Guyana is a country with unique importance for Indigenous Peoples’ rights, forest protection, and climate change mitigation. Around 80 per cent of Guyana is covered by forest.
Guyana is situated on the central north coast of South America, facing the North Atlantic Ocean. It shares its borders with some of the more mega-diverse countries in the world like Brazil, Suriname, and Venezuela.
The country is part of the Guianas, which include; Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
Guyana is unique as it is the only English-speaking country in South America. The official spoken languages are English, which is the “official” language, and Guyanese Creole, which is an English based creole spoken by the general populace. Additionally, there are indigenous Amerindian languages spoken by the natives who make up approximately 9.16% of the modern Guyanese population. As a former British colony, Guyana saw significant migration from British India, therefore their descendants, the Indo-Guyanese, also speak Hindi.
Guyana’s peculiar linguistic diversity is due to its unique history and the cultural legacy it has left behind. Guyana has been under several external governmental regimes since its original colonisation back in 1499. Guyana’s colonial history started when Alonso de Ojeda first arrived from Spain and sailed up the Essequibo River. Following his arrival, Guyana, like the rest of South and Central America, fell under the Spanish “new world” regime. The Spaniards identified two main groups among the Indigenous Peoples; the Arawak along the coast and the Carib in the interior. But in contrast to most other countries in South America, Guyana did not remain under Spanish control.
In 1616, the Dutch established the first European settlement in the country, but this led to a territorial dispute with Spain. In 1648, Guyana was claimed by the Spanish, who sent periodic patrols through the region to make sure the Dutch could not gain control over the region. Despite all this, Dutch sovereignty was eventually recognised with the signing of the Treaty of Munster in October 1648.
By 1762, Guyana was ruled by a Dutch minority and inhabited mainly by imported slaves of African origin, but some indigenous people were also enslaved. In the Berbice region, there were 3,833 black slaves, 244 free and enslaved indigenous people and 356 white people. The African slaves, led by Cuffy, who is now celebrated as a national hero, revolted in February 1763, killing many Dutch and threatening to liberate other regions of the country. The rebellion was not put down until 1764.
In 1796 The British took over three of the Dutch colonies in Guyana during their conflict with France, who had occupied the Netherlands. There followed a territorial dispute between Britain and the Netherlands until Britain returned control to the Dutch in 1802 but then recaptured the colonies once more in 1803. The Dutch officially ceded the territory to Britain in 1814 and, following the British Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, also signed an international agreement with Britain to stop the slave trade. Despite the legal change, African and some indigenous people continued to endure slavery in parts of Guyana until 1834 when it was properly abolished nationwide.
Once they were freed, Guyanese of African descent left their plantations to set up their own freeholdings. The British also began importing coolies from other parts of the British Empire, mainly India. The increased immigration and the liberation of the slaves both caused more land disputes and put increased pressure on Indigenous Peoples.
After a century under British control, the British Guiana Independence Conference commenced their discussions on Guyana’s eventual independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. On May 26th, 1966, four years later, Guyana finally became an independent country.
Nowadays, Guyana is one the countries most interested in forest protection and climate change mitigation, giving this a special relevance to rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is because it has one of the highest forest cover percentages of any tropical country, and the vast majority of this forest is in areas populated and used by Indigenous Peoples. Guyana is an example of a high forest cover, low deforestation rate (HFLD) country. This special feature has made Guyana incredibly attractive to REDD+ schemes.
In spite of their importance, indigenous people in Guyana are still seeking recognition of their customary land rights and have been doing so since before Guyana’s independence. There have been several pre and post-independence governments who took action in this matter, nevertheless, about half of indigenous communities in Guyana still lack any title. Even in the places where titling and demarcation have been carried out, Indigenous Peoples were not adequately consulted, resulting in titles which exclude important areas and, in many cases, this resulted in further disputes. One of the main issues after titling certain pieces of land in Guyana has been that individual villages also requested large tracts of land that, in many cases, overlapped with the requests made by others.
It is important to remember that despite constituting about 10% of the population of Guyana, and despite fighting for many years for recognition of their land rights, approximately half of indigenous people still lack fully secured titles.
Guyana is a key country for The Tenure Facility due to the presence of some 70,000 indigenous people in 9 distinct ethnic groups who retain strong cultural and practical links with their lands, tenure rights over which have only partially been recognised. These indigenous lands are mostly forested and make up the majority of Guyana’s exceptionally intact national forest cover.
For the full story of land and forest rights in Guyana go to the Timeline.
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