Government, NTC and Indigenous communities must work together – President at NTC Conference

Georgetown, Guyana – (August 21, 2017) President David Granger sounded the call for the National Toshaos Council (NTC), the indigenous villages and communities and the Government and all its agencies to cooperate and work towards a common goal of development through education, economic empowerment, social protection, national security and the protection of the environment as the annual National Toshaos’ Council’s (NTC) Conference opened today at the Cyril Potter College of Education’s Auditorium, Turkeyen.  Additionally, the Head of State later in the day turned the sod for the construction of the NTC Secretariat at Sophia, which fulfilled a promise and demonstrated the administration’s commitment to ensuring good governance of Indigenous Peoples’ affairs.

Delivering the feature address at the opening ceremony of the Conference, President David Granger said that while residents of Indigenous communities and villages face severe challenges, the Government of Guyana, through the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs and together with the NTC have an obligation to work together towards the improvement of the economic and social conditions of indigenous communities.

President Granger said that it is in their own communities that Indigenous peoples will be better able to practice, preserve and promote their distinct way of life and the State must ensure that the systems are put in place to make this a reality. However, he noted that a concerted effort is needed and all parties including the NTC, the village Toshaos, leaders and residents must set aside all other partisan interests and work together for a common vision.

“It is no easy task to administer so many communities over such a vast area from Arau to Orealla and from Morawhanna to Masekenyari. Many communities are isolated and separated by long distances from the main administrative centres in the regions in which they are located. This situation presents challenges to finding solutions to the myriad problems, which confront indigenous communities. The State must aim at improving the situation of Indigenous people – as members of their communities and as citizens of this country. The NTC is responsible for the preparation of plans for improving the quality of life of indigenous communities. The Council must do so. It must strive, continuously, to improve the social and economic conditions of their communities,” the President said.

The President’s remarks were supported by Vice-President and Minister of Indigenous People’s Affairs, Mr. Sydney Allicock, who said that the Government strongly encourages dialogue.  “We believe in the contributions you can make for your communities to be better off. It is because we know there are issues out there and the Government cannot do it alone. You are part of the solution to the many issues. We need to come together and find a way how we can do things better. We can only get better with greater unity in our tool box of greater value. Ours is the responsibility to strengthen our individual and collective resolve to better champion the cause of our Indigenous population. We must prepare ourselves to meet all challenges. Let us resolve at this conference to do this,” Minister Allicock said.

Chairman of the NTC, Mr. Joel Fredericks, in his remarks at the opening ceremony at CPCE, said that while there have been numerous challenges to the Council and the Indigenous peoples during the last year, the resolve to find solutions is stronger than ever.

He noted that the NTC, its leaders and the residents of the hinterland are all committed to working with the administration to find the solutions, which can create a better life. “We would like to express how grateful we are to the President for granting us a plot of land for the establishment of our Secretariat. It is a great step forward for the Indigenous people of Guyana and our nation. No Government can solve all the problems. We all need to do better. Let us work together. We will make a commitment to work together and all of our Toshaos and communities are with me on this. We are willing to work together to build this nation,” he said.

Referencing the need for greater hinterland security, President Granger told the Conference that they too have a responsibility to ensure that Guyana’s economic wealth and natural resources are not illegally exploited and exported. “We must work together, also, to protect our hinterland and border communities, from the threat of transnational criminal syndicates. Instability on our borders can generate agents of violence and death, who can entice our young people into criminality and inflict harm on our citizens,” he said.

Expanding on the need to preserve the natural environment, he said that all stakeholders must work together to reduce environmental hazards, water contamination and land degradation, which can lead to largescale flooding as was experienced more recently in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni, Potaro-Siparuni and Rupununi regions.  “We must work together to prevent pollution of our rivers. These rivers are used by our communities for cooking, cleaning, drinking and washing. Pollution caused by reckless mining and logging threatens the lives and livelihoods of communities,” he said.

Expanding on this point Minister Garrido-Lowe said that even as the world continues to grapple with the effects of climate change and global warming, Indigenous peoples must continue to be ‘keepers of the forests.’ “We have to give serious thought to climate change simply because climate change is real. It is not a figment of our imagination. Forests help keep and protect the planet by absorbing massive amounts of carbon dioxide, the most abundant kind of pollution that causes climate change. Everywhere you turn in the hinterland you see ‘greenness’. In Regions One, Seven, Eight and Nine we’ve got the ‘greenness’ preserved for thousands of years by our first peoples of Guyana, our Indigenous peoples. You, my friends, are the keepers of the forest,” she said.

Turning to education, a major policy area for Indigenous peoples’ development, the President, who launched the ‘Boats, Buses, Bicycles, Breakfast and Books’ of Five B’s programme in 2015 with the aim of reducing the barriers to the access to education, said that the communities, its leaders and the Government must collectively work towards the provision of educational opportunities to every Indigenous child.  The Head of State noted that education and programmes for youth development must be focused on preparing young people to spur economic activity.

“We must work together to improve the standard of education, in terms of access, attendance and achievement, especially at the primary and secondary levels, in hinterland communities. Indigenous communities must not be left behind. In economic development, we must work together to create jobs for our young people in their communities and reduce poverty and eradicate unemployment. The Hinterland Employment Youth Service (HEYS) and the Youth Entrepreneurship and Skills Training (YEST) programme have been working to help young people to become self-employed. We must promote small and medium-scaled industries within communities to provide work and generate wealth for our women and youth,” he said.

To this end, Minister within the Ministry of the Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Ms. Valerie Garrido-Lowe said that the Ministry has invested $991 million towards youth development initiatives for the Indigenous communities across the country. To date, a total of 1,800 youth persons have graduated from the HEYS Programme, with another 100 communities standing to benefit in the coming months.

Minister Allicock said that the Government is moving away from the tradition of providing handouts to  Indigenous peoples as was done by the previous administration but is instead investing in initiatives, which are conceptualised by the villages and communities for their benefit.

“There is much to celebrate and to build upon. This momentum thrust must not be lost; the momentum must not be sacrificed on the altar of selfish or partisan political expedience. On the contrary, the momentum must be heightened and centered upon the best interest of all the Indigenous Peoples of Guyana. Our President sees education as critical in this process of nation building. Government has, therefore, commenced work on a dormitory for tertiary students and this is a quantum leap of ensuring the realisation of His Excellency’s vision of an education nation with equal opportunity for all,” he said.

Further, the Head of State said that the Government of Guyana cannot ignore the everyday living conditions of the hinterland communities and it will continue to work through the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs to solve the persistent problem of hinterland underdevelopment. The Council, also, must be concerned about the economic and social problems, which undermine the quality of life within some communities, he said.

The President said that the communities, leaders and Government must work together to reduce the incidence of alcoholism, incest, murder, non-communicable diseases, people-trafficking, prostitution, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and suicide within certain communities, since it has far reaching consequences not only in those regions but the country as a whole.  “Anti-social behaviour undermines the cultural fabric of communities and lowers everyone’s the quality of life.  I urge the Council to adopt the administrative measures needed to improve the quality of life of our Indigenous peoples,” he said.

Urging the Council to make the best of the 2017 meeting, the President said that the Conference should not become a ‘talk shop’ but rather a workshop and forum for planning, problem-solving and a means to strengthen the administration and to advance the social and economic development of villages and regions.

Immediately after the ceremony, President Granger along Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and Minister Allicock, unveiled the artist’s impression of the NTC Secretariat. The event, which featured dances and songs from culture groups as far as Batavia Village and Mainstay/Whyaka, was also attended by First Lady, Mrs. Sandra Granger, Minister of State, Mr. Joseph Harmon, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Mr. Basil Williams, Minister of Finance, Mr. Winston Jordan and other Ministers of Government, Police Commander of ‘F’ Division, Mr. Ravindradat Budhram, members of the diplomatic corps and civil society.

The National Toshaos Council is a semi-autonomous organisation, which comprises all Toshaos in Guyana for the effective administration of the Indigenous villages across the country.