Coastal pol­i­tics and the Na­tional Toshaos Coun­cil

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

It is no news to any­one that pol­i­tics and eth­nic­ity are al­most coter­mi­nous in this coun­try, although when speak­ing in these terms, com­men­ta­tors have only two eth­nic groups in mind – In­di­ans and Africans. Some decades ago, In­dian num­bers were such that the PPP would have needed very lit­tle as­sis­tance from out­side their con­stituency to win an elec­tion. As such, it was the prospect of pos­si­bly never win­ning a free and fair elec­tion which was a ma­jor fac­tor in the PNC fix­ing on an aber­rant path to power.

The po­lit­i­cal land­scape, how­ever, has been slowly evolv­ing in re­cent years, and it is chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics which have mostly en­gen­dered that evo­lu­tion. Whereas there was a time when In­di­ans ac­counted for around 50% of the pop­u­la­tion, that num­ber has been de­clin­ing, so that they were recorded in the last cen­sus as hav­ing slipped be­low 40%. Africans, who were al­ways a mi­nor­ity – al­beit a large one – are now be­low 30%. The only two groups show­ing an in­crease are the Mixed pop­u­la­tion and the Amerindi­ans, or Indige­nous peo­ple. The first of these is an amor­phous group with­out any kind of single group iden­tity, a not in­signif­i­cant num­ber of which have tra­di­tion­ally voted with the PNC. The sec­ond now stands at around 10% of the pop­u­la­tion, and could be­come a king-maker if it voted as a solid bloc.

The Amerindi­ans, how­ever, com­prise nine na­tions, of which by far the largest nu­mer­i­cally speak­ing, are the Arawaks, who are con­cen­trated in Re­gion One, although by no means con­fined there. Fur­ther­more, the Indige­nous elec­torate has not voted as a single group since the days of Stephen Camp­bell in the early 1960s, who even­tu­ally at­tached him­self to the United Force, bring­ing the Amerindian vot­ers with him.

Since then, the Indige­nous peo­ple have not spo­ken with one po­lit­i­cal voice, giv­ing their votes to more than one party, although up un­til 2015 they gave their bal­lots in suf­fi­cient num­bers to the PPP/C to bring it to of­fice in an era of clean elec­tions. They are, of course scat­tered over the ex­ten­sive in­te­rior of this coun­try, and un­til more re­cent times with the ad­vent of the in­ter­net which ben­e­fits a lim­ited num­ber of them, have hardly had the op­por­tu­nity to or­ga­nize them­selves as a single group.

The PPP was the first to grasp the sig­nif­i­cance of the Amerindian vote if they were to main­tain a hold on power, and their ap­proach to the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion was the same as that they em­ployed in other de­part­ments of gov­er­nance – con­trol. This was mixed with ex­pend­ing money and ef­fort on vis­it­ing hin­ter­land vil­lages, and in dis­pens­ing out­board en­gines and the like, in a bid to per­suade the Amerindi­ans to vote for them.

As a con­se­quence of their iso­la­tion, many of the Indige­nous peo­ple have been re­moved from coastal pol­i­tics, and have had only very lim­ited deal­ings with the com­plex rules within which gov­ern­ment at all lev­els op­er­ates here. In ad­di­tion, they come out of a com­mu­nal­ist tra­di­tion, which is some­times chary of plac­ing power in the hands of a single in­di­vid­ual, or even a small cir­cle of in­di­vid­u­als. That said, the be­gin­nings of Indige­nous village gov­ern­ment in its mod­ern for­mat go back to the 1950s, and in its present-day in­car­na­tion de­rives from the 2006 Amerindian Act. There have been prob­lems in some vil­lages re­lat­ing to ob­ser­vance of the rules, fi­nan­cial and oth­er­wise, which the last Min­is­ter of Amer-in­dian Af­fairs, at least, ap­peared re­luc­tant to ad­dress; the pri­or­ity was al­ways en­sur­ing the vil­lages voted for the PPP/C.

Apart from en­trench­ing the sys­tem of village gov­ern­ment, the 2006 Amerindian Act also did some­thing else: it es­tab­lished the Na­tional Toshaos Coun­cil (NTC), a ve­hi­cle which for the first time al­lowed Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all over the coun­try to come to­gether to ex­change views; and most im­por­tant, to tell the gov­ern­ment what they think. This has been con­sid­er­ably eas­ier un­der this gov­ern­ment, it must be said, than the pre­vi­ous one. The NTC has been meet­ing an­nu­ally for sev­eral years now, and its growth in terms of ex­press­ing a dis­tinc­tive and in­de­pen­dent Indige­nous view­point to the po­lit­i­cal pow­er­houses of this land, as well as its grasp of the pro­pri­eties of gov­er­nance were never more ap­par­ent than dur­ing the 2017 meet­ing.

As we re­ported on Fri­day, in a state­ment on the fourth day of de­lib­er­a­tions it was clear that the coun­cil not only un­der­stood the ne­ces­sity of clear rules of func­tion­ing, but was also alive to coastal po­lit­i­cal games when it said, “It is our ob­jec­tive to adopt rules and pro­ce­dures to gov­ern the op­er­a­tions of the NTC… and de­velop the nec­es­sary frame­work to ‘Pro­tect the NTC’ from po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion…” Whether the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties have taken note, how­ever, re­mains to be seen. Cer­tainly the state­ment went on to ac­cuse the gov­ern­ment of try­ing to un­der­mine the adop­tion of the rules and pro­ce­dures.

In re­sponse to re­newed calls by the ad­min­is­tra­tion for the NTC to im­prove on its per­for­mance it pointed to the re­jec­tion of the bud­gets it had tabled. It ad­verted to the fact that ow­ing to the geo­graph­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, in or­der to con­vene one meet­ing of the coun­cil’s ex­ec­u­tive, it needed $3 mil­lion, leav­ing no money to go to meet­ings re­quested by min­istries or gov­ern­ment agen­cies, or to at­tend emer­gency meet­ings. In this re­gard it drew at­ten­tion to the fact that in May 2016 the NTC and some other or­ga­ni­za­tions met to draft pos­si­ble reg­u­la­tions for Sec­tion 51.3 of the Amerindian Act in re­la­tion to min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. “Had these Reg­u­la­tions been fi­nal­ized and Gazetted by the Min­istry,” the state­ment said, “it would have made the nec­es­sary fi­nances avail­able to the NTC with­out tap­ping into the Con­sol­i­dated Fund…”

The coun­cil ex­pressed it­self as par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about be­ing ex­posed to at­tacks from the gov­ern­ment, be­cause it had stepped into the breach and taken up the “chal­lenges” when the ad­min­is­tra­tion failed to re­con­sti­tute the Indige­nous Peo­ples Com­mis­sion, and ap­point mem­bers to the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion. The NTC re­garded this as the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “at­tempt to dis­tract from the Gov­ern­ment’s short­com­ings.”

As in­di­cated above, the Toshaos Coun­cil did not limit it­self to crit­i­cis­ing the gov­ern­ment; it was far more bal­anced in that it rec­og­nized what was pos­i­tive in its ap­proach to the NTC. “Let us first iden­tify that it is only un­der this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said the coun­cil state­ment, “that the NTC has been given a ‘small’ room to grow. Un­der the PPP, ev­ery single com­po­nent from the Chair­man’s re­marks, to who spoke, and when to hush lead­ers were all man­aged by the PPP. In­de­pen­dent me­dia and other or­ga­ni­za­tions were also banned from at­tend­ing and the agenda and ev­ery­thing else was man­aged by the PPP.”

Aside from what was said in the state­ment about the gov­ern­ment, there was also the fi­asco with the ministers who were to ad­dress the coun­cil and an­swer ques­tions, and came when they were not sched­uled. Min­is­ter Khem­raj Ram­jat­tan for his part ag­gra­vated the sit­u­a­tion by of­fer­ing the triv­ial ex­cuse that he was at cricket. Any min­is­ter of gov­ern­ment who is sched­uled to ap­pear at a high-level meet­ing does not turn up with­out warn­ing at some other time as he or she feels like; that is at best grossly ill-man­nered and at worst con­temp­tu­ous. It seems that the gov­ern­ment has not yet discovered the sig­nif­i­cance of the NTC and does not treat it with the re­spect it de­serves.

For its part, the PPP did rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of the NTC – at least in the coastal po­lit­i­cal scheme of things. It has no in­ter­est, how­ever, in de­vel­op­ing true Amerindian democ­racy. As men­tioned al­ready, it be­lieved it could man­age the coun­cil by ex­er­cis­ing to­tal con­trol. The NTC, how­ever, is taking on a life of its own; it is the fo­rum where the Indige­nous peo­ple find larger demo­cratic ex­pres­sion, and seems to be alive to both po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion by one side as well as di­rect con­trol by the other. The coastal par­ties will sooner or later have to adapt them­selves to what may be­come an evolv­ing new re­al­ity.

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