THE celebration of Indigenous Heritage Month should give us an opportunity to reflect not only on the big progress unfolding in the many small hinterland communities, but on the role of our indigenous peoples in preserving and protecting our land and our collective life.

Over many years I have heard cynics warning against government “giving away” lands to indigenous communities. But for me, it is not about giving away. It is about “giving back” communal lands to our First Peoples. If we could learn anything from the Amazonian rainforest fires in nearby Brazil, we should see the “giving back” process as an investment of confidence in our indigenous peoples who have occupied our rainforests for centuries, and who have so far saved them from indiscriminate destruction. They have been the guardians of our rainforests, our rivers, our fish stock, birds and animals, and endangered species that mirror our pristine, beautiful, rich and unique Guyanese life.

Our government is also interested in the beneficial use of our land resources. This is why government is encouraging hinterland communities to draft Village Improvement Plans (VIPs). This is not a condition for land-titling or extensions, but as a strategy to access financial and other resources to make these communities better.

No one can today deny the positive changes in the life and condition of hinterland (Amerindian) communities. Our indigenous peoples are no longer totally cut off from each other, or from the coast, though we are separated by vast expanses of savannahs, forests, mountains and swamps. During the past four years, the APNU+AFC Government has tried to bridge the divide. It has, between 2015 and 2018, invested some $48 Billion on expanding, maintaining and constructing roads and bridges in the hinterland. An additional $38.5 Billion was approved to continue this process in 2019.

Essential services which were previously available only in cities on the coast, are being delivered at newly created hinterland towns at Bartica, Mabaruma, Mahdia and Lethem.

These towns and other locations are only now “connected” as a result of improvements to the electricity supply system at locations such as Matthews Ridge, Port Kaituma, St. Cuthbert’s Mission, Siparuta, Orealla, Moraikobai, Moco-Moco, Wauna, and the Culvert City Housing Scheme. Limited electricity distribution networks have been provided at Arakaka and Moruca, in Waini-Barima (Region One). Supplying electricity to these far-off, isolated communities remains a big challenge, but expectations are running high as well, with “Light it up” campaigns in places such as Waramadong (Region Seven), Aranaputa Valley (Region Nine) and in the Matarkai Sub Region, (Region One).

At Mabaruma, in the Barima-Waini (Region One), a $272M solar farm was built. A similar energy facility, costing $200M will be erected at Annai, Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo (Region Nine), together with a $450.2M Hydropower Plant at the Cheung Falls, Kato, Potaro-Siparuni (Region Eight) to supply electricity to the residential Kato Secondary School. Two other hinterland hydro projects, at Moco Moco and Kumu, are in the pipeline. The emphasis on power supply was to facilitate the National Data Management Authority (NDMA) to set up ICT Hubs in hinterland communities and villages, and for radio/television outreaches. Today, some of the most remote parts of Guyana, where our Indigenous peoples live or work, are just a phone call away!

Even getting around inside villages could be a problem as settlements are criss-crossed by rivers and creeks, and bridges and culverts are needed to navigate them. This is why the modern bridges at Moruca and Wakapau have been hailed by residents as landmark achievements.

Our government has been doing as best as it could with our limited financial resources to improve transportation to hinterland communities by air, land and river. Some 57 airstrips have been upgraded and constructed, including those villages with exotic names such as Baramita, Mabaruma, Port Kaituma, Bimechi, Mahdia, Kamarang, Monkey Mountain, Kato, Paramakatoi, Kaikan, Eteringbang and Kurupung.

The aerodrome at the centre of Guyana’s green lungs, Iwokrama, was lengthened from 762 metres to 1,219 metres, to accommodate bigger aircraft. In addition, $834M was approved to upgrade Lethem Airport, at the border with Brazil, into an international hub. Our government has since approved a sum of $2B to do additional upgrades at other airstrips, and for installation of lights and other safety features.

The most visible displays of progress in hinterland communities are the new concrete roads in Mahdia, Port Kaituma and Mabaruma. In the township of Lethem, the internal roads are being upgraded to a four-lane carriageway, with pedestrian walkways and streetlights! Aranaputa, famous for its peanut butter and honey, declared a new Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) village in North Rupununi, now has paved roads for the first time. The Deep South of Guyana is faced with periodic flooding, which resulted in works to fix over 350 km (215 miles) of major access roads, and to repair bridges joining remote villages such as Kraudar, Aishalton, Shea, Baishaidrum and Achiwib. New bridges are being built at Aranawau, Achimerawau and at Maribonter Creek.

New culverts have been constructed at Katoonarib, Aishalton, Shulinab, Mountain point and Achiwib; with a new reinforced, concrete bridge on Falls Top to Port Kaituma main road.

This profile of developments in areas where our indigenous peoples live cannot be complete without mention of road upgrades at Aranaputa, St. Ignatius, Culvert City, Kaicumbay, Parishara, between Oronoque Junction and Port Kaituma District Hospital and between Kumaka and Kwebanna Main Access Road, Moruca. The North-West District is one area in Guyana that has to be accessed by water, and for this both the Lady Northcote and MV Kimbia have been renovated. For travels to and emergencies from the riverain communities of Orealla, Bartica, Kwakwani and the Pomeroon, new water ambulances have been provided.

In response to the slick but sick politician who told indigenous communities that they cannot eat roads, airstrips and bridges, I wish to say that all these facilities are about people. These facilities in turn help in the promotion of businesses. Under the Hinterland Employment Youth Scheme (HEYS), for example, some 2,051 businesses were established and supported; more than 300 Indigenous youths are currently enrolled at the Bina Hill Institute for skills training.

With electricity and telecommunication facilities available, some 154 villages and communities have successfully implemented Community Development Projects (CDPs), 44 of which are fully operational and profitable business ventures in hinterland communities. Over 200 villages continue to benefit from Presidential Grants with 1,119 Presidential Grant cheques given to villages. Next week, My Turn will examine developments in education and health in our indigenous communities. Until then, enjoy Indigenous Heritage Month!