The Maya community of Southern Belize scored a landmark victory in the courtroom of Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh Monday morning – a victory that is bound to have far-reaching implications for that part of the country, including how the Government proceeds with logging, mining, and petroleum concessions in what the Maya community claims is over 500,000 acres of ancestral homeland.
The Chief Justice also made it clear in this morning’s ruling that Maya customary land tenure – which he re-emphasized has long existed and continues to exist in Southern Belize – also reasonably extends to the five Mopan Maya villages of Stann Creek.
The judgment requires the Government of Belize to put the brakes on any leases, grants, concessions and contracts that would affect Maya land rights in the Toledo District; however, attorneys for both sides differ on the true implications of that cease order.
Of particular interest are concessions for petroleum granted to US Capital Energy, which nearly completely overlaps with the territory in question, spanning a large stretch of Toledo, as well as the December 2008 concession for Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Limited for the development of the hydro potential of Belize’s majestic Rio Grande basin, which has been formally opposed by villagers of San Pedro Columbia, San Miguel, Silver Creek, Golden Stream, Medina Bank, Indian Creek and Big Falls.
“I would say it would require the government to go back and to re-examine whether those existing concessions were done under the parameters that the Chief Justice laid down in his judgment, and I am pretty certain that they were not – meaning that they were [not] done with the consultation and consent of the land holders, which are the Mayan people. So I would think that it will necessitate the government to go to the now affirmed landholders and speak to them about the existence of these concessions on their lands,” said Antoinette Moore, SC, who represented the Maya in court. Much depends on how GOB interprets what the CJ said, Moore added.
“I think what has gone in the past stays as valid, and I think his [the Chief Justice’s] judgment is not retroactive; it’s going forward,” said Government’s attorney, Lois Young, SC.
“Personally, I don’t think there is any other way we can go but to appeal [the CJ’s decision]. It’s a judgment that’s so huge that it has to be tested in an appellate court,” Young added.
Dr. Conteh described the case as “enormous:” There were five boxes of 51 affidavits, including statements from 23 alcaldes, maps and historical documents.
Notably, the book, Maya atlas: The struggle to preserve Maya land in Southern Belize, published in 1997 by North Atlantic Books, was used by both sides in the litigation over Toledo Maya land rights. That atlas claims that there are a total of 42 Maya villages in Southern Belize. At the time of the publication, the population of the Maya was numbered at 14,000.
The Chief Justice ruled on a similar case on October 18, 2007, when he declared, in a suit brought against the Government by the villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz, that the Maya of Southern Belize retain the land rights as indigenous to the area. The Government of Belize, however, took the view that the Maya now living in Toledo can claim no such rights, because they are recent migrants from Guatemala and not descendants of the Chol Maya who had occupied Toledo before the colonial period.
It was that impasse, the Chief Justice noted, which brought the Maya back to the doorsteps of the court, with the new case claiming rights for all Maya villages of Toledo.
“Belize—Guatemala are, in my view, post colonial constricts of what was part of Mesoamerica,” inhabited by the Maya groups, the Chief Justice read from his judgment.
Thirty-six of the Maya villages were the litigants in the case for which the Chief Justice delivered his ruling today: “I, therefore, find that from the evidence, there is in existence in Maya villages in Toledo District customary land tenure by which the villagers have rights and interest in villages that – for the avoidance of doubt – this conclusion is not limited only to Conejo and Santa Cruz villages…but includes as well – as of course it must, given the representative nature of the instant claim – the other Maya villages in the Toledo District.”
Dr. Conteh also said: “There are an additional five villages in the Stann Creek District. …It is, therefore, reasonable to extend the existence of Maya customary land tenure to the five Maya villages there [in Stann Creek] as well.”
He went on to clarify that, “…this has not been contended for in the claim form and I make no finding on that.”
In making his decision, Dr. Conteh put a lot of weight on the evidence submitted by the expert witnesses for the Maya, particularly American anthropologist, Dr. Richard Wilk, whose evidence Conteh described as “very compelling and helpful.”
Wilk contended before the court that the Maya of Toledo are the same as those who had occupied the area before colonization.
Government’s contention was that the indigenous Maya were forcibly removed from Belize by Spanish colonizers; today’s Toledo Maya are not indigenous. Expert for GOB was Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology.
Conteh said in his ruling that he is satisfied with the evidence that, “there are historical, ancestral, social and cultural links between the original inhabitants of what is today Toledo District and the claimants. I find that these links continue and endure to this day.”
In summarizing his decision, Chief Justice Conteh first re-affirmed his 18 October, 2007, judgment on Conejo and Santa Cruz, and declaring “…that Maya customary land tenure exists in all Maya villages in Toledo and where it exists, gives rise to collective and individual property rights under 3(d) and 17 of Belize Constitution.”
He furthermore said that the Government of Belize has an obligation to adopt affirmative measures to identify and protect the rights of the Maya, and went on to order the Government to work along with the Maya to develop legislative, administrative or other measures necessary to identify and protect Maya customary lands, in conformity with traditional practices.
“It is in the interest of all Belizeans that the process of reconciliation begins,” Conteh said.
Finally, the Chief Justice said that for the period of time that the Government and the Maya are working to sort out the system for the identification and protection of land rights, the Government shall cease and abstain from any acts that might lead agents of the Government or third parties to offend the existence, value, use and enjoyment of lands occupied and used by Maya in their villages, without their informed consent.
According to the Maya Atlas, Pueblo Viejo, one of the oldest settlements, was established in 1840. The atlas says Toledo was comprised of 36 Maya villages: 24 Ke’kchi, 6 Mopan, 6 mixed; and Stann Creek 6: 5 Mopan Maya villages and 1 Ke’kcki village.
The Toledo Maya Cultural Council had in the years following Independence called on the Government to recognize a 500,000-acre homeland.
Chief Justice Conteh awarded cost of court to the Maya, but did not grant them the damages they were claiming against the Government for alleged breach of constitutional rights against the Maya.
Young, Government’s attorney, said she was relieved no damages were levied against the Government. “The repercussions will be deep and far-reaching,” she conceded.
Right after the Monday morning ruling, the Maya Leaders Alliance’s Cristina Coc spoke in her native language with over 100 Maya villagers assembled inside the Chief Justice’s courtroom. Afterwards, the triumphant litigants traveled to one of the northernmost Toledo villages, Indian Creek, to hold their grand victory celebration.