July 2019: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2019/07/19/amerindian-land- titling-project-extended-to-2021/
  21. “Successful workshops conclude with Deep South Rupununi Villages – Indigenous Land Issues on the front burner”. Kaieteur News Online, 10 November 2019: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2019/11/10/successful- workshops-conclude-with-deep-south-rupununi-villages-indigenous-land- issues-on-the-front-burner/
  22. Op.Cit. (17)
  23. Forest Peoples Programme – Resources, list of Accessed 14 February 2020: https://www.forestpeoples.org/ resources?Publications[0]=partner%3A50044&Publications[1]=language%3Aen
  24. Cit (6)
  25. Peberdy, Storer (1948) Report of a survey on Amerindian affairs in the remote interior: with additional notes on coastland population groups of Amerindian origin. Colonial Development & Welfare Scheme number D.246. London, UK; Colonial Office. Pages 53 with further appendices and maps.
  26. “APA embarks on two-year land titling project”. Starbroek News, 18 August 2019: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/08/18/news/guyana/apa-embarks-on- two-year-land-titling-project/


Janette Bulkan is an Associate 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 conducts 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.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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

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