24-year court battle over Upper Mazaruni lands: Akawaio, Arekuna tribes do not have “exclusive right” to area – Chief Justice rules

Acting Chief Justice Roxane George, SC, has ruled that the Akawaio and Arekuna people do not have “exclusive right” to lands in Region Seven (Cuyuni-Mazaruni), as they were contending in a case filed against the Government since 1998.
The Akawaio and Arekuna are Amerindian tribes that occupy the Upper Mazaruni area. In the case at reference, they had sought legal recognition of their rights to traditional and ancestral lands.

Chief Justice (acting) Roxane George, SC

Delivering her ruling on Friday in the more-than-two-decades-old case, she firstly apologised for the delay in the judgement, while noting that though it was proven through testimonies and other evidence that the tribes have been occupying the lands from time immemorial, they do not have exclusive right to the lands, because non-Amerindians have also settled on the lands.
According to the Chief Justice, it has been proven that during colonial times the tribes had the sole occupation of the lands, but after Guyana became a sovereign state, non-Amerindians began occupying the lands, in particular those persons providing Government services.
Justice George also referred to the lands being occupied by the Seventh-Day Adventists. She said there also is evidence that some of the lands in question are owned by the State, especially those in the vicinity of Mount Roraima.
Considering this, and the fact that there may be competing claims to the lands by other groups, she found that it would not be prudent to grant a declaration giving the tribes possession of the lands “to the exclusion of all others”. As such, the tribes’ claim for damages resulting from “their unlawful deprivation of the lands” was refused.
In the end, Justice George declared that the Indigenous tribes hold communal and aboriginal titles to the lands, but those are subject to State lands and title.
The State has been ordered to pay the applicants $250,000 in court costs.
28 years ago, a group of Indigenous peoples of the Upper Mazaruni filed a court action against the Government, seeking legal recognition of their traditional and ancestral lands. After Guyana gained independence from the British in 1966, the following year, the Government instituted an Amerindian Lands Commission that was tasked with mapping and suggesting titles to be issued to Indigenous communities.
In 1991, titles were granted individually to each community, although they had requested to hold collective title to their traditional territory. According to reports, the villages of Paruima, Waramadong, Kamarang (Warawatta), Kako, Jawalla, and Phillipai in the Upper Mazaruni have long sought legal title over the area defined by the 1959 Amerindian District as one Akawaio/Arekuna district.
Dissatisfied at their request being ignored, the Arekuna and Akawaio people took the landmark case to court, to fight for their rights as Indigenous peoples of Guyana.
During the trial, they submitted archaeological evidence showing that their people have occupied the Mazaruni River basin for over 2000 years, and that their homes, cultures, and livelihoods depended on their territory.
The State had contended that it treats all of its citizens equally, and therefore the tribes’ contention that they were being discriminated against on the ground of their race in respect of being granted legal recognition of their rights to the lands was unsupported.
Final submissions in the case were made in 2017, prompting several Indigenous community leaders to protest the lengthy delay in bringing the matter to a conclusion. They had accused the judiciary of denying them their right to access to justice, which, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, requires a case to be determined within a reasonable time.