Accessibility links

Woman Honored for Championing Native Guyanan Rights - 2002-05-04


Each year the Goldman Environmental Prize recognizes leading grassroots activists from around the world. The award is given to men and women who have fought to protect their homelands from the impact of commercial development projects and war.

Among this year's eight recipients is an Amerindian woman from the South American nation of Guyana.

Jean La Rose grew up in the interior of Guyana, a nation located in South America between Venezuela and Suriname. She knows its mountains, its rainforests and its rivers. This is where her ancestors - the Arawaks - have lived for thousands of years. This is also a region rich in government-controlled deposits of gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals.

Jean La Rose said despite this wealth of natural resources Amerindian groups like the Arawak, who make up 10 percent of the population, remain impoverished.

"We have very little access to higher education in the community. The telecommunications system is poor to non-existent. The transportation system is poor to non-existent. The health care system is not very strong," she explained.

Jean La Rose escaped this poverty. She left her village for high school and then attended the University of Guyana in Georgetown, where she was the only Amerindian in her class.

She is a talented organizer and has put her skills to work with the Amerindian Peoples Association, an advocacy group that promotes Amerindian rights.

"In one case a large timber concession was granted to a foreign company and the communities living in those lands did not have legal recognition of their land," said Ms. La Rose. "And, it meant that the company was granted title over that land before the communities and they [the communities] were displaced. I thought that this should never happen for people who have been living on their land for centuries," she said.

Skirble: "What did you do? What happened?"

Jean La Rose: "One of the first things that I did was to start a letter writing campaign informing the various funders, including the World Bank what the situation was regarding our land, how we were loosing our land and what the situation was with the companies. We pushed to have a moratorium on logging and it did happen."

Logging is one threat. Mining is another. The government of Guyana has granted concessions to transnational corporations on more than 30 percent of the land in Guyana. Mining has left a major river unfit for human use, destroyed ancestral fishing grounds and created serious public health problems.

The Amerindian Peoples Association filed the country's first ever indigenous land rights lawsuit in 1998, hoping to annul all mining concessions in their tribal region. If successful the case could set an important precedent for Amerindian communities in Guyana.

Jean La Rose said the Association provides indigenous peoples with the educational tools to wage this kind of battle."We give them ideas on how to carry out campaigns, how to carry out lobbying activities, what you need to know in the law or simply what you need to know to conduct a meeting. Then they go back to the communities and work on a similar level with the communities on the things that they were taught. So, it's a case that we train people who become advocates on their own behalf," she said.

But, Jean La Rose said while Amerindians are making progress, much more needs to be done.

"We are going to continue to press to secure our land rights. We are going to press to empower our people so they make decisions for themselves and not have decisions imposed from the top. We are going to press for improvements in education, healthcare, transportation and communication. And we are going to continue to press for our cultural values and way of life," Ms. La Rose said.

Skirble: "And what keeps you going?"

Jean La Rose: "The people. Seeing the situation in the communities, the confidence and support from the communities in me. That is what keeps me going." Jean La Rose plans to use the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize money to start a scholarship program for women and to support the activities of the Amerindian Peoples Association.

XS
SM
MD
LG