BELIZE CITY, Fri. Apr. 8, 2016–The Toledo Maya this week triggered a new round of litigation in the decades-long Maya Land Rights struggle which envisions a homeland for the Kekchi and Mopan Maya communities of southern Belize spanning roughly 800 square miles (or 500,000 acres).
This time, the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) is calling on the courts to enforce their land rights, as declared by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, and affirmed by the Caribbean Court of Justice, following a consent order by the court, which was issued a year ago, after the disputing parties agreed on all central points in the claim, except the question of monetary awards to the claimants.
“I think personally, as an individual—not speaking on behalf of the Government, but speaking from my knowledge—it might be a good thing for the Maya to bring these cases and get a clarification—which I think they badly need—as to the limits on the rights that they have under the [CCJ] consent order,” Denys Barrow, SC, attorney for the Government, told Amandala.
We were unable to reach Barrow on Thursday, when we wrote our first story, but we were able to get his reaction to the new lawsuits today.
He pointed to “a very deeply embedded belief”, which, he said, foreign advisors may have led the Maya into establishing, “that they have rights that are equivalent or comparable to that which Native American Indians have in America—and nothing can be further from the truth.”
He said that the Native Americans were there when “the white man” came, and they entered into treaties—they owned the lands—and “the white man” entered into treaties with the Native Americans which recognized the ownership of the land by the Native Americans; so up to today, there are Indian reservations which are now called native lands, where, Barrow went on to say, the Indians make their own laws, and he pointed to the ability of those indigenous communities to allow casino gambling even if federal or state governments outlaw it as an example of this.
“They have a form of sovereignty over their lands within America,” Barrow explained.
On Wednesday, April 6, the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) announced that the Maya villages of Santa Cruz and Jalacte had filed separate actions with the Supreme Court against the Government of Belize.
“This is as a result of the government’s delay in implementing the orders of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), and its failure to respect and protect Maya land rights during the implementation process,” the TAA said.
It added that, “Santa Cruz village—one of two Maya villages that obtained a declaration of their customary title in the original Maya Land Rights case in 2007—is seeking repossession of its property from Mr. Rupert Myles, whom the government has allowed to commit trespass and irreparable damage to the Uxbenká archeological site, an ancient Mayan temple within Santa Cruz lands.”
In the case of Jalacte, the TAA said that it is also seeking redress for the government’s own taking of village lands and resources without following applicable laws.
“The government has expropriated at least 60 acres of village land for Ministry of Agriculture offices, a greenhouse compound, and to widen and pave the road to the Guatemalan border, all without notice, consent, or compensation as required by the Constitution, the CCJ Order, and the government’s own Commitment to protect Maya lands,” the TAA said. Barrow said that he is aware of the contention of the Maya.
“Before this press release, they wrote a letter to the Government and I asked the Government to have the responsible government officers provide a report on the matter. I have not yet seen the report,” said Barrow, indicating that this query, particularly to the Ministry of Works and Ministry responsible for Lands, dates back to “a month or so ago.”
“The claim that these are lands that belong to villagers needs to be verified. A statement that the Maya owns this land does not mean it is true,” Barrow added.
He said that when the Maya raised the Myles case at the CCJ, the court had indicated that a trespass claim should be filed. Barrow said, “My knowledge of the law makes me think that it has to be a trespass claim…”
He said that the Jalacte lawsuit could be brought as either a constitutional claim or as a trespass case.
In claims for trespass, the remedy is an award of damages to the claimant, if the court rules in its favor.
Of note is that the parties are soon due to report back to the Caribbean Court of Justice on the implementation of the April 2015 consent order. This month makes a year since that milestone in the Maya Land Rights litigation.
We asked Barrow: Have parties come far enough in terms of the CCJ’s expectation?
“I do not think that the CCJ’s expectations are very firm as to rapidity,” the Senior Counsel replied, later adding that “this is not a process that the Maya or anyone can expect will take place rapidly.”
The Government of Belize recently set up the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission, led by former Minister, Lisel Alamilla, which met once with Maya leaders, in discussing the way forward.
Last October, the CCJ awarded the Toledo Maya BZ$300,000 in reparations after ruling against the Government and declaring that the Maya had suffered violations of their constitutional right to protection of the law, and those funds are financing the work of the Commission.
In a letter of commitment to the CCJ, Barrow had indicated that “GOB will seek to complete the design and model of the mechanism [to implement the CCJ order] by December 31, 2015,” and would “seek to have that mechanism in place by August 30, 2016.” Finally, Government “agrees to work towards demarcation and registration of the Maya villages’ property rights by December 31, 2017…,” Barrow had also told the CCJ.
In speaking with Amandala today on the recently filed suits for Santa Cruz and Jalacte, Barrow said that the Maya “are making an assumption prior to demarcation that the nature of the rights in respect of the land to be demarcated has been determined [but] you don’t necessarily own land on which you plant from season to season.”
He said that the same question would be raised for lands used by the Maya for gathering forestry products, hunting, or conducting religious practices.
The right to carry out these activities at a location does not give you ownership rights and does not entitle you to exclude other people, Barrow argued, indicating that lands can be demarcated for different purposes.