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Environment and History

'Original Lords of the Soil'? The Erosion of Amerindian Territorial Rights in Guyana

Janette Bulkan

Environment and History 22 (2016): 351-391. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14661540219276

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The consequences of State claims to, and controls over, the territories of Guyana's Indigenous Peoples (Amerindians) are traced through successive Dutch and British colonial to post-Independence governments. From the mid-eighteenth century, a numerically small sugar plantocracy wielded influence within local government and ensured that colonial policy served its interests located on the coastland. Hinterland policies extended the capitalist approach to natural resources extraction and favoured the dominance of the small stratum of monied interests over the majority of Crown licences for forestry, mining and ranching, which were superimposed on claimed Indigenous lands. The colonial governments' approach to Amerindians was protectionist, but the Amerindian land rights were not codified in law. Authoritarian post-Independence governments have used the discretionary power in the legislative framework inherited from the colonial times to expand the numbers of, and areas covered by, logging and mining licences. The State is aided by the lack of a participatory reservation process for forests and/or a formal settlement process to determine and codify pre-existing customary rights of Indigenous Peoples, twin processes that were instituted in the majority of British colonies. Indigenous rights and privileges on their customary lands have been steadily eroded in law, policy and practice. Amerindians receive few economic benefits from natural resources operations on either their legally titled communal lands or customary lands.

KEYWORDS: Indigenous Peoples, land rights, sovereignty, natural resources, Guyana

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