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Via @sizeofwales

We would like to introduce you to Mr Angelbert Johnny. Size of Wales funding supports crucial training for monitors like Angelbert and others like him to help his people, the Wapichan of Guyana, secure the land rights that will enable them to protect the beautiful and vital forests they have lived in for millennia.

Here he tells us about his work and how this has helped progress their plight.

My name is Angelbert Johnny. I am from the Wapichan Village of Sawari Wa’o, which is one of the oldest Wapichan villages in the South Rupununi in Guyana (Region 9). It is located along Sawari Wa’o River which flows into the Takatu River on the border between Guyana and Brazil. I am married with five children. I am a hunter, farmer, and a rancher and use my traditional knowledge to keep and raise my family. I speak our language fluently as well as English and also Portuguese. I am a certified Wapichan Literacy Association (WWA) translator. In 2011-12 I was acting Toshao (leader) of Sawari Wa’o Village. I continue to be an advisor to the Village Council on all matters relating to our land rights struggle.

In 2003 I was trained under a project with the South Central Development Association (SCPDA) to map our traditional land use and occupation of our territory in the South Central District. I walked many miles and high up into the forest in the Kanuku Mountains and I learned a huge amount [of] wisdom from our elders about the importance of the forest, savannah, mountains and water in our Wapichan territory and what it means to us as a people.

In 2005 I was also trained with SCPDA and Forest Peoples Programme in work for the (then) District Toshaos Council (DTC) to complete field work on our traditional knowledge about sustainable use of the land and our own ways of caring for the forest and other kinds of lands here in our territory. After that, I was involved in a detailed work to consult all of our villages with SCPDA and DTC on a management plan for our territory, which was supported by the Size of Wales and other donors. It took four years to complete and was finalised in 2012. We presented all of these studies and works to the government tin the capital Georgetown to explain to them that we need our land legally recognised and we know how to use it, care for it and develop it for the betterment of our people. Somehow the government did listen to us and the Guyana Forestry Commission agreed not to issue logging concessions on our lands under claim in the large Upper Essequibo forest. This has been a major achievement. On the other hand, we still have to continue to battle against mining in our area and somehow the government still does not listen to our concerns on that matter. But we continue to explain to them that we are seeking another kind of development and that outsiders must not come into our area without our prior agreement and free, prior and informed consent.

In 2013, I was trained by Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and another NGO called Digital Democracy (DD) to carry out monitoring work to watch over our territory using smart phones, drones and other technology. I am officially named as an SRDC monitor and I watch over the area around my Village and also all along the Takatu River on the border. This work has been fruitful. Through monitoring and reporting on illegal river crossings used by illegal miners, rustlers, poachers and traffickers we secured support from the Guyanese police and the Guyana Defence Force to sanction illegal crossings. I have also represented the SRDC in talks with our Wapichan brothers and sisters in Brazil, and with the Brazilian authorities to share our work and communicate our concerns about illegal resource users coming from Brazil side. As a result, the communities in Brazil and the government have cracked down on these activities and we feel a very positive change coming: the game animals and wildlife are recuperating and we have more deer in our area. We feel all our efforts, which can be dangerous sometimes, are paying off. This thanks to support from our allies like FPP and DD and donors like Size of Wales.

In 2016 our people gained another big achievement. Our District Council has been legally recognised and in April 2016 we entered into high level formal talks with the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs (MoIPA) on how to settle our land claim. I am now a formal representative and technical person for all of our people in the land talks. I am so happy be involved in this important and historic process as our peoples have been struggling for their land for so long. It is time to settle this matter and we hope the land talks can help us get through and finally get legal title to our lands. The talks are ongoing in 2018 and we plan soon to undertake self-demarcation of our lands to speed the process along. I will be closely engaged in that work as a mapper and advisor to the talks.

Our people are so happy with this work we are doing and they have asked me and others to continue with this effort. So I am still working in support of the Villages up until this day. Sometimes it is hard as I must also keep my family and care for my farms and ranch. But I am committed to keep up this work to see if we can get the land talks to give a result. I know it will make me and all of my villagers, including the youth and elders very pleased if we succeed. That is when we will then move ahead to our own path of development, using our knowledge and customs for our self-development. This is our dream.

Thank you to Size of Wales and other supporters to accompanying the Wapichan people in Guyana on our journey!