Guyana: miners win ruling over indigenous groups

A judge in Guyana's high court ruled Jan. 17 that indigenous groups do not have the right to expel "legal" miners from their lands. The judge, Diana Insanally, found that if the miners in question held a government-approved license then the local community had no right to dispute the operations. The ruling has sparked protests by indigenous groups and is expected to be appealed. "We are deeply disappointed and worried with this ruling and what it means to our village and to Amerindian communities in general," read a press release from the indigenous community Isseneru. "[I]t has serious environmental and social impacts for us. The miners have, for example, brought with them problems related to drugs and prostitution."

The controversial ruling came after gold miner Joan Chang took the the community of Isseneru to court for disputing her mining claim on their titled land. Isseneru village (Cuyuni-Mazaruni region; see map) is located deep in Guyana's Amazonian interior. More than 75% of the country is still under forest cover, but indigenous and environmental groups see a threat in the country's mining boom.

"We feel that when the high court tells us that we have no rights to decide and control what takes place on our land, then the land is not ours," said the Isseneru statement on the ruling. "Just Friday [Jan. 11], when inquiring at the office of the GGMC [Guyana Geology and Mines Commission], we learnt that our whole land is covered with mining concessions. Yet, the government has not informed us about this." 

Isseneru village received communal title to its lands in 1997, under the 1951 Amerindian Act. But the law leaves some ambiguity about the status of pre-exisiting mineral clams on lands titled to indigenous communities.

On Jan. 25, some 80 indigenous people protested the ruling outside the office of the president. "If this ruling goes forward then it will be a huge step backwards and will threaten indigenous peoples' rights to land and to self-determination throughout the country," said Jean La Rose of Guyana's Amerindian Peoples Association (APA). (Mongabay, Jan. 29; Forest Peoples Program, Jan. 28; Demerara Waves, Guyana, Jan. 22; Kaieteur News, Jan. 21)