• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: 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 constituting 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 under ultimate 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] Guyana endorsed the UNDRIP in 2007. The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs reverted to its previous name of “Amerindian Affairs” (MOAA) following the change in ruling party in August 2020.

[No] changes in legislation

Both of the main political parties (People’s National Congress (PNC, African Guyanese) and People’s Progressive Party (PPP, East Indian Guyanese)) continued their 2020 election manifestos with promises to update the defective 2006 Amerindian Act after consultation with Amerindian communities. The Indigenous representative body (National Toshaos Council) reminded the winning PPP of this commitment[3] and that this issue remains the highest priority for the Indigenous Peoples.[4] It is not clear what will happen to the village-level consultations begun under the PNC[5] in June 2016.[6] By year end 2020, no re-start had been recorded on the MOAA website.

Good policies

The Hinterland Employment and Youth Service (HEYS) project and Village Improvement Plans (VIPs) mentioned in the 2020 IWGIA report[7] continued to function at the beginning of 2020. The presidential grants programme funded a US$ 155,000 29-stall shopping mall in Santa Rosa, Moruca, the village consolidating its grant over two years to afford this investment in a single building.[8] Entrepreneurs pay a monthly fee for utilities and maintenance costs and now have a clean safe space in which to sell the handicrafts for which the area is renowned. With the change of government in August 2020, all the projects and programmes initiated by the PNC government were halted by the incoming PPP. It reverted to its own projects and programmes that had been terminated by the incoming PNC in May 2015.

Modelled on the multi-country One Laptop Per Child project, the PPP’s One Laptop Per Family started in 2011 and was audited in 2016 when it was found to have substantially under-delivered (many laptops were defective or stolen) and under-performed (the training aspects were cancelled in 2013).[9] The PPP now proposes to group 20 laptops per community in village-level Information and Communications Technology hubs.[10] Electricity will come from a revived solar panel project. It is not clear how Internet connectivity will be assured. The original project was three-quarters funded by China (which supplied the Huawei laptops) and the rest by Guyana.

Major events

National election

Fifteen months after a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly (December 2018), the PNC government finally bowed to a succession of defeats in court and held a national election in March 2020. Although voting during the election itself was deemed to have been a smooth and efficient operation across the country, the PNC contested the vote counting once more through court battles that reached Guyana’s apex court, the Caribbean Court of Justice, only accepting defeat reluctantly in August. For five months, the normal operations of government were without parliamentary supervision and without proper budgets. The indigenous 11% of the people, mostly living in the hinterland, were invisible spectators during what was essentially a coastlander election struggle. The Liberty and Justice Party (LJP) convened by Lennox Shuman, a former elected Arawak village leader, to be a new party to represent the peoples of the nine Indigenous Nations, could not break the Stalinist cell structures of the two major parties and garnered only 2,667 of 464,563 votes (0.6%). However, by combining with two other new minority parties (thus totalling 1.1% of the vote), the LJP leader gained the only independent seat in the 65-member parliament. He was the first Indigenous Deputy Speaker elected to the National Assembly.

COVID-19 pandemic

The PNC government was distracted by electoral matters for the first seven months of 2020 and gave only sporadic attention to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. However, most international air travel was curtailed, except for essential business travel. This allowed the oil companies to fly-in/fly-out their rotating crews to the offshore deep-water Stabroek tract. A variety of restrictions were also imposed on in-country travel, including seating on the ubiquitous minibuses, as well as social distancing and use of face masks. Implementation of the restrictions was variable in 2020.

The weekly dashboard of cases posted by the Ministry of Health and reported in the daily newspapers shows that all ten regions of Guyana had confirmed cases. Just less than one-third of confirmed cases were in the four regions (1, 7, 8 and 9) where the Indigenous Peoples are mainly located, with 2,072 of 6,348 cases recorded by 1 January 2021; only 20 cases had been reported for the whole country by the beginning of August 2020. Three public and two private clinics provide COVID-19 testing, all on the coast. It is thus likely that the infection rate in the Indigenous hinterland territories is under-estimated. Testing sites were identified in each community and mobile teams from the Ministry of Health could be deployed for testing, tracking and tracing if the Village Councils reported rising infection rates. Tracking and tracing are more difficult in the rural areas, however, because of the scattered farming population and logging and mining crews, along with much lower rates of cell phone coverage than on the coast.[11]

Village Councils imposed various rules to mitigate the pandemic, including face masking and social distancing. Some villages imposed temporary lockdowns, aided by Ministry of Health monitoring teams. Villages in north-eastern Guyana on travel routes to Suriname were identified as hotspots.[12] Some villagers were opposed[13] to limits on inter- and intra-community movements, expressing the traditional sense of Amerindian autonomy against rules felt to infringe personal liberties. The government made special efforts to communicate the terrible potency and infectiousness of the coronavirus in culturally appropriate language via radio and social media. Nevertheless, the infection rate in Amerindian communities was three times greater than in the more densely populated coastal areas by the end of 2020. Press comments noted the silence of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs[14] but most news articles commented favourably on the geographical spread of efforts by the Ministry of Health. The NGO Amerindian Peoples Association was also active in distributing posters about COVID-19 designed specifically for Indigenous communities,[15] and was important in distributing food parcels, supported by a donation from the Government of France.

Outcomes from international processes

Norwegian funding through the Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund (GRIF) was channelled through the World Bank and administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Two projects were explicitly for Indigenous Peoples.

The Amerindian Development Fund (US$ 8.1M) commenced in late 2014 and was used mainly to finance capital expenses in 153 communities as part of their Community Development Plans[16] developed under PPP auspices. The groundwork continued in 2015-2020 under the PNC’s Village Improvement Plans. The GRIF webpages were mostly not maintained by the PNC government over the 2015-2020 period but information was continued for 2015 and 2016 through the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs.[17] The incoming PPP administration immediately scrapped the PNC projects and indicated its intention to re-start the funding of Community Development Plans as part of its election manifesto. For the Amerindians, the name of the project is not important, just the continuity of the funding.

The second project under the GRIF was for Amerindian Land Titling (GRIF/ALT) with a budget of US$ 10.1M.[18] Although started in 2013, progress has been very slow. Much procedural documentation was produced but the mid-term review commissioned by the UNDP, the administrator of the GRIF/ALT, in 2017 was critical. This GRIF steering committee was slow to release further funding after the review, allegedly caused by hesitancy in the Norwegian International Climate and Forests Initiative. The GRIF/ALT project has by far the largest single budget for Amerindian development, but the Amerindian NGOs and the representative National Toshaos Council have been unable to overcome the weak support and poor intra-government coordination in the project’s own advisory board, where government agencies are seen as more powerful than the Amerindian participants.

Although Guyana endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, and the endorsement is explicit in the PPP’s Low Carbon Development Strategy, which is also being resumed after the change of government, legal confirmation of customary land tenure for Amerindian communities is not widely supported in Guyana. The opposition comes mainly from artisanal gold and diamond miners. The miners argue that statutory Amerindian Village Land titles already cover 14% of the land area of Guyana while the Amerindian population accounts for only 11% of the total. Miners are aware of Amerindian land claims covering 43% of the land area, through the Amerindian Lands Commission in 1969, when the Amerindian population was around 40,000.[19] With improved public health measures, the number of Amerindians recorded in the latest (2012) national census has doubled to 78,500 (11%) of a national total of 746,955 in the preliminary report;[20] no official report with an analysis of racial composition has been issued by the Statistics Bureau of Guyana for the 2012 census.

The Amerindian Act 2006 requires non-Amerindian miners to seek permission from village councils for mining on titled Amerindian lands. However, the Minister for Amerindian Affairs can override a Village Council’s refusal to allow large-scale mining on the grounds of undefined “public interest”.[21] The lack of progress in the GRIF/ALT project has allowed the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) to continue to issue mining concessions for prospection and production over Amerindian customary lands even when applications have already been filed for statutory land title or extension of title. The cheaply acquired and cheaply retained mining concessions are treated legally as property interests,[22] which then prevent the issuing of statutory land title to the Amerindian community. It is not clear on what legal basis the temporary and recent mining concessions issued by the GGMC should be given higher priority than the inherent rights of Amerindian communities established since time immemorial, but that is how the Amerindian applications are treated.

Problems are magnified when news spreads of new gold finds and itinerant miners flock into Amerindian areas. Inter-family and political rivalries may also be more openly expressed and charges laid about or against members of the Village Council when villagers feel that access to minable land is being appropriated inequitably. Poor record-keeping and failures to observe due process in decisions on the management of village lands may compound the problem. Persistent problems in communities that have experienced inconclusive court hearings on land tenure and gold mining remained unresolved in 2020: Arau, Chinese Landing, Isseneru.

A long-running dispute in the Amerindian village of Campbelltown in the Mahdia gold mining region included ministerial intervention and the dismissal of the elected village leader (Toshao) at the end of 2020[23] following the submission of a petition. In accordance with the Amerindian Act 2006, a petition for which at least 51% of the village general meeting voted in favour triggered a ministerial investigation and the dismissal was ordered on the grounds of breaches of the Act,[24] although the allegations had not been tested in a court of law. As reported, the ministerial action appeared to be a politically partisan decision based on limited evidence; another good reason for revising this defective Act.

Role of Indigenous women and children

One of the significant features of the HEYS project for Indigenous entrepreneurs during 2015-2020 was the opportunity given equitably to male and female youths and to those with disabilities.[25] Indigenous men and women generally tend to face deep-seated prejudice from the non-indigenous but socially and politically dominant coastlanders.

General outlook for 2021

The election manifesto of the PPP for 2020 contained 16 explicit commitments to improve the lives of the Indigenous Peoples of Guyana.[26] It is not clear why the PPP had not acted on most of these commitments during its previous 23 uninterrupted years in government from 1992-2015, or why the activities had very small budgets associated with them. There are possibly eight Amerindians in the National Assembly (parliament) as of August 2020 but only one is independent and outside the PNC and PPP parties. The country’s leaders are publicly expressing expectations of enhanced budgets from a tiny share in the wealth being generated from the beginning of 2020 from offshore deep-water oil and gas. However, the astonishingly one-sided production sharing agreement signed with ExxonMobil in 2016 and the antiquated legislation gives Guyana very little leverage over the next four decades of the agreement’s lifetime.


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 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.


This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Bureau of Statistics, Guyana. 2012 Census, Compendium 2 on population composition. July 2016: https://statisticsguyana.gov.gy/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Final_2012_Census_Compendium2.pdf

[2] Ministry of Legal Affairs, Guyana. The Constitution of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, chapter 001:01, Preamble, p.26. https://mola.gov.gy/information/laws-of-guyana/410-chapter-101-the-constitution-of-the-co-operative-republic-of-guyana

[3] “Indigenous groups call on gov’t to honour commitment for revision of Amerindian Act”. Stabroek News, 28 December 2020: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/12/28/news/guyana/indigenous-groups-call-on-govt-to-honour-commitment-for-revision-of-amerindian-act/

[4] “Revision of Amerindian act 2006 is of highest priority”. Guyana Chronicle, 23 December 2020: https://guyanachronicle.com/2020/12/23/revision-of-amerindian-act-2006-is-of-highest-priority/

[5] The Government of Guyana from May 2015 – August 2020 was formed of an unequal coalition between A Party of National Unity (itself a coalition) and the Alliance for Change. However, all major decisions, including those affecting the Indigenous Amerindians, were taken by the dominant partner, the PNC. In this text we have indicated the PNC as being the political party in charge.

[6] “Consultations on revision of Amerindian Act to continue next week”. Stabroek News, 18 May 2018: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2018/05/18/news/guyana/consultations-on-revision-of-amerindian-act-to-continue-next-week/

[7] IWGIA, 2020. The Indigenous World 2020. 34th edition. Copenhagen, Denmark; International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. “Guyana: Government support to Amerindian communities”, p. 429.

[8] “Minister Garrido-Lowe commissions $31M Modern Moruca Mall”. Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs, 02 March 2020: https://moaa.gov.gy/minister-garrido-lowe-commissions-31m-modern-moruca-mall/

[9] “Learning from mistakes”. Stabroek News editorial, 01 January 2021: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2021/01/01/opinion/editorial/learning-from-mistakes/

[10] “One laptop per family project to be reintroduced – President”. Stabroek News, 28 December 2020: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/12/28/one-laptop-per-family-project-to-be-reintroduced-president/

[11] “Addressing COVID-19 in hinterland areas demands different skills and mindset than coastal areas”. Kaieteur News Online, 08 November 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/11/08/addressing-covid-19-in-hinterland-areas-demands-different-skills-and-mindset-than-coastal-areas/

[12] “Traffic between Orealla and Siparuta shut over COVID”. Stabroek News, 24 November 2020: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/11/24/news/guyana/traffic-between-orealla-and-siparuta-shut-over-covid/; “Orealla-Siparuta village council orders two week lockdown”. Kaieteur News Online, 28 November 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/11/28/orealla-siparuta-village-council-orders-two-week-lockdown/; “Siparuta imposes lockdown: Orealla restricting movements”. Kaieteur News Online, 29 November 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/11/29/siparuta-imposes-lockdown-orealla-restricting-movements/; “Lockdown lifted in St Cuthbert’s Mission. Kaieteur News Online, 01 December 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/12/01/lockdown-lifted-in-st-cuthberts-mission/

[13] “Deaths heighten fears of Waramuri COVID-19 outbreak”. Stabroek News, 07 November 2020: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/11/07/news/guyana/deaths-heighten-fears-of-waramuri-covid-19-outbreak/

[14] “Indigenous peoples are under threat”. Kaieteur News Online, Peeping Tom feature column, 19 November 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/11/19/indigenous-peoples-are-under-threat/

[15] “COVID 19 and Indigenous Peoples”. Amerindian Peoples Association, Issues We Follow, wall posters: https://apaguyana.com/issues-followed/

[16] “Amerindian Development Fund project”. Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund project: https://www.guyanareddfund.org/index.php/grif-projects/amerindian-development-fund

[17] “Amerindian Development Fund”. Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs: https://moaa.gov.gy/amerindian-development-fund/

[18] “Amerindian Land Titling and Demarcation project”. Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund project: https://www.guyanareddfund.org/index.php/grif-projects/amerindian-land-titling

[19] Amerindian Lands Commission (1969) Report by the Amerindian Lands Commission. Georgetown, Guyana; Ministry of Local Government, paragraph 51.

[20] Bureau of Statistics, Guyana. 2012 Census, Compendium 2 on population composition. July 2016: https://statisticsguyana.gov.gy/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Final_2012_Census_Compendium2.pdf

[21] Ministry of Legal Affairs, Guyana. Amerindian Act 2006, chapter 29:01, section 61 (1) (h): https://mola.gov.gy/information/laws-of-guyana/587-chapter-2901-amerindian

[22] Ministry of Legal Affairs, Guyana. Amerindian Act 2006, chapter 29:01, section 50 (1) (a): https://mola.gov.gy/information/laws-of-guyana/587-chapter-2901-amerindian

[23] “Minister removes Campbelltown Toshao after probe finds breaches of law”. Stabroek News, 01 January 2021: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2021/01/01/news/guyana/minister-removes-campbelltown-toshao-after-probe-finds-breaches-of-law/

[24] Ministry of Legal Affairs, Guyana. Amerindian Act 2006, chapter 29:01, sections 27-29: https://mola.gov.gy/information/laws-of-guyana/587-chapter-2901-amerindian

[25] “Nadeza Rodrigues runs thriving HEYS business despite disability”. Kaieteur News Online, 09 January 2020: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/01/09/nadeza-rodrigues-runs-thriving-heys-business-despite-disability/

[26] “PPP-C appeals for a chance with launch of elections manifesto”. Stabroek News, 30 November 2019: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/11/30/news/guyana/ppp-c-appeals-for-a-chance-with-launch-of-elections-manifesto/



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

Indigenous World

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