September 25, 2016

“The First Peoples’ Are Amerindians”

Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee, Eric Phillips, also President of the African Cultural and Development Committee (ACDA) and advisor to the Government of Guyana, recently regurgitated the question of land reparation for African Guyanese. In his three-point justification of why Africans should be granted 18 per cent of Guyana, he presented a highly flawed argument.
For instance, the Amerindian Land Titling (ALT) Project is not scheduled for completion in October 2016, but rather in 2017. The project was allotted a three-year time frame which commenced in June 2014. For clarity, ALT is not conducted under the “auspices of UNDP” but rather, is a Government of Guyana project without any donors.
Phillips must also note that while Steven Campbell indeed pioneered Amerindian land rights, he so strategised as a member of The United Force (TUF) party, and not by the good grace of the “Catholic Church” and the “Business community”. Further, the lands owned presently by Amerindians do not “complete the cycle” of Amerindian land titling for “our 50th anniversary” for two reasons: 1) The 1969 Lands Commission Report recommended after research that some 24 per cent of Guyana be returned to its indigenous peoples and 2) all land title applications have not yet been processed, meaning that the amount of land owned by Amerindians is bound to increase once the Government respects its commitments.
Phillips defended that Africans have legal claims to land in Guyana because they arrived “100 to 200 years” before the Wai Wais and Wapishanas. However, indigenous peoples are irrefutably the first, archaeologically proven, inhabitants of Guyana. The Amerindian Research Unit at the University of Guyana would confirm that based on the findings at Kurupukari, the Wapishana people were present in what is now known as Guyana, 3000 years ago (Carbon 14 dated, Beta laboratory, US. Archaeological excavations conducted by Dennis Williams). As for the Wai Wais, no archaeological excavations were conducted on their territory to determine how long they were present in pre-colonial Guyana. That their existence predates the arrival of the Europeans remains uncontested, as will confirm the Amerindian Research Unit.
Today there are nine known Amerindian nations in Guyana, which makes Africans the third people to have arrived and the eighth in line for land reparation based on Phillips’ own first come, first serve argument. However, indigenous peoples do not “receive land for being here first, but instead, their ancestral home is being returned to them in recognition of theft perpetrated by the colonial empire. The difference is stark.
Further, Phillips refers to “450,000” African lives being lost “to genocide” in Guyana almost as if to diminish the importance of Amerindian land rights. Now, in such an unfounded and unjust comparison, it must figure that 90 per cent of the entire indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out by the Europeans, with disease being the first killer, and often used as a weapon to steal land. Today, indigenous peoples continue to be invaded and robbed of their land and culture. It is unimaginable for us to picture the same crime perpetrated against mass populations of Europe or Africa by newcomers. If there are people on Earth who suffered an unacknowledged genocide, it is indigenous peoples.
Phillips persists that “the entire economy of Guyana in 1838” was created by “enslaved Africans” while Amerindians “were living nomadic lives”. However, the economy at that time was invented by the colonial empires and not Africans, using inhumane means which included tremendous dependence on African slaves as well as indentured immigrants. Nuance. The Egyptian dynasties also resorted to slavery in order to mount empires, and their architectural relics such as the pyramids were born out of the sweat and blood of slaves. More importantly however, is that all peoples of Guyana, not just Africans, built (and continue to build) our country. But Amerindians used their sound knowledge of the land – an advantage –, to flee the slave masters, retreating to the interior, leaving their homes of origin to the Europeans, slaves and indentured immigrants.
Disputing the land rights of Amerindians demonstrates limited knowledge of the concept of land reparation, and is divisive and unhealthy in a period where social cohesion is becoming a myth. It also ignores our dependence on Amerindians for the preservation of our rainforests and the development of a sustainable economy.
More troubling yet, is that it is an attempt to rewrite the history of Guyana.

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