Guyana: Wapichan Land Rights

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Wa wiizi wuru’u aonaa turuu wakasha paan niiz – This is our land and we cannot be parted from it

The Challenge

The Wapichan people of south western Guyana want legal title to their traditional land to safeguard their lands, forests and way of life for present and future generations. The Wapichan have been seeking full legal recognition of their lands since before independence from Britain in 1966. Fifty years later the Wapichan people only have title to a fraction of their ancestral territory around their main villages (about 15%). 

Most of the Wapichan’s untitled collective land remains vulnerable to aggressive land-grabbing, destructive logging, and illegal mining. Over the last two decades the Wapichan Villages have stepped up their efforts to mobilise their people to protect and secure their territory against land grabbers and destructive development. Since the late 1990’s the communities have worked to develop detailed maps and plans to care for their lands, forests, wetlands and natural resources.

As a result of these activities, the Wapichan people have now reached a critical moment. In 2015, the government of Guyana finally agreed to enter formal talks on the unresolved land claim of the Wapichan territory, including lands with extensive ancestral old growth rainforests. There is a pressing need for continued solidarity from allies, donors and peoples around the world to help the Wapichan people take full advantage of this land settlement process and maximise the potential for positive outcomes for people, culture, rainforests and the global climate.

This project thus serves a need to build a crucial stepping stone to enable the Wapichan to progress their land claim and consolidate their innovative plans for cultural invigoration and the sustainable use and protection of their large community conserved forest.

Project Aims

The Wapichan communities propose to create one of the world’s largest community forests over 1.4 million hectares, where they plan to prohibit industrial developments and look after habitats of importance for wildlife, game animals, birds and fish. The villages have agreed that they will still be able to hunt, fish, and harvest construction materials and bush medicines within the conserved forest according to custom and village rules on sustainable use of resources.

The overall aim of this project is therefore to assist the Wapichan people in legally securing their ancestral territory and to maintain their traditional forest knowledge in order to sustain their way of life, maintain healthy forest ecosystems, contribute to climate change mitigation and promote sustainable livelihoods.

Specific objectives are as follows:

  • Provide legal advice and training to the Wapichan villages and their representative organisations to engage effectively in formal land talks with the government of Guyana in order to advance claims for legal recognition of their traditional territory, including ownership, management rights and control over a Wapichan Conserved Forest.
  • Collect evidence of traditional occupation and use of forest lands to bolster the formal land talks with the government of Guyana.
  • Establish two field monitoring stations in remote forest areas to strengthen community forest monitoring activities
  • Establish “bush schools” at the forest field stations to provide a space in the forest for elders and holders of traditional knowledge to share their knowledge with the younger generation.

How it Works

Provision of training and legal advice to support Wapichan members, ensuring representatives are best equipped to articulate their evidence, demands and proposals and present legal in the discussions with the government to successfully secure their lands for the benefit of future generations of Wapichan people, the wider Guyanese population and the international community.

  • Training on the collating of data on forest occupation and use, ecosystem health and illegal encroachment for inclusion in formal land title extension Investigation Reports. 
  • Setting up of two forest field stations in order to foster more effective monitoring of the Wapichan’s forest lands.
  • These same stations will later be used as forest ‘schools’ offering elders a place to engage youths in traditional forest-related knowledge, practises, customs and bush skills such as crafts, use of bush medicines and ritual and ceremonial activities. These forest field stations will also offer significant potential for exchanges between Wapichan school children and young people in Wales in order to foster solidarity and cultural exchanges.
  • Support efforts by Wapichan to keep their traditional forest knowledge alive by collecting and recording information on important cultural, historical and spiritual. This additional evidence will also be used to back up the land talks and reinforce claims over distant forest areas in Wapichan territory. 
  • Assist the Wapichan to develop and publish their own Wapichan web site, including options for an online store with local produce and craft products.

Place & People

With a population of just 9,000 spread across 21 communities, the Wapichan’s territory covers 2.8 million hectares (that’s an area larger than the size of Wales), including 1.4 million hectares of community conserved forest. They make a living from small-scale farming, hunting, fishing and gathering, which they have practised over the whole area for generations. Over generations of occupation the communities have accumulated a detailed knowledge of the variation in their environment and of the diversity of plant and animals found in the South Rupununi. Wapichan farmers, for example, can tell something about the fertility of the soil by the types of wild plants growing there. Many place names are taken from the local ecology and plants and animals that are plentiful at a particular location, for example, Achawib means “Place with abundant wild garlic”.

Their territory, part of the Upper Essequibo basin, is based in the south west of Guyana. Its western boundary lies along the Guyana-Brazil border. The land covers extensive old growth rainforest of very high biodiversity, a wide variety of other ecosystems including wetlands, mountains and semi-natural grasslands, and an outstanding abundance of wildlife, including endangered species such as giant river otters, jaguars, and rare bush dogs as well as endemic species of fishes and birds, like the Rio Branco Antbird. The forests also have an immense carbon storge and climate service capacity. 

The forest in distant areas is also highly valued by the Wapichan as the “multiplying grounds” (breeding and feeding areas) of animals, birds and insects. These multiplying grounds are seen as an integral part of the Wapichan’s ancestral territory. They are not seen as separate or “empty” (as the government and non-indigenus coastlanders tend to see them), but rather part of a whole set of communities of different and diverse living beings in Wapichan territory.

Village elders and residents emphasise that their “Mother Forest” cools the local climate and brings rainfall to the region.

We make our living from our mother forest. She provides us with all the things we need. She is like our storehouse. And the trees give us clean air to breathe. The bush contains sacred areas, old settlement sites, ceremonial grounds of our fore fathers. Those places are special to us. 

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Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) are based in the UK but work with forest-dwelling communities across the globe, supporting them to promote an alternative vision of how forests should be managed and controlled, based on respect for the rights of the peoples who know them best.