Kaieteur National Park ‘militarisation’… Chenapau residents feel threatened by soldiersBy Lakhram BhagiratThe heavy military presence in the Kaieteur National Park (KNP) is due to a “temporary operation” dealing with alleged mining in the reserve, according to Protected Areas Commission (PAC) Board Member Raquel Thomas-Caesar.In a Facebook post, Thomas-Caesar said, “…we don’t want the world to know we are going in as they would run away…there is mining in the park and there is a monitoring operation for a period (not permanent)…everyone knows this is a very sensitive issue for Chenapau Village and for the Gov’t and we all need to sit together as I have told Chenapau Village Council and work this out. Issues are sorted when people work together. This KNP has had a difficult history and there are some key issues to address.”Ranks of the Guyana Defence Force questioning two men who made their way from the Kurourung areaHowever, the residents of Chenapau Village, Region Eight (Potaro-Siparuni), are up in arms against the operation since they are being prevented from traversing the generations-old trail through the Park. Village Chief Edward Mc Garrell said that residents feel threatened by soldiers sporting AK-47s and intimidating villagers accessing the Park.“People are feeling threatened because they cannot come and continue their livelihood meaning fishing, hunting, gathering within the park whereas there is a section in the park saying we got the right as Amerindian,” he said.“With the military presence in the area, we feel threatened, really threatened because we cannot continue our customs in the Park. I see no demarcation of the Kaieteur National Park and that is a stance I have been taking and we respect the signboard as the Park and all the members of my community respect the signboard as the Park,” he added.President’s orderA few weeks ago, President David Granger ordered the Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission and the Guyana Police Force to commence an operation to combat illegal mining in the protected park. During the operation, 21 residents of Chenapau were arrested while on the ancestral trail, none were caught mining, and they were brought to Georgetown where they were charged. President Granger, as an act of “goodwill” later instructed the dropping of the charges.The residents vehemently deny mining in the KNP, noting they have a much deeper emotional connection to the Park since it was their tribe that settled there. Toshao Mc Garrell said since the arrests the villagers have been suffering since the atmosphere was now fear-filled.“We have that right to pass through the Park at any time we want to go and gather even medicinal weeds; we cannot do it anymore because if we go into that bush, the military will arrest us and take us to Georgetown. The struggle is on and we are prepared to fight it, because the community is united and we are fighting for what is right for our people; the Government must recognise Kaieteur as a sacred site for us the Patamona nation,” the Patamona leader informed.Military base?This publication journeyed to the region to ascertain the facts associated with the villagers’ claim and upon arrival, was greeted by heavily armed members of the Joint Services, who have set up camp at the Kaieteur National Park Arrival Centre. It is unclear whether approval to set up camp was granted by the PAC, and efforts to confirm this proved futile.Tourists accessing the Arrival Centre were prevented from going to sections of the upper viewing balcony since it was being used to store military equipment and hang laundry. They were immediately greeted by boxer shorts on the rails upon entering the viewing area; some suggested it was the newest addition to the scenery.To get a better understanding of the effects of the restrictions, Michael Mc Garrell of the Amerindian Peoples Association took a personal trip to the area to investigate the complaints coming from the villagers. He told this publication the heavy military presence in the area only confirmed the villagers’ allegation of militarisation. “What this demonstrates is that Kaieteur is now a militarised zone and that the military have control of what is happening here and it is very unfortunate for us as a people to be going through something like that because Kaieteur was not intended to be something like this,” he said.He added that the area has now become a battleground between the military and the villagers since their rights were being violated without any consideration from the authorities. “The amount of control the military have here is disturbing. There is the Arrival Centre and the military have control of that. Is that what we want to show the world? Is that what people are coming to Kaieteur for, to be greeted by army personnel with AK-47s? Is this what we are promoting? Is this what we are showing the world? Kaieteur is not about that; we want the Army to be pulled from this location with immediate effect,” the Chenapau native said.Economic implicationsThe economic implications of the restrictions are clearly visible in the village, since almost all activities are at a complete standstill. The villagers are puzzled as it relates to the Government’s plans for their survival because they cannot hunt or fish.The villagers, particularly the women folk, are especially concerned about their next move when food and money run out.“We have to farm, fish, hunt or mine to provide for our families and right now we can’t farm because of the flood and now the soldiers come in here to harass us. What will we do?” Linda Williams related.Williams also said that the soldiers and, by extension, the administration were treating the villagers as though they were “bush hogs” by taking bread out of their mouths. The angry woman called for the President to ensure that they are allowed to access the traditional trail to prevent them from starving to death.“On the sign board it is stated that indigenous have all rights to go hunting, fishing and so forth and now they have a new law that we cannot encamp, pass by or anything. It is our main passageway to go elsewhere; if we are restricted from doing these things then it can lead to many things like violence, so we need Government to do something about it, because we cannot live in this way,” resident Greg Marco said.The President is yet to make a comment on the issue that has been in the public’s domain for approximately one month.