In Southern Belize, Sarstoon Temash National Park holds within its 42,000 acres the most pristine rainforest in the country. Its primary forests have been attributed by National Geographic as remnants of the ancient Maya’s agroforestry systems, and today continue to be sustainably maintained by the Maya peoples of Southern Belize.
The Supreme Court of Belize ruled in 2007 and again in 2010 that the Maya who have ancestrally cared for these forests shall hold the legal titles to these lands. This court ruling, along with national and international laws, mandates that indigenous peoples must give their free, prior and informed consent before any development project that may affect them. But that right has been trampled on again and again by the Texas-based oil company US Capital Energy, which received a concession from the Belize government to extract oil in Southern Belize beginning in 2001.
In further flagrant violation of the Maya land rights under national law, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recommendations by the Inter American Human Rights Commission, the government has now granted the oil company permits to move to the second phase of exploratory drilling in the park and on indigenous territories.
US Capital Energy has so far cut over 200 miles of seismic trails for oil exploration in the national park and on communities’ traditional lands, also causing forest fires destroying 400 acres, including the unique ecosystem of the sphagnum moss, the last of its kind in Central America.
The 21,000 Indigenous people in the region are fighting to defend their traditional lands, including the national treasure of the Sarstoon Temash National Park, against this short-sighted land grab.
As Gregory Ch’oc of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management explains, “The government is counting on our regional isolation, our poverty, and our relative lack of power to continue marginalizing and discriminating against us and violating our rights. Therefore, we are urgently calling allies of the earth’s biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples to take a stand with us and support our struggle.”
(Cultural Survival is a global leader in the fight to protect Indigenous lands, languages, and cultures around the world. In partnership with Indigenous Peoples, we advocate for Indigenous communities whose rights, cultures, and dignity are under threat. For more information go to www.cs.org.)