World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guyana : Overview
|Publisher||Minority Rights Group International|
|Publication Date||September 2008|
|Cite as||Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guyana : Overview, September 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce3723.html [accessed 7 December 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Updated September 2008
The Co-operative Republic of Guyana is located on the northern coast of South America. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by Suriname, on the west by Brazil and Venezuela and on the south by Brazil. Guyana has an area of 214,969 square kilometers, however as a result of its history as a plantation colony about 90 per cent of the population is concentrated on the 435 km long coastal strip.
Main languages: English, Hindi/Urdu dialect, indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, indigenous religions
Main minority groups: indigenous Carib and Arawak 49,000, small Portuguese (0.2%, 2002 Census) and Chinese (0.19%, 2002 Census) populations.
The majority of the population of Guyana is of African and East Indian descent, with Indo-Guyanese being the dominant group. The rest of the population is of European, Chinese or indigenous origin.
The indigenous peoples are known locally as 'Amerindians' (9.2%, 2002 Census). Indigenous people comprise nine ethnic groups, three in coastal areas and six in the forest and savannah areas of the interior.
Ninety per cent of Amerindian communities are located in the interior of the country. Their standard of living is lower than that of most citizens, and they have limited opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, or allocation of natural resources.
Most of Guyana's indigenous groups have undergone extensive cultural modification. Those of the coast share many cultural features with Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. In addition over the centuries there has been significant intermarriage between the coastal indigenous groups and Afro-Guyanese.
After decades of European contact all indigenous groups have been considerably affected by the efforts of Christian missionaries and integrated in some way at the lowest levels of the national economy.
As in other former colonial territories class, colour, religion and ethnic appearance have long been key factors in the socio-political life of Guyana. Afro-Guyanese with a 300-year ancestral history of being involuntarily imported into the country essentially assimilated into the dominant Christian colonial European Creole culture. On the other hand Indo-Guyanese whose ancestors voluntarily migrated in the late 19th century tended to conserve their own traditions and to remain more culturally and religiously distinct. However, this does not take into account the significant amount of intermarriage, religious conversions, and the cross-adoption of each group's cultural traits over several generations.
While not the main reason for rising tensions, the continuing inter-ethnic friction can be attributed largely to political opportunism and competition for the allotment of scarce resources. Over the years relative social and economic positions have changed markedly between the two groups. In the country's difficult economic environment any easing of ethnic tensions is usually directly tied to improvement in the country's overall material condition.
The territory now known as Guyana was first inhabited by indigenous groups such as the Carib (Galibi or Khali'nago), Arawak (Taino), Warrau, Wayana and Akawai.
The first Europeans to settle were from Holland. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company acquired a charter to colonize and monopolize trade in the Americas and in Africa where they established a chain of slave trading and collection forts along the western African coast to supply slave labour for the Americas.
The first of many hundreds of shiploads of enslaved Africans began arriving in Guyana in 1640 to work on the Dutch slave labour plantations. The extremely harsh treatment led to short lifespans, regular escapes and a very major slave rebellion in 1763 which was only finally put down with the arrival of warships and European troops.
For most of the 17th and 18th century the Dutch prevailed over colonizing attempts by French and British rivals. Dutch administration was instrumental in establishing the main towns. Slave labour was used to build the remarkable system of large drainage canals, dikes and sluices that form a protective barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the low lying coastline where the majority of the population still lives.
Abolition and indenture
The Dutch finally surrendered the territory to the British in 1803, after which it became a British colony officially established as British Guiana in 1831.
19th century life on British controlled plantations was hardly better for the enslaved Africans. In 1823 another major slave revolt ended with hangings and the public display of the bodies of those involved.
Slavery was finally abolished in 1833 but the newly emancipated slaves were still required to provide an additional five years of compulsory but paid labour, which was called 'apprenticeship'.
To combat the labour shortage from 1835 onwards Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported under indentureship contracts but could not endure the harsh local conditions. Almost a thousand Portuguese immigrants died within the first two years. They rapidly moved off the estates to the main urban centres becoming traders and shopkeepers, eventually coming to dominate commerce and political life.
At the end of their 'apprenticeship' period the fully emancipated Africans increasingly deserted the plantations. They moved to the towns or pooled capital to jointly purchase abandoned sugar estates along the coast, which they turned into independent collective farms and free villages.
East Indian indentured labour was brought in as a solution to the labour shortage. In 1838 the first of several thousand East Indian labourers arrived from colonial Calcutta under contract for a five-year period. Along with free passage they were housed and given rations, but received no payment in the initial period. Their material conditions differed very little from those during slavery. At the end of the first five-year period many opted for a free return passage and repatriated to India in 1843.
Nonetheless very substantial East Indian indentureship immigration continued for the rest of the 19th century until its eventual abolition in 1917. The vast majority of the immigrants remained in the colony firmly tied to the plantation economy well into the 20th century.
From 1853 onwards contract Chinese labourers were also brought to British Guiana. Like the Portugese they too quickly left the estates and entered commerce in the main towns and villages.
With the discovery of gold in 1878 Afro-Guyanese became prospectors in the interior further severing their connection with the plantation system and agricultural labour and enhancing the material development of the free villages. The later establishment of bauxite mining would continue this pattern.
The 1878 gold rush also encouraged significant additional migration of African descendants from other West Indian islands. This strengthened the predisposition of Afro-Guyanese to see themselves more as a 'Caribbean people' with family and cultural links extending to the islands.
The increasingly urban Afro-Guyanese actively pursued education offered by Christian denominational schools and eventually came to dominate the manual trades and the available positions for local teachers, clerks, nurses and in the junior ranks of the colonial security services. They were also in the forefront of trade union organizing and the anti-colonial movement.
Meanwhile by the mid-20th century due to high birth rates the predominantly rural Indo-Guyanese population had grown more rapidly than all others. Furthermore while remaining the mainstay of plantation agriculture they had also used their savings to rent or buy land and educate their children. They increasingly became independent farmers and landowners and moved into commerce and the professions.
Ethnicity and anti-colonial politics
Following a decade of unrest in the British Caribbean, and riots on the local sugar estates in 1948, the Guyana electorate became the first in the region to be granted adult sufferage. This led to the formation of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) by young educated Indo and Afro Guyanese professionals. The then multiethnic party represented the interests of both the rural agricultural workers (mostly Indo-Guyanese ) and the urban working class (mostly Afro-Guyanese).
The first election under universal adult suffrage in 1953 brought the PPP to power but protests by the newly elected representatives over lack of any real cabinet power led the British colonial authorities to suspend the constitution. The House of Assembly was disbanded, British troops were brought in and all political activity forbidden. In the power struggle that emerged the PPP split along ethnic and demographic lines with urban Afro-Guyanese leaving the party to eventually form the People's National Congress (PNC).
By the time the constitution was restored in 1957 the PPP under the left leaning first generation Indo-Guyanese Dr Cheddie Jagan mainly focused on the interests of the rural agricultural Indo-Guyanese constituency. The PNC led by Forbes Burnham was much more concerned with the needs of urban working class Afro-Guyanese.
The ongoing turmoil in Guyana meant that the country now lagged behind neighbouring Caribbean territories like Jamaica and Trinidad, which by 1958 had already received Cabinet status and become members of the West Indian Federation.
In 1961 the PPP was again victorious in elections aimed at internal self-government. However with independence looming and left-wing revolutionary forces proving triumphant in Cuba, Cheddie Jagan's admission of Communist leanings seriously alarmed Britain and the US. They both feared the establishment of a Soviet backed communist beachhead on the South American mainland, and strongly favoured the opposition parties led by the Afro-Guyanese Forbes Burnham (PNC) and Portuguese Guyanese Peter D'Aguair (United Front).
Playing on pro-western anti-communist sentiments the opposition together with externally funded trade unions undertook a series of destabilizing anti-government demonstrations and riots between 1961 and 1964. Lives and homes were destroyed as ethnic mistrust and suspicion grew and formerly ethnically integrated rural neigbourhoods began to devolve increasingly along racial and ethnic lines.
The institution of a System of Proportional Representation in 1964 greatly exacerbated the trend since it allowed the political parties parliamentary seats based on percentage of votes. Racial politics began to completely dominate the national debate as party strategists on both sides sought to increase their vote shares by blatantly appealing to ethnic sentiments and underlying fears of domination.
When the PPP lost power in the 1964 elections, the PNC formed a coalition with the United Front, thereby producing a majority and allowing Forbes Burnham to become the new prime minister.
Fearing the consequences of British departure and a locally run post-colonial administration many middle class Guyanese (mostly mixed race) began immigrating in large numbers to North America. This initiated the out-migration trend of well-trained but apprehensive nationals that has continued ever since.
Post-independence ethnic relations
In 1966 the country was granted independence and became known as Guyana, opting to become the Co-operative Republic of Guyana in 1970.
In elections of 1968 and 1973 the PNC retained power. This established a pattern that would be reflected in all subsequent political activity. Ethnicity would play a major role; the PPP would generally favour the East Indian community; the PNC would generally court Afro-Guyanese and whoever lost would charge fraud and challenge the validity of the polls.
Opposition to the PNC and ethnic tensions grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s and government relations with the church and human rights movements also deteriorated after opposition leaders were arrested. In efforts to create a more self-reliant economy the PNC government banned the importation of many popular food products and nationalized the major industries. This included some items that were central to East Indian cultural life (for example potatoes and wheat flour) and the measures were perceived as more evidence of PNC insensitivity and bias.
In the late 1980s social unrest and industrial disruption, that included a six-week strike in the sugar and bauxite industries, hampered further government attempts at reform.
Forbes Burnham died in 1985, after two decades in office and a period of severe economic crisis. Ethnic tensions though high were relatively free from violence. During this period although not dominant in politics, Indo-Guyanese had increasingly consolidated their economic position becoming more urbanized and ascendant in the commercial sector and the civil services.
In 1985 Afro-Guyanese Desmond Hoyte assumed the presidency, amidst more allegations of vote rigging. Pressured to conduct free and fair elections, in 1990 Hoyte announced new elections for October 1992 and for the next two years attempted to implement economic reforms that had a notable effect. From the late 1980s onwards bauxite mining, gold and rice production increased and the economy began achieving annual growth rates in excess of 6 per cent.
Return of the PPP
In the elections of 1992, which were deemed reasonably free and fair by international observers, the PPP returned to power with Cheddi Jagan once again becoming president. However the ousting of the PNC led to serious riots by mainly Afro-Guyanese supporters who complained of fraud and election rigging.
With the PPP in power it was Afro-Guyanese who now began to complain of discrimination. Ethnic tensions increased; especially criticisms regarding the firing of civil servants who had served under the previous administration (mostly Afro-Guyanese), and their replacement with Indo-Guyanese.
The economy continued growing during the Jagan years, but average wages remained low, and labour unrest continued. Following Jagan's unexpected death in 1997, his American-born widow was elected president and sworn in during a secret ceremony just prior to being served a court order barring her from office.
Janet Jagan's regime was marked by a sharp increase in racial rancor, work stoppages and protests against the PPP. Investment declined, the economy deteriorated. Guyana experienced a negative growth rate in 1998 for the first time in the decade, and wages remained extremely low. The outward exodus of people continued; many of them Indo-Guyanese economic migrants.
In 1999 Janet Jagan resigned and was replaced as president by Indo Guyanese Bharrat Jagdeo under strong protests by the PNC who challenged the legality of the transfer. Elections scheduled for 2000 were delayed until the following year, with support from both the business community and human rights groups.
Despite the high tensions under the Burnham and Hoyte regimes violence, between the groups had been minimal, however when the PPP won a third term in 2001, (endorsed by international observers) the results ignited riots across the country, shutting down much of the economy.
The resulting stand off between President Bharrat Jagdeo and opposition leader Desmond Hoyte heightened tensions further and partially led to an increase in violent acts between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese. In March 2002, the PNC began a boycott of parliament charging exclusion. This impasse lasted until 2003 when the two parties agreed to resolve their differences.
Between 2001 and 2003 continuing discord between Afro-Guyanese and Indo- Guyanese both within the government and the general society also led to a countrywide crime wave, which was attributed to Afro-Guyanese gangs, however most of the victims were also Afro-Guyanese.
Citing mishandling of the crime wave, the PNC charged the PPP government with favouritism and exclusion. The charges included ignoring of the African descended community, discriminating against them in the distribution of land, lack of representation on boards of state agencies and especially the condoning of extra-judicial killings of Afro-Guyanese by police.
There were protests by members of the Afro-Guyanese community and confrontations between security forces and protesters sometimes resulting in death.
Having for most of Guyana's history been the most disparaged and disenfranchised group in the country some groundbreaking efforts began to be made during the 1970s and 80s to better include and enhance the profile of the indigenous population. Besides introducing some basic services and encouraging more travel and contact between people of the coast and those of the interior, it included symbolic acts like commissioning the construction by indigenous builders of a large permanent conference hall (Umana Yana) in the capital using traditional materials and architectural styles.
More substantive changes began to occur after 1992 with the inauguration of the new Government In October of 1992,a special Minister of Amerindian Affairs was appointed. Furthermore 10 Amerindian Members of Parliament obtained seats in the 65 member National Assembly thereby occupying 16 per cent of the available places.
In 1995, the government also designated September as national Amerindian Heritage Month as a commemoration to showcase and promote Amerindian culture and contributions.
In 2003 a fourteen-member Parliamentary Select Committee was constituted to study and make recommendations for the revision of the 1978 Amerindian Act and new Amerindian Bill was tabled in 2004.
National elections 2006
National elections held in August 2006 were marked by an atmosphere of calm and concession that was notably absent from previous polls. The now renamed People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) was returned to power for a five year term with 54.6 per cent of votes cast thereby securing a Parliamentary majority of 36 seats.
The PNCR-1G remained the main parliamentary opposition with 22 seats. Three new parties also contested and collectively won a total of eight seats.
Despite being ethnically diverse and rich in natural resources, after more than a decade of political instability the country has increasing come to be seen as a 'failing state'
The vast majority of both the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese population are equally affected by high levels of poverty. The national per capita income of US$860 is now almost the lowest in the hemisphere and the country's ever more prosperous and stable Caribbean neigbours have become alarmed at the growing numbers of economic migrants from Guyana that have been entering their countries. Moreover in spite of the PPP/C victory, since 2007 an ever greater percentage of these have been Indo-Guyanese.
Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples
Ethnic tensions, between citizens of African descent and those of East Indian origin continue to influence society and political life. As a population that has been in the country since the 17th century, the feeling of unease among Afro-Guyanese seems to be prompted by a sense of having been displaced from a former position of influence and privilege and the attendant opportunities for self determination and enhancement of economic opportunity.
This is coupled with a deep mistrust of the PPP government driven by what is perceived to be a consistent pattern of deliberate exclusion and discrimination against their community.
While being hesitant to level charges of 'racism' publicly, Afro-Guyanese increasingly feel victimized by what they argue is essentially an informal ethnically determined system of privileges and rights operating in the society. They point to issues such as Afro-Guyanese being excluded from business and government contracts for most projects and being routinely denied bank loans, which on the other hand are readily made available to Indo-Guyanese. This they fear is designed to turn them into permanently marginalized second-class citizens.
They also point to the underground narcotics trade which has already penetrated many facets of the society allegedly compromising the integrity of many who govern and manage the country. This includes the financing of so called "phantom gangs" which many Afro-Guyanese claim have become a law on themselves. Over 400 Afro- Guyanese males have been "executed" since 2004 and both ethnic groups have suffered from increasing criminal activity.
Afro-Guyanese strongly argue that unless, the mainly Indo-Guyanese-based governing party accommodates the concerns of their population and is seen to act in a more even handed manner then strained relations are likely to harden, leading to deep and lasting enmity between Indo and Afro-Guyanese.
In January 2008 heavily armed gunmen attacked a mainly Indo-Guyanese coastal village of Lusignan killing 11 persons, including 5 children.
The incident, which shocked the country and earned widespread condemnation, occurred just two days after an army patrol was ambushed in the same general area, where a soldier was killed in a fierce 20-minute firefight.
Following the ambush and the village massacre, Army/Police Joint Services launched an operation in the neighbouring mostly Afro-Guyanese village of Buxton/Friendship, to capture and disable what they called criminal gangs. The encounter included another firefight that killed two of approximately ten gunmen who used automatic rifles and grenades against government forces.
During the operation, the military raided homes in the village and also bulldozed many mature cash crop farms in the village back lands supposedly to disable the suspects from escaping into the fields. Apart from the agricultural destruction – in a time of rising food prices – residents also complained that household items were needlessly damaged irreparably and unnecessary force was used to detain suspects.
The Afro-Guyanese village of Buxton/Friendship which is a coastal farming community of about 10,000 with a centuries long history of anti-colonial resistance, is a hotbed of anti-government sentiment that has now become a known base of outlaw gangs.
In past efforts to apprehend suspected offenders, police and military have routinely used harsh, heavy-handed, treatment, which has earned the deep resentment of the local community. Moreover this has only served to further alienate many Afro-Guyanese in general against the PPP/C government, and even produced a degree of sympathy for those who appear to be standing up to the existing authorities
Two days after what was called the "Lusignan Massacre" an ex-soldier, initially wanted for the December 2006 assassination of Agriculture Minister Satydeow Sawh, claimed responsibility for the village attack and warned of more mass killings to follow. Less than one month later, 13 persons including three policemen were gunned down in the main inland mining town of Bartica following a one-hour siege.
In a subsequent television news interview a former commander of the Guyana Defence Force and military analyst warned that what he called "the politics of arrogance, marginalization, and oligarchic distribution of wealth" has created conditions that are now feeding a virtual anti-government insurgency or "flea war". He indicated that because of what is seen as an inherent unfairness, armed people are increasingly using violence as a means of forcing the society to discuss their political grievances. Moreover he claimed many Afro-Guyanese former soldiers are now ever more willing to participate in this kind of anti-Government insurgency and that attempts to use combative force alone without engaging in dialogue will most likely only exacerbate the situation.
Despite disagreements voiced by indigenous groups as well as the parliamentary opposition and NGOs, the Amerindian Act tabled by the government in 2004 was approved by Parliament and signed into law in March 2006.
The main issues of contention continue to be the lack of autonomy given to indigenous community governing institutions, the number of powers conferred upon the Minister of Amerindian affairs, and the inadequacy of rights to land and resources.
In September 2006 the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs indicated that 13 per cent of the country's land has now been deemed to be indigenous property however this does not include subsurface mining rights.
Access to education, health care and economic opportunity in indigenous communities continues to be severely limited. Although the government has worked to improve some services, actual conditions remain far from adequate.
All indigenous communities have primary schools but there are few trained Amerindian teachers and the curriculum is in urgent need of reform to make it more relevant to the cultural and social development needs of indigenous communities. Health worker training and health huts have also been established in most communities but access to advanced health care in the hinterland is minimal.
The main issue for indigenous people continues to be land rights. Community groups continue to complain about the government's continued allocation of mining and logging rights without adequate consultation. They are particularly concerned about the continuing environmental degradation, and the social disruption these activities bring.
Although deforestation and land use are a greater source of greenhouse gases than the entire global transportation sector, the cash strapped Guyana government has essentially maintained the colonial era view of the forested interior as a prime source of revenue.
Moreover Consequently, plans for continued logging and an even greater expansion of mining activities in the country's hinterland pose a substantial threat to the future of indigenous communities, their traditions and their way of life.
Two months after the president very publicly offered Guyana's forests as a giant carbon offset to counter climate change, in January 2008 a private US based company Simon & Shock International was granted a nearly one million acre logging concession in the country's Amazon region.
According to Associated Press, the firm will spend $26 million developing the 988,4000-acre property, which lies near the Brazilian border. Timber extraction is expected to follow a tree inventory and an environmental impact study. Given that indigenous populations have already been given title to their own 4 million acres of Guyana's forests, it remains to be seen whether the study will seriously counternance any lateral threats this new venture will bring to their existence.