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Friday, February 17, 2006
Historic Amerindian bill passed

The Government used its majority vote in the House yesterday to pass a historic new Amerindian bill despite concerns by the opposition which did not give support to the enactment of the new legislation.

The Amerindian Bill 2005 had its third reading more than a decade after the process for the revision of the laws was initiated to replace the commonly-described archaic and paternalistic provisions of the 1976 Act. Although there were few sparks in the debate of new amendments to the new bill, lingering reservations over the name of the bill and the autonomy given to village councils were cited and there were complaints about the functioning of the select committee that was responsible for examining and reviewing the bill.

At the end of two years of consultations the new bill had been tabled in the House last year and sent to a committee after a debate. Minister of Amerindian Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues moved for the adoption of the bill yesterday after she told the House that 30 clauses were amended, although opposition speakers felt that the changes that were made were not fundamental. However, Rodrigues said that the name of the bill and the administration of village council elections were the only two issues of contention at the committee level, and government won the vote on both occasions. On the former issue, Rodrigues noted the calls for the bill to be called the "indigenous people's bill." she referred to her arguments in the House during last year's debate and explained that since there was uncertainty about the term internationally, the government took the decision to retain the use of the word Amerindian. Nonethe-less, there is nothing to prevent persons from using the term indigenous to describe themselves under the new laws.

As regards village council elections, Rodrigues added that the opposition had felt that the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) was the responsible authority for administering elections in the villages. However, she said that the government felt that since there had been little difficulty in having the regional administration manage the elections it would maintain the status quo. Rodrigues was pleased with the work of the committee, including the contributions from the opposition members, and with the changes that were effected to the bill.

PNCR MP Vincent Alexander, who also served on the committee, said that the minister had omitted to mention disagreements by opposition members with some of the provisos of the bill, issues that were not put to a vote. He noted that his participation on the committee was his first exposure to select committee work, and he noted that his party had gone into the process with reservations given its previous experience with the outcome of such ventures. In this regard, he noted the two contentious issues cited by the minister and he said the party did not get the results it was looking for from the committee.

On the name of the bill he said that the impression given most of the times was that the views of the people would determine what was included in the bill, but that was not what occurred in this respect. He said there was evidence that the overwhelming majority view during consultations was in favour of using the term "indigenous", and he said it was unfortunate that wisdom did not prevail as the committee was forced to call a vote. Similarly, he said that the opposition lost the vote on the question of administering village council elections, although they firmly believed that GECOM was the responsible body. Beyond these two issues, Alexander said that there were other issues of great concern.

He said these included the autonomy of councils (he said there were doubts that the issue was properly addressed) and he added that the opposition had hoped to see councils have greater fiscal autonomy and a greater role for the National Toshaos Council as a regulatory body.

GAP/WPA MP Shirley Melville told the House that she was unable to participate, as she would have liked in the committee because she was not given sufficient advance notice of the meetings so that she could travel from her home in the Rupununi, in Region Nine. "I feel deprived of making decisions on behalf of the people," she declared, adding that if an MP could not be consulted or have enough time it was questionable that all efforts were made to consult with the people. "How can you convince our people that they were meaningful?" she said, later adding, "...After so much consultations how can three votes describe what the name of the bill should be?" She said the Minister cast the deciding vote following the deadlock of the government and opposition sides on the issue. Melville said the indigenous people had a lot of catching up to do in the way of increasing their participation in the mainstream development of the country, but she was nonetheless confident of overcoming the obstacles, including making the changes to the amendments that she felt were thrust on the people.

Meanwhile, GAP/WPA MP Sheila Holder said that while the minister seemed to genuinely believe that she was doing what is best for the people, the three indigenous rights groups, the Amerindian Peoples Association, the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP) and The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG), also seemed firm in their rejection of provisions of the bill.

On Wednesday, in a joint statement, the groups said that they were disappointed that the bill was presented to the House in virtually the same manner as when it was first tabled. They maintained their criticism of the bill's treatment of communities' rights over lands, traditional territories and resources. They said the bill failed to recognise and specify any rights that could form the basis for the demarcation and titling of lands. They also held to the claims that the bill failed to adequately provide for untitled communities and sub-surface rights, among other concerns (the Minister would maintain that provisions dealing with these issues were in the bill, while she noted that sub-surface rights were rare internationally).

As a result of the concerns that were raised, Holder questioned whether the members of the House felt obliged to please Amerindian communities. She said the political environment did not seem conducive to resolving the disagreements over the bill and she said it would have been wise to delay the debate to adequately address the concerns of the indigenous people in an appropriate environment.

Rodrigues' defence of the bill was supported by Health Minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy who said that the bill had benefited from a number of compromises at the level of the select committee. "We may not have a bill that everybody wants but there were a lot of compromises," he said, while affirming the positive experience he had seen with committee work.

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