Court says GOB did not obey order to consult with claimant Maya communities
Maya resolute in court battle against drilling in Sarstoon-Temash
The four Maya communities—Conejo, Midway, Crique Sarco and Graham Creek—which have been battling the Government of Belize over the manner in which it wants to proceed with drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP) in Toledo did not get the court injunction they had applied for, but shortly after 3:00 this evening, Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana handed down a decision ordering the parties to “court-connected mediation.”
Prime Minister Dean Barrow had said in his press conference last week that his administration would not hold discussions with the Sarstoon Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), led by Maya leader and activist Greg Ch’oc, SATIIM’s executive director, on this matter, but today’s ruling means that Government is expected to engage SATIIM and the four claimant communities, who had chosen Ch’oc as their representative.
“The communities are extremely upset and angry at what continues to transpire. A day will come when I cease to ask them to restrain themselves and when that day comes I am hoping that we are able to contain the anger of the community. For now, my duty is to try to channel that energy in using the courts as the medium through which we find a resolution,” Ch’oc told Amandala.
He said that they have been trying to utilize the court to have the state recognize the rights that have been affirmed by the Belize Constitution, but when it is frustrated by a Government elected to safeguard the people’s interests, “then Belizeans need to rethink what kind of a democracy we are living in, in this country,” he said.
In speaking with Amandala after Arana’s decision, Denys Barrow, SC, attorney for the Government of Belize, said: “I have never seen a post-judgment mediation, but your ladyship was clear that she could do it and, of course, I intuitively respect the court’s decision that it can be done.”
While the court has ordered mediation, though, the claimants also intend to press ahead immediately with seeking contempt proceedings against the Government of Belize, as well as challenging the Government’s decision to issue an extension just last Tuesday, June 10, 2014, to the US Capital’s permit to drill inside the national park without consulting with the claimant villages. Ch’oc told Amandala this evening that they have already instructed their attorney, Eamon Courtenay, SC, to file such contempt proceedings.
“This extension is on the face of it unlawful and illegal and on the face of it [a] gross violation and the judge was very mild in saying that,” Courtenay told us.
“The evidence before you, my lady, is that the Government has chosen not to comply with your order. They have not consulted any of the claimants,” Courtenay told the judge.
Courtenay explained to us that the injunction application, which was made on April 14, was not heard because the court calendar was full, but knowing that the case was pending, he said, the Government still went ahead and issued an extension to US Capital last week.
In court this afternoon, Barrow raised a preliminary objection to the application by the Mayas saying that the court is functus officio, or it no longer has jurisdiction over the matter, since it had perfected its order in the matter in May, and also since both parties have filed appeals in the Court of Appeal.
Barrow also said that the application has become “academic” in light of the events that have transpired, specifically, the granting of an extension to US Capital’s permit after talks the Government had with the Maya village of Sundaywood, which the Government says has given its consent.
However, in her decision, Arana had ordered the Government specifically to seek the consent of the claimant communities, which don’t include Sundaywood, before proceeding to issue any such permit in relation to the park where US Capital wants to drill.
Barrow noted that both parties have appealed the Arana ruling: the Government filed its appeal on May 29 and the claimants cross-appealed on June 12. He told the court today that the matter is now fully, therefore, before the Court of Appeal.
Courtenay disagreed, however, noting decisions the Supreme Court had previously made in cases between the Government of Belize and two Ashcroft companies — the Belize Bank and the British Caribbean Bank, in which he, Courtenay, represented the companies.
Whereas Courtenay argued in court that Arana does have jurisdiction in the matter, he concurred with Barrow that given what has transpired since the injunction application was filed in April, an injunction decision now would be merely “an academic exercise”.
Courtenay told us that there was no need for the Government to issue an extension of US Capital’s permit, “knowing fully well that we were to come here today…”
“We are forced to start a new claim all over again. Is that the rule of law, my lady,” Courtenay concluded, in wrapping up his submission to the court.
Barrow immediately sprung to his feet, saying that because there is broad public interest in this matter, he would have to reply – even though there was not strictly a need for him to reply, and also given Courtenay’s acceptance that the proceedings have become merely academic.
Barrow said that the Government of Belize had relied on the Maya Atlas to determine that it only needed to consult with the village of Sundaywood, which, he said, was the only community whose land is within the drill site. He said that consent was obtained after consultations with that village.
Barrow told the court that if the claimants had felt that the Government is in violation of the court’s order, the remedy they have is to file an application for contempt of court—which they did not file.
“Not yet…” Courtenay replied.
The central question now is whether US Capital can proceed to drill.
Barrow, the Government’s main legal advisor on the matter, told us: “Oh certainly! That’s not in doubt at all.”
Amandala was told that the drill rig, which is being imported from Mexico, is ready to be shipped over the Belize-Mexico border.
Ch’oc said that their legal team has been given instructions to file new claims immediately, and they should be lodged with the court within the next 3 to 4 days.
Our sources also say that some groups intend to resist any move on the ground to drill inside the park before this dispute is resolved.