• 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 2023: 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).[i] 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 Preamble to the Constitution of Guyana 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”.[ii] 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.



For a global audience, the whole of this chapter on Guyana could usefully record one major success in the struggle to secure land tenure, one partial success, and one potentially major failure in 2022. Legal and effective resource tenure remains a central issue for most Amerindian communities. Promises to revise the technically defective Amerindian and Mining Acts have not been given priority, and no revisions were commenced in 2022.

The increasing tendency of the current political administration to engage in authoritarianism affects everyone in Guyana but especially the less politically potent Amerindian communities.


A win towards more secure Amerindian resource tenure

In December 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) delivered its judgement on the admissibility and merits of the petition by the Akawaio Indigenous community of Isseneru for secure land title and defence from invading gold miners, dating back to 2013. The judgement only became public knowledge in April 2022.[iii] The IACtHR identified 16 violations of the rights of the community and its members and made three specific recommendations to the government: (1) adopt the necessary measures to ensure that the Isseneru community and its members receive full reparations for the material and immaterial damages they suffered on account of the violation of their human rights; (2) amend legislation; and (3) adopt any measures necessary to support Isseneru and its members in the proper fulfilment of their own duty to preserve and protect the environment.

The judgement is significant because the IACtHR accepted that (1) Isseneru could not obtain an unbiased outcome in Guyanese courts as presently operated and so could approach the IACtHR even without formally exhausting domestic legal remedies; and (2) Isseneru had waited for an unconscionably long time because of the lethargy of Guyanese courts and lawyers.

The IACtHR made frequent reference to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948),[iv] to which Guyana is committed by virtue of its membership of the Organisation of American States. The IACtHR denied a subsequent government request for a full hearing but did grant some months of extension in order to act on the recommendations. In December 2022, the representative Amerindian Peoples Association sadly noted the poor response from the government at policy level[v] but positively noted that the technical agency Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) had, by June, begun to take action against gold miners on the titled lands.[vi]


Priority of gold mining over ancient Amerindian rights

Amerindian customary lands remain open to government-awarded mining concessions, which are cheap to acquire and to retain year after year. Courts in Guyana assume the priority of gold mining over ancient Amerindian rights, and this remains a severe obstacle to rational land titling. Consequently, Amerindians still have title to only around one-third of the customary lands claimed back in 1966-7.

Three significant disputes over gold miners in Amerindian areas persisted in 2022 in different parts of Guyana. Medically, the uncontrolled use of mercury amalgam in artisanal gold mining continues to have severe effects on some communities.[vii],[viii] The situation of the Chinese Landing community, similar to that of Isseneru, was being examined by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Here, a community of 200 Amerindians has been invaded by over 500 gold miners who have excavated a main pit over 150 metres deep.[ix],[x] The government appears to be unable to enforce any law in that area.


Some steps towards Amerindian tenure security in the Upper Mazaruni river catchment

Another long-running court case concerned the ancestral lands of six villages of Akawaio and Arekuna people in western Guyana, in the Upper Mazaruni river catchment. The area had been gazetted officially to facilitate the entry of gold and diamond miners. In 1959, one-third of the district was de-reserved and villages were recognised in 1976 and offered communal land titles in 1998. The villages refused the titles as they wanted legal recognition of a boundaried district within which villages could move locations across the infertile soils with traditional rotational agriculture.[xi] Thus, they requested, as per the Amerindian Act 2006, that the district be reconstituted.

Partly due to pressure from the private sector association, the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association, the request was left unattended for 24 years. At last, on 16 December 2022, the acting Chief Justice herself re-opened the case and recognised the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the villages and their radical title from time immemorial.[xii] Unfortunately, her knowledge of land and mining and Amerindian laws was inadequate. An appeal will be submitted in February 2023.[xiii]


Loss of control of forests on titled Amerindian Lands

Building on its supporting roles in the development of Guyana Forestry Commission´s (GCF) Monitoring, Reporting and Verification System (MRVS), the US-based consultancy Winrock International has developed a “jurisdictional carbon credit” scheme (Architecture for REDD+ Transactions/ART) to facilitate whole-country quantities of emission reductions to be traded internationally. Notwithstanding the fact that there are no current estimates of emission reductions in Guyana, Winrock awarded 33.47 million carbon credits (tonnes of CO2e) to the Government of Guyana on 1 December 2022.[xiv]

On the same day, 37.5 million carbon credits were purchased for USD 750 million over ten years by Hess Corporation, a US company with a 30% stake in Guyana offshore deep-water oil fields in the Stabroek Tract licence area.[xv] The application to Winrock for certification of forest-based carbon credits by the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) was for 18 Mha, the whole area of Guyana’s natural forest, including the 2.3 Mha of forest on titled Amerindian Village Lands. Winrock has been asked to provide a plain-language explanation to the people of Guyana as to the nature of the carbon credits, how they were estimated, what are the uses of such credits, and what the sale of carbon credits means for Amerindian managerial control of their own titled resources.[xvi],[xvii] Neither Winrock nor the Government of Guyana had responded by the end of 2022.

Without clarification from Winrock, it appears that the Government of Guyana has sold carbon credits that are the legal property of the titled Amerindian villages. There is a clear procedure in sections 14 and 15 of the Amerindian Act (chap. 29:01, 2006[xviii]) for making rules related to Village Lands. Approval of a rule requires a two-thirds majority vote at a formal village meeting, and transfer of management control of communal village assets to the government would require the same such approved rule. By the end of 2022, no Amerindian village had been asked to make such a transfer. The sale of carbon credits from forests in titled Amerindian villages thus appears to have been absolutely illegal.

Instead of clarification, government Ministers and supporters have emphasised that 15% of the income from the sale of these carbon credits will be placed in the government-controlled Amerindian Development Fund. Allocations may be made to Amerindian Village Councils for items in their village development plans, if approved by the government. Thus, not only has the government apparently taken control of titled Amerindian forests but also has control over the income from the sale of the forest-based carbon credits.


Paternalistic distribution of goods

The People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government continued its traditional paternalistic relationship towards the Indigenous 10.5% of the population, replacing handouts of buses, bicycles and boats during 2015-2020 with handouts of agricultural tractors and solar panels in 2022. There did not appear to have been a prior survey of needs and it is unclear whether 165 identical tractors will serve the needs of so many Amerindian communities. At intervals during the year, the government did make some attempts to supply spare parts and provide some training in maintenance and repair, as well as to encourage more equitable access to the equipment. Having immediately cancelled the Hinterland Employment and Youth Service (HEYS) programme on assuming political power in late 2020, in 2022 the PPP/C government restarted some form of training for Amerindian youths, concentrating on information technology rather than the more needed agricultural and mining subjects. Solar panels are being supplied from India and should be useful for powering access to more widespread and reliable internet communications. However, there is a marked lack of integrated planning and so some communities have panels and storage batteries but still no reliable internet, and vice-versa.

Additionally, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil-stimulated increases in the cost of living led to a series of handouts of cash or sacks of household items (known as “hampers”) to arbitrarily chosen groups of citizens. In Amerindian areas, these handouts look like, and are understood to be, vote-buying exercises but are hard to resist in poor communities.


Threats of mega-farms and of oil affecting fisheries

The PPP/C government appears to have no ecologically-aware advisers and does not seem to understand that the low population density in the hinterland of Guyana is mainly due to ancient soils that are infertile. The government has been inviting external investors, including for agriculture, without explaining that very large quantities of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides would be needed to secure commercial crops. Destabilising these infertile but ecologically stable areas with synthetic chemicals is likely to reduce the natural terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. It is precisely the spectacular landscape and brilliantly-coloured biodiversity that attract groups of eco-tourists. Industrial agriculture is likely to have adverse effects on Amerindian cash incomes which, in some places, are strongly geared to the provision of low-impact eco-tourism. In addition, these areas are mainly subject to Amerindian customary rights. As Guyana subscribes to the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC, through its endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and explicit confirmation in the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) of 2009), the invited investors would need to be informed about Indigenous rights and FPIC. This did not happen in 2022.

The coastline of the North West District of Guyana is at risk of being hit by slicks from the offshore oil fields of Guyana. This danger is acknowledged and mapped in the Environmental Impact Assessments for the first four fields identified by ExxonMobil. Neither the Civil Defence Commission of Guyana nor ExxonMobil itself has in-country equipment to control major spills from well-head blowouts. No equipment or slick dispersant chemicals have been pre-positioned in the North West District to prevent oil slicks from contaminating the fishing grounds, turtle nesting beaches or mangroves. Both Government and ExxonMobil act as if deaf to these concerns, including the concerns of Amerindian fishers who take a wider variety of fish than do East Indian fishers.


Organised Amerindians could form a third party

The PPP/C government is more aware than the previous government coalition was that organised Amerindians could form a third party that would hold the balance of power between the two evenly matched major parties. The sheer physical distances between Amerindian communities, however, make it difficult to develop a collective view, and further isolation has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the increasing provision of better information technology and internet connection, coupled with more reliable local electrical power through family-level solar panels could make it easier to develop distinctively Amerindian political positions. The last time this was evident was under the Arawak leadership of Stephen Campbell, who died in 1966, the year of Independence from British colonial rule.


Outlook for 2023

Even without a collective Amerindian political party, the small government income from the giant oil field earnings could be apportioned to give a larger budget for Amerindian issues. The 2023 budget speech by the Minister for Finance included USD 2.5 million for land titling, USD 23.5 million for general Amerindian development, and possibly USD 13.5 million for funding approved “village sustainability plans”.



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 37th 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

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

[ii] 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

[iii] “IACHR recommends `full reparations’ by state to Isseneru villagers for human rights violations.” Stabroek News, 28 April 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/04/28/news/guyana/iachr-recommends-full-reparations-by-state-to-isseneru-villagers-for-human-rights-violations/

[iv] The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, http://humanrightscommitments.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/American-Declaration-of-the-Rights-and-Duties-of-Man.pdf

[v] “APA asks Govt. to end ‘inexcusable pattern of inaction’ on Chinese Landing matters.” Kaieteur News, 4 December 2022.

[vi] Bhagirat, L. “Isseneru says GGMC addressing mining issues in wake of IACHR ruling-but still no official word from gov’t on way forward.” Stabroek News, 12 June 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/06/12/news/guyana/isseneru-says-ggmc-addressing-mining-issues-in-wake-of-iachr-ruling/

[vii] Papannah, D., and Laurel Sutherland. “Parabara still in the dark on high mercury exposure - after no follow up to alarming findings of study.” Stabroek News, 30 May 2021, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2021/05/30/news/guyana/parabara-still-in-the-dark-on-high-mercury-exposure/

[viii] “A filthy business.” Stabroek News, 1 October 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/10/01/opinion/editorial/a-filthy-business/

[ix] Bhagirat, Lakhram. “Livelihoods, health under threat as miners’ grip on Chinese Landing tightens -besieged leaders say laws being flouted, call for promised action.” Stabroek News, 7 August 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/08/07/news/guyana/livelihoods-health-under-threat-as-miners-grip-on-chinese-landing-tightens/

[x] “Chinese Landing Part 2.” Stabroek News, 12 August 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/08/12/opinion/editorial/chinese-landing-part-2/

[xi] Butt Colson, A. J. Land. Its occupation, management, use and conceptualization: the case of the Akawaio and Arekuna of the Upper Mazaruni District, Guyana. Last Refuge Ltd. 2009.

[xii] “High Court rules in historic Amerindian land rights claim.” News Room, 16 December 2022.

[xiii] “Amerindian group files notice of appeal to CJ’s ruling in decades-old Upper Mazaruni land titling case.” Kaieteur News, 2 February 2023, https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2023/02/02/amerindian-group-files-notice-of-appeal-to-cjs-ruling-in-decades-old-upper-mazaruni-land-titling-case/

[xiv] “ART issues world’s first jurisdictional forestry carbon credits to Guyana.” Winrock International, 1 December 2022, https://winrock.org/art-issues-worlds-first-jurisdictional-forestry-carbon-credits-to-guyana/

[xv] “Hess Corporation and the Government of Guyana announce REDD+ carbon credits purchase agreement.” Business Wire, 2 December 2022, https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20221202005187/en/Hess-Corporation-and-the-Government-of-Guyana-Announce-REDD-Carbon-Credits-Purchase-Agreement

[xvi] “The range of tenures (property rights) that underlie the jurisdictional carbon credits sold by Guyana to oil company Hess Corporation.” Stabroek News, 15 December 2022, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2022/12/15/features/the-range-of-tenures-property-rights-that-underlie-the-jurisdictional-carbon-credits-sold-by-guyana-to-oil-company-hess-corporation/

[xvii] Bulkan, J. “Queries about the purchase by Hess Corporation of jurisdictional carbon credits from the Government of Guyana.” Oil and Gas Governance Network, 16 December 2022, https://www.oggn.org/2022/12/16/queries-about-the-purchase-by-hess-corporation-of-jurisdictional-carbon-credits-from-the-government-of-guyana/

[xviii] Act No. 6 of 2006. Amerindian Act 2006, https://parliament.gov.gy/documents/acts/4680-act_no_6_of_2006.pdf

Tags: Global governance



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