Caribbean Indigenous Peoples call for “a seat at the table”
The Caribbean’s indigenous people have urged that they be given a seat at the political table so as to safeguard their rights to their ancestral lands and resources, as they wrapped up an historic University of the West Indies conference of indigenous peoples over the Labour Day weekend.
The call for political representation for the minority first peoples of the region is one of a slew of recommendations on health, education, gender, sustainable livelihoods, land rights and access to justice, drafted after three days of deliberations by the leaders and representatives of indigenous peoples from six CARICOM nations. Host country Belize is home to more than 50,000 Maya and Garifuna peoples, roughly one-tenth of the population.
The conference, organised by UWI IMPACT Justice, a Canadian-funded project to improve access to justice in the Caribbean, has been hailed as a rare, unique and historic gathering of the region’s indigenous peoples and a recognition of the need to redress centuries of degradation and discrimination. “The Indigenous people have very little representation at the levels of government because of the political party system that exists in most of the Caribbean and Latin American countries, and because the indigenous peoples are a minority in those countries we find that the political representation is almost not there,” stated Louis Patrick Hill, a representative of Dominica’s Kalinago chief.
The conference proposed that New Zealand’s model of representation for its indigenous Mori people, which reserves seats for representatives of Mori in parliament, be adopted. The conference also called for a formal consultative process which gives voice to indigenous peoples’ rights and concerns in the clash with governments over exploitation of their lands. At the level of international law, there was a call for CARICOM governments to ratify Article 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), considered the most important international law guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples. The 1989 convention depends on a high number of states ratifying it to give it greater power. Dominica,
which ratified the convention in 2002 is to date the only CARICOM member state to do so.
One of the working groups formed during the conference to make recommendations for follow-up action on social policy also identified a litany of setbacks, deprivations and discrimination that has led to a further marginalisation of indigenous people.
It cited a loss of oral history, the absence of a written history and an education system marked either by limited access or irrelevance to indigenous people.
The conference recommended that proposals be addressed directly to the CARICOM Council of Ministers of Education for an improved curriculum.
Cristina Coc of the Toledo Alcades Association, a group of Mayan traditional leaders in southern Belize, made an emotional appeal for recognition and respect for the first peoples of the region.
The UWI conference was notable for the participation of two justices of the Caribbean Court of Justice, Adrian Saunders and Jacob Witt. Last year, the CCJ upheld the land rights of the Mayans of southern Belize.
The meeting was also attended by the highest ranking Amerindian in the Guyana government, Vice President Sydney Allicock, along with Attorney General Basil Williams and Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Minister Valerie Garrido-Lowe. They were joined by a host of academics and experts in law, environmental conservation and geographical information technology from the Caribbean, Canada and the United States.
Justice Adrian Saunders of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). Last year, the court upheld Maya land rights in Belize in a landmark order.