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Guyana's Ameridian Land Titling Project, funded by the Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund (GRIF), recently adopted a Guideline for Amerindian Land Titling in Guyana. The Guideline, developed by stakeholders including the government, indigenous peoples as well as other natural resource users, aims to address stakeholder grievances and improve Guyana's land titling processes.

By Vanessa Jimenez and Jennifer Laughlin

On 6 April 2017, on the heels of an effective and meaningful stakeholder process, a new Guideline for improving implementation of Guyana’s Amerindian Land Titling (ALT) Project was adopted by the project’s board after nearly a year of welcomed deliberations and collaborative drafting by a specially-formed working group composed of project stakeholders (representatives of government commissions and ministries, Amerindian peoples, civil society, and additional natural resource users). The good faith application of this new Guideline to the ALT Project and Amerindian land titling in general in Guyana holds the promise of not only addressing prior and future stakeholder grievances, but also bringing Guyana’s land titling processes in line with the ALT Project terms, UNDP Social and Environmental Standards (“SES”), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”), and relevant UN international human rights instruments.

In 2013, the ALT Project ($10.7 million funded by Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund, GRIF) was commenced with a key objective of protecting indigenous peoples’ rights in Guyana through titling of their traditional lands and increasing the size and demarcating several existing titled lands.  In doing so, the project aims to provide opportunities for Amerindians who depend heavily on the forest resources within such lands to sustain their physical and cultural survival and improve their livelihood.  After about a year and a half of implementation, growing concerns were voiced about the implementation and efficacy of the Project, including questions about the extent to which the investigative and titling processes were consistent with the Project’s applicable standards and policies and otherwise violated their rights to the lands and resources they have traditional owned, used and occupied (including their right to free, prior and informed consent).  During stakeholder deliberations, Government officials also voiced concerns, among others, about what were perceived as a lack of understanding about Community and Village decision-making processes, consistency and reliability of such Amerindian decisions over time, as well as difficulties in coordinating information sharing and responsibilities among government offices.

In response to growing grievances, in October of 2015 UNDP, with the full support of Guyana’s Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs, sent a small team of experts to Guyana to talk with Project stakeholders and perform the exercise of applying UNDP’s new Social and Environmental Screening Procedure (“SESP”) and SES to the current ALT Project.  The results of the experts’ field study and this “SESP Review” can be found in the document titled “Application of the Social and Environmental Screening Procedure (SESP) to the Amerindian Land Titling Project (ALT), Guyana”.   The SESP Review concluded that there were high risks associated with the Project and that the best way to mitigate such risks going forward would be, among other things, to “identify a working group to examine and validate guidelines” that would address three (3) matters: (i) a process for stakeholder engagement under the ALT Project, (ii) criteria and procedures for delimitation, demarcation and titling under the ALT Project, and (iii) a mechanism to respond to grievances arising from the project (collectively defined as “Track 1” exercises); and to “establish an Indigenous Peoples Land Commission” and gather UNDP and other domestic and international technical support to identify “key legal issues” that arise under domestic “laws, regulations and policies” that may need future regulation or reform (defined as “Track 2” exercises).  In January of last year, the Project board endorsed these recommendations.

In May of 2016 the ALT Project’s stakeholders met and agreed to establish a stakeholder working group called the “Representative Platform”.  This platform of stakeholders went on to meet on three separate occasions, including accompanying UNDP’s facilitator to several field visits to engage Community and Village members and listen to their own experiences with land titling.  Through frank discussion, diligent drafting and consensus building, the members of the platform drafted “A Guideline for Amerindian Land Titling in Guyana” expressly applicable not just to the ALT Project, but future Amerindian land titling in Guyana.   The latter is particularly important in light of the nation’s contemporaneous establishment of the Commission of Inquiry which is empowered at the national level to "examine and make recommendations to resolve all issues and uncertainties surrounding the claims of Amerindian land titling, the individual, joint or communal ownership of lands acquired by freed Africans, and on any other matters relating to land titling in Guyana.”

According to the newly adopted Guideline, the ALT Project proponents will  work with indigenous peoples and other stakeholder to fulfill the State’s duties and obligations to recognize and title indigenous peoples’ lands in a participatory and transparent process (especially during the investigative phase as outlined), in accordance with the norms, values and customs of the Amerindian peoples themselves, and with the free and informed consent of the Amerindian Communities and Villages prior to undertaking key activities and decision-making expressly identified in the Guideline.  The manner in which the new Commission of Inquiry contributes to, or complements this work, is yet to be determined.

The Guideline provides a way forward for all of this, addressing each of the three matters recommended by the UNDP SESP Review.  Where the Representative Platform’s mandate limited treatment of certain issues, such as the State’s continued recognition and granting of resources concessions within Amerindian traditional lands per domestic law, key discussions within the platform about these matters, as documented in the UNDP’s Facilitator Report, hope to inform ongoing “track 2” activities aimed at future legal reforms and regulatory enactments.  

The Guideline is the product of a collaborative and laudable stakeholder engagement reflecting the minimum requirements necessary to ensure that Amerindian land titling in Guyana adheres to applicable law, standards, and policies.  Implementation is now the greater task.  This will require increased education and capacity building among all stakeholders, equitable distribution of resources among relevant state institutions, review and update of titling practices and engagements across Government commissions and ministries, additional human resources and expertise throughout the Government, and the urgent establishment of the grievance office created by the Guideline.  It is hoped that the goodwill that marked the production of the Guideline will endure through implementation.

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