BELIZE CITY, Tues. Nov. 17, 2015–The Toledo Maya, who are spread across 38 villages, have been waging a protracted legal battle for recognition, by the Government of Belize, of their customary land rights, which have been violated, according to a ruling last month by Belize’s highest court, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
This morning, the disputing parties reappeared before the CCJ via teleconference from the Belize Supreme Court with the CCJ justices sitting in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the CCJ is headquartered.
The Maya Leaders Alliance, represented by the first practicing Maya attorney, Monica Coc-Magnusson, filed an application against the Government of Belize, represented by Denys Barrow, SC, alleging that the government has done nothing since the consent order of April 2015, which sets out a clear mandate for a mechanism to give effect to Maya customary land tenure.
At the end of today’s hearing, Barrow said that he would submit a report on the progress of the implementation of the consent order before January 21, 2016. The court then declared that the undertaking will be treated as an equivalent to an order of the court.
Coc-Magnusson argued that under the consent order, to which both the Government of Belize and the Maya communities had agreed, “The source of those rights is Maya customary law. The government is saying that by consultation processes, it is going to define the nature of those rights. But our understanding, under the consent order, it is not the job of the government to define those rights, but to identify them, and in order to identify them, it has to speak with the people who practice those customs, and that is consultation with the Maya people, and that is why we are back here.”
Coc-Magnusson added: “Since April, the government officials have made statements that indicate a profound disregard for obligations it freely undertook.”
“The government,” Coc-Magnusson argues, “has taken the position that those rights are yet to be determined by national consultation. But those rights have already been defined by the court below. That undermines Maya customary rights, and it did not take into consideration something that already exists.”
A justice of the court stressed today that the rights would be developed in consultation with the Maya people.
“They consented to this process, and maybe we do have an idea what those rights are, but certainly it’s not known what they are exactly. That is why they need to be developed and it has to be developed in consultation with the Maya people. There is some general idea what those rights are, but they are unwritten and customary,” the justice explained.
CCJ president Justice Dennis Byron, who sat this morning with six other judges, stated that after listening to the arguments, he is of the view that the application is premature.
“I can understand that one might think that between April [and] November is a long time. There has been delay,” Justice Byron noted, but went on to point out: “I don’t see how it is possible to create a legislative framework, which will basically substantially reform the land law of Belize, without the consultation process.”
“Since a date has been given, why not withdraw these proceedings and then interrogate the consultation process when it commences. If there is a problem at that stage, then it would be something that can be looked at,” Justice Byron offered.
Justice Byron said, “A year is a long time, and the Maya don’t have a sense that there is desire on the part of the government to faithfully abide by the terms of the consent order. Then that is a problem. That clearly is problematic. From that standpoint, I can appreciate the anxiety the Maya must feel. It seems to me that there are a number of things that must be ironed out, because here we are dealing with concepts that are novel. There aren’t any precedents in this part of the Caribbean which you can safely rely on for some of the things which have to be worked out. It’s not something that you want to do, to tell people who are being oppressed that they must continue to be patient. Mr. Barrow must give us some reassurance that the order is going to be carried out.”
“Ms. Magnusson, I think that we have heard and read enough words. I think we need to see some action. I think it’s time we see some action now, Mr. Barrow,” Justice Byron said.
“In relation to the invitation from Your Honor,” Barrow replied, “the significant benefit, I think, of our being here today, is that it gives me as counsel a powerful source of authority to say to the government, ‘Listen, one understands all that you have been through and one is not blaming the government for having done demonstrably nothing. There may be things which may have been done in the background, but there has not been any indication, the optics are not there, that the government has done something. Government now needs to do something, so that the Maya people, so that the court can accept that this process will not drag on any longer, and that action and momentum have now been created and that it will go along in a measured and consistent way.’”
Barrow added, “I can inform the court personally that I am aware, from speaking to government representatives at the highest level, that government has every appreciation of the commitments it has made; that this is not like the 10-point agreement, that this is an order which the Caribbean Court of Justice has made. So I have not the slightest difficulty for myself in saying to this court that that is the government’s position. I understand Justice Wit’s point that these words are all very nice, that something has to be done so that the society at large and the Maya people in particular are capable of believing that things are happening.”
“Mr. Barrow, I think we need more than that,” said Justice Byron. “Your indication [was] that prior to the election you were given a date by which the process will be institutionalized by 30 December 2015. What we think we should do now is require that a report is filed for the court by a certain date [with] the steps that have taken place.”
The court has ordered that the report should be filed by January 21, 2016.
Barrow told the court that he will communicate this to the Government and that he is confident that the report will be filed.
Following the hearing, Barrow told Amandala, “What needs to take place is that the government needs to take active steps to proceed with the implementation of the consent order.”
Barrow added that, “What was given was a definite statement by the CCJ that government must start acting immediately.”
Christina Coc, spokesperson of the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcalde Association, two of the claimants in the case, told Amandala, “Clearly, the Maya people believe that there have been numerous breaches of the recent Caribbean Court of Justice order, a consent order from the government with the Maya people… So we felt compelled to bring back before the court an application that seeks to demonstrate these breaches that I speak about.”
Coc said that there has been no activity on the part of the state to implement the consent order, and that the government advanced the excuse of the general elections, saying that that got in the way of the implementation. Coc described that as “a very mediocre excuse.”
“This was the very same excuse given in 2007, when Santa Cruz and Conejo were affirmed rights to their lands,” Coc added. “This is an affirmation that has not yet been implemented, for the record. We also had general elections in 2008, well general elections of 2008 has long gone and past. Still, there has not been a single activity to implement that decision of 2007. Again, we find ourselves at a crossroad with the government, where we see absolutely no political will to implement the decision which they came to by way of consent.”
Coc said she is pleased that the court continues to demonstrate confidence and faith in the government to implement the order.
“However,” she added, “I have to say, on behalf of the Maya people: ‘We have been patient for way too long. We’ve been a very patient people; we’ve been very polite and we have been very courteous in anticipation that the government would have a change of attitude and would begin to demonstrate good-faith relations with our people. It has been demonstrated absolutely clearly to us that the government has no intentions to comply with that consent order in good faith.”
She said that she is not concerned that a report on the consent order would be forthcoming, but added that “the content of that report is what I am concerned with, what is going to be reported as steps that [would] have been taken. As far as the Maya people are concerned, no steps have been taken with respect to the implementation of this very historic court order.”
Coc-Magnusson told Amandala that, “…since the government agreed to the consent order, it has taken actions that are contrary to what it has agreed to, and that is the reason why we came back to the court, to tell the court that they are not doing what they said they were going to do.”
The government has been tolerating third parties with the use and enjoyment of Maya lands, Coc-Magnusson explained.
“It’s been seven months and the Maya people have sent several requests and there has not been a single meeting with the government,” she said.
Coc-Magnusson said the government’s position is creating confusion and that they are very pleased about the court’s decision today, to declare to the government that they need to begin the implementation process of the consent order.