Where They Stand: Technology and Community Research used to protect ancestral land in Guyana

Originally published by Forest Peoples Programme on 26/10/15.

 

The Wapichan people of Guyana are using modern technology and community research to seek legal recognition of their ancestral land in the face of aggressive land-grabbing, destructive logging, and poisonous mining by illegal miners and foreign companies, finds new report by internationally acclaimed science writer Fred Pearce.

This struggle is being faced by indigenous peoples across South America, and the Wapichan are an inspiring example of cutting-edge grassroots efforts to defend lands and forests. The report, published by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), explains how Wapichan community organisations have mapped their lands using GPS tools to document the location of farms, hunting and fishing grounds, wildlife habitats, and sacred sites.

…the mapping has always been about more than maps. It is about the Wapichan’s sense of themselves, and their traditions of collective ownership of the land. ‘Mapping awakened the struggle for land among our people…It brought people together’, says indigenous mapper Angelbert Johnny.

Photo: Tom Griffiths

Photo: Tom Griffiths

Geographic information is now being fed into a state-of-the art community mapping unit run by the Wapichan to print off maps of land use and traditional occupation for use in dialogue with government bodies responsible for land titling.

The root of the Wapichan’s case for extending their title – to take back the 85 percent of their traditional land that the government has so far refused them – is that they alone know how to use it. They are bound to that land, and they are its true custodians.”

The Wapichan are backing up their maps with a mountain of evidence collected through community-based research on their customary use of the land. A comprehensive land management plan based on consultations with all 17 communities in the territory has also been compiled by the Wapichan. It sets out how villages plan to develop their communities and care for natural resources within the 10,879 Square miles of territory that encompasses extensive rainforests in the Upper Essequibo river basin in the East and seasonally flooded grasslands in the South Rupununi savannah in the west.

After years of hollow promises from the previous national government, the Wapichan people are now hopeful that the new administration elected in May 2015 might finally enter into serious negotiation over their long-standing territorial claim:

The new government of Guyana has pledged to resolve indigenous peoples’ land claims once and for all. We are ready for dialogue. In October 2015 our Village Councils and District Toshaos Council have invited the government to sit down with our leaders to agree steps to securing our lands and forests for present and future generations. We now await a response…” Tony James, Wapichan elder, Aishalton Village.

The Wapichan hope that the recent report compiled by Pearce will add yet another string to their bow aiming for legal recognition of Wapichan territory. Tessa Felix of Shulinab Village, who is featured in the report, says:

We are distributing this powerful story about the Wapichan people and our beautiful Wapichan territory in all our villages. We will pass this written record, along with our oral history, to our younger generations so that they know about our long struggle to secure our lands, forests, mountains, waters and savannahs. We are now sharing this report with our government and the international community to help them understand how badly we want our land recognized for our children and children’s children.”

 

The full report can be downloaded here.

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