Upper Mazaruni District Council appeals CJ’s decision in land rights case

Chief Justice Roxane George

The Upper Mazaruni District Council (UMDC) has filed with the Guyana Court of Appeal an appeal with respect to parts of the High Court’s ruling, which affirmed the long-held contention that Indigenous Peoples have collectively occupied the Upper Mazaruni area since time immemorial.
The decision was rendered by Chief Justice Roxane George on December 16, 2022, some 24 years after the case had been filed. In her judgement, CJ George found that the Akawaio and Arecuna peoples of the Upper Mazaruni have occupied the lands “since time immemorial” – an affirmation for which the UMDC is happy.
The decision to appeal parts of the CJ’s judgement comes following the Land Conference held by the Upper Mazaruni District Council on 24-25 January 2023, wherein leaders, elders and residents of the eight Indigenous villages of the UMDC met in Phillipai to discuss the way forward, and to celebrate the affirmation of their occupation of the Upper Mazaruni District.
“On January 27, our lawyers at Hughes, Fields and Stoby filed the appeal with the Guyana Court of Appeal; and, as a collective, we hope the hearings can be expedited, given that the High Court took 24 years to deliver a judgement. We believe that the Indigenous Peoples of the Upper Mazaruni deserve a swift hearing of (their) appeal,” the UMDC has said in a release to the media.
The appeal was made on the following grounds: 1). That the “Learned Trial Judge erred in fact and law when Her Honour found that, notwithstanding the fact that the Appellant/Plaintiff had proved and established their occupation of the subject land from time immemorial by showing a substantial connection between the Akawaio and Arekuna Peoples and the said land, the State and/or Government of Guyana still possessed radical or ultimate title to the said lands, and particularly made the following errors in Her judgment.”
2): That the “Learned Trial Judge erred in law in failing to take judicial notice of, and take into consideration, the Roman Dutch legal underpinnings in Guyanese Property Law, under which the State does not hold radical title to lands, although it retains sovereignty over the lands.
3): That the Learned Trial Judge erred in law in concluding that the State had radical title to the subject lands without there being any evidence of, or the Learned Trial Judge accepting evidence which inferred, the acquisition of radical title by the State.
4): That “The Learned Trial Judge erred in law by refusing to recognize that the Akawaio and Arekuna Peoples’ aboriginal title was to the exclusion of all others, despite finding that they were the exclusive occupants of the subject land at the time sovereignty was acquired by the Crown.”
And 5): That “The Learned Trial Judge erred in law and fact in refusing to grant compensation to the Appellants/Plaintiffs for impairment of the rights of the Akawaio and Arekuna Peoples.”
The decision to file the appeal was taken after leaders of the villages that comprise the Upper Mazaruni District Council – Kamarang/ Warwatta, Kako, Waramadong, Paruima, Jawalla, Chinoweing /Wax Creek, Omanaik/Kambaru and Phillipai – met during a two-day land conference in which they engaged elders and residents in intense discussions of the High Court’s ruling.
The leaders were joined by attorneys-at-law Sidonia Hamilton and Ronald Daniels of the Hughes, Fields and Stoby Law Firm, which represented them during the legal battle.
During that conference, toshaos and elders expressed satisfaction with Chief Justice George’s finding that these Indigenous Peoples have been in occupation of the lands since time immemorial, but they took umbrage at the Government referring to the residents as “nomadic” during the trial.”
The villages also outlined their struggles in getting the Government to recognise their right to the Upper Mazaruni territory.
“Villagers and leaders spoke of how mining has destroyed our ways of life, and encroached on titled and customary lands. The destruction of the Mazaruni River as a result of Government-sanctioned mining was also highlighted during the meeting,” the UMDC added.
Moreover, during the conference, leaders recognized their role in mining, and pledged to be more cognizant of the effects, moving forward.
Upon conclusion of the land conference, a meeting of the UMDC was held in which plans were discussed for the usage and protection of the Upper Mazaruni territory, along with other issues pertaining to its development as a district.
The UMDC has resolved that “As a District Council, we will continue holding such forums to ensure that our people are adequately and sufficiently informed.”