Photo: Reflections at Arrowpoint Kamuni Creek, by Amanda Richards
Guyana began negotiating a VPA in 2012. The final draft of the VPA was completed in September 2018 and the initialling took place on 23 November 2018. Civil society groups are concerned that any agreement contains protection for the land rights of indigenous communities in the country.
Guyana has approximately 18.3 million hectares of tropical rainforest, covering 87% of its land area.
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The final draft of the VPA was completed in September 2018; initialling took place on 23 November 2018 in Brussels and involved the National Technical Working Group (NTWG), the Government of Guyana and the European Commission. While several improvements have been made, others must be secured during implementation.
Now begins a period during which the Commission and the Government of Guyana carry out internal consultations before submitting the text to their parliaments for ratification. Eventual entry into force would officially kick off the implementation phase, expected to take up to seven years, during which time the Legality Assurance System (LAS) and other mechanisms would be tested. If found to be operational, and following a final joint review, FLEGT licences for specific shipments of timber could be issued.
The VPA’s very existence and the issues it attempts to address are positive, and there are significant elements to applaud in the last version of the text. The most prominent example is the increased transparency in relation to concession allocation, which recognises that concessions must be revisited if they overlap with indigenous land titles, as these lands are gradually being formally recognised through the Amerindian Land Titling Project.
That said, there is uncertainty about how the last draft addresses the most fundamental ask of the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA). The APA has consistently called for protection of indigenous peoples’ (IP) customary land through the inclusion of Guyana’s Constitution and relevant international human rights treaties signed by Guyana in the matrices of the Legality Definition (LD). The Constitution and reference to applicable international treaties have now been included in the LD, but in a separate “legal references” section that is not part of the national legal and regulatory framework.
On 22 November 2018, in Brussels, EU and Guyanese negotiating parties addressed the confusion about what this means in practice for the definition of legality. Both parties reassured stakeholders that the position of the Constitution and applicable international treaties is strictly a matter of format, and that nothing in the VPA can be interpreted to mean that these legal references have a different impact on the definition of legality than the other legal references.
This clarification is most welcome and will necessarily inform a number of key components of the LAS to be developed during the implementation period, such as detailed procedures for concession allocation, verification and monitoring, as well as a grievance mechanism and strengthening of the legal framework. All these processes must ensure the effective participation of indigenous communities.
The strengthening of the legal framework must be closely related to the ongoing process to revise the Amerindian Act. This would allow the VPA legality matrices to be updated to contain clear safeguards for indigenous peoples’ traditional rights to land and resources (without the current distinction between titled and untitled lands). It would also allow for the inclusion of the right to give or withhold their consent for concessions or timber extraction on such land. Notably, the National Toshaos Council (NTC), representing all indigenous Villages in Guyana, issued a public statement in July 2018 calling upon the Government of Guyana and the Commission to refrain from initialling a VPA text until revision of the Amerindian Act was completed. The VPA does refer to this revision process, but currently contains no commitment to amend the VPA accordingly.
As the VPA has now been initialled, it will be even more important to ensure that, until the legal framework can be updated, the procedures to ensure concessions are not allocated on indigenous lands without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), also apply to the customary lands of communities that have not yet been titled. Even though a grievance mechanism is important, prevention of rights violations in the first place must be the focus.
As part of efforts to improve transparency in the concession allocation process, the Government has also committed to develop a “vacancy list” of forest areas available for concession allocation, a highly positive step. The list must be developed in a participatory manner, using existing information on indigenous customary lands. This includes sources including records held by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MoIPA) about lands where title or extension has been applied for (worryingly, various applications have been mislaid over the years); communication with the District Toshao Councils currently mapping their customary lands; and research on the extent of IP’s customary lands carried out by APA, communities and the Forest Peoples Project during the Land Tenure Assessment work (here and here).
As for next steps, it is important that the National Implementation Working Group now being established have broad indigenous representation. Also, the annex on supporting measures envisages multi-stakeholder dialogue on the issue of land tenure; however, as yet no clear terms of reference, list of participants or timetable have been issued. It is hoped that defining these will be high on the list of priorities, and that the dialogue will be broadly inclusive.
Last updated in December 2018.
The VPA process in Guyana, a civil society perspective
Civil society and indigenous groups in Guyana have been struggling to secure meaningful participation in the VPA process, as indicated in this November 2015 statement.
For the latest information about Guyana, contact
Amerindian Peoples’ Association (APA)
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