September 26, 2016

Land is wealth and power

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Reparations Committee (GRC) wishes to extend congratulations to the new Government in accelerating the land titling programme for Indigenous Guyanese. Under the auspices of UNDP, and using Norway Funds, this exercise is scheduled to be completed by October this year. It will be a welcome conclusion of the work championed by Stephen Campbell who visited the Queen just prior to Independence with support and advocacy of the Catholic Church and the then Business Community. Today, the Amerindian Act gives our Indigenous Peoples, the 9 Nations that exist, 13.8 per cent of Guyana.

The cycle is completed for our 50th Anniversary.

Land is wealth. Land is power. Land is the basis of generational wealth creation. Just ask Israel. This seems to explain why land grabbing is the new contact sport in Guyana. We have seen the millions of acres granted by the last Government to Chinese and Indian foreign firms at often rock bottom prices of US$12 ½ cents per hectare (yes, per hectare) for 50 to 99 years.

Of course the new Government and various boards are investigating this incredible land grab supported and often sponsored by the previous Government. We should soon learn more of this “festival of greed, corruption and criminality” which in some corners continues unabated in many shapes and forms. We have found out for example that 30 families/individuals control 80% of our mining concessions. Landlordism is in vogue for the already rich. Quite extraordinary and quite wrong.

Egregious greed it seems has no bounds as some of these same individuals are collecting agricultural lands as if it is going out of style.

In April, the Reparations Committee will provide information to the Government of Guyana (including the Opposition) for their claim of lands for reparatory justice and social cohesion in Guyana.

There are three historical reasons why this claim has legal validity.

First, history has recorded that enslaved Africans, whom arrived in Guyana in mid-17th Century and were in Guyana for 100 to 200 years, before the Wai Wais and Wapishanas Nations, cleared 15,000 square miles or 18 per cent of Guyana and lost 450,000 lives to genocide during their enslavement.

Slavery “was and is a crime against humanity” (United Nations Durban Declaration) and hence reparatory justice is being sought from the Government of Guyana, the inheritors of the land from the British. Justice dictates that if Indigenous Peoples in Guyana can receive land for being here “first’ then African whom were here before the Wai Wais and Wapishanas should be legally entitled to land.

The Wai Wais arrived in Guyana from Brazil in the 19th century while the Wapishanas arrived from Brazil in the 18th century (information gathered from Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and the Guyana Reparations Committee). The current population of 300 Wai Wais now have 1 million acres under their stewardship. Recently, the Wapishanas, who comprise less than 10,000 people in Guyana made news by claiming an additional 10 per cent of Guyana beyond the 13.8 per cent already in the Amerindian Act.

Second, enslaved Africans built Guyana. History has also recorded and forgotten that (Guyanese) Africans “had driven back the sea and had cleared, drained and reclaimed 15,000 square miles of forest and swamps. This is equivalent to 9,000,000 acres of land.

In short, all the fields on which the sugar estates are now based were cleared, drained and irrigated by African labour forces. All the plantations now turned villages and cities were built by unpaid African labour. In the process of building these plantations, careful research has shown that Africans installed the following (1) 2,580,000 miles of drainage canals, trenches and inter-bed drains, (2) 3,500 miles of dams, roads and footpaths, and (3) 2,176 miles of sea and river defence. The Venn Commission also reported that “to build the coastal plantation alone, a value of 100,000,000 tons of earth had to be moved by the hands of African slaves “(without machinery).

The entire economy of Guyana in 1838, for example, was that created by enslaved Africans whereas our Indigenous brothers and sisters were living nomadic lives. Justice dictates that Africans should be given lands for clearing 18 per cent of Guyana and providing free labour for over 200 years while indentured servants whom came after them, were paid and given lands.

Third, the last 25 years have seen foreign firms receive huge swaths of lands at giveaway prices while Africans have received none. Any Government or people interested in social cohesion, equity, equal access, economic and social justice…. would take immediate steps in our 50th anniversary year, to grant lands to Africans for the massive and unparalleled contributions they have made to Guyana.

To begin this process, the Government of Guyana immediately freeze of the granting of land leases to anyone, local or foreign, until the reparatory land issue is addressed.

In the meanwhile, I call on the Amerindian Peoples Association, the National Toshao Council, the Catholic Church and all other religious groups, as well as any other Guyanese who believes in justice, to support this just cause. We salute the Amerindian Community for their intensified advocacy in the media since this new Government has come to power.

Today, Africans have less than 5 per cent of the economy. One of the biggest reasons is their exclusion from lands owed them for the free labour they provided and for the “crimes against humanity” and 450,000 lives lost while building the Guyana all others enjoy today.

The last government understood this issue but deliberately made it worse by undergoing the “greatest transfer of State wealth in the Caribbean and possibly Latin America” to their ethnic support base.

Eric Phillips

Chair

Guyana Reparations

Committee

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