The Maya say DAVCO (village chairmen) does not speak for them
Prime Minister Dean Barrow and other government representatives met with the executive of the Toledo District Association of Village Councils (DAVCO) at the Cabinet room in Belmopan today to discuss the prospects of oil exploration in southern Belize, and according to the Government of Belize (GOB), the association expressed their full support for the endeavor, citing its benefits to education, health and infrastructure in the district.
The meeting was apparently set up in order for GOB to move forward on its consultations on US Capital’s oil exploration activities with villagers who stand to be affected in the south, as ordered by Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana in her judgment, which was issued in April of this year on the heels of what has been described as a long, drawn-out court battle between the GOB and the leaders of the Mayan communities buffering the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, where the pre-drilling activities are currently taking place.
A release from GOB’s Press Office after the meeting today stated that “all parties agreed that moving forward, communities will be engaged in a series of consultations to inform community residents and garner support [for oil exploration in Toledo].”
The Supreme Court judgment handed down by Justice Michelle Arana in April was in favor of the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), and directed GOB to obtain “free, prior and informed consent” from SATIIM and the Mayan communities with respect to any oil contract, permit or license within the national park.
In late May, however, the judgment was modified and a “Perfected Order” – which is normally agreed upon after the attorneys from all parties have carefully read and interpreted the judgment – instructed GOB, rather, to “seek to” obtain free, prior, and informed consent as opposed to simply “obtain free, prior and informed consent from the claimants.”
While it may seem to be an amendment of just two words, it makes a world of difference to the parties involved, since it hinges on the difference between trying to do your best – a mere attempt, and actually doing one’s best – getting done what you made a commitment to do.
Therefore, the final order is being interpreted by the GOB’s side as a stipulation that Government make attempts to gain the consent of the Mayan communities; however, GOB still has the right to grant the permits and licenses even if the relevant communities don’t give their consent, which would suggest that US Capital has an edge over their opposers.
Hence, SATIIM’s Executive Director, Greg Ch’oc, referred to the perfected judgment as a “travesty,” since it does not unconditionally compel the oil company to consult the communities in their quest to explore for oil in what the Mayan leaders have deemed as their (Mayan) communal lands.
Prior to the meeting today, PM Barrow met with leaders from some villages in the buffer communities a few weeks ago, but at the same time, other Mayan leaders have accused GOB of using DAVCO to create division within the southern communities.
Of note is that according to our information, DAVCO mainly involves village chairpersons and not alcaldes, who, in Mayan customary tradition, are appointed to be responsible for the affairs of their respective communities and speak on their behalf.
Also appearing on behalf of GOB at the meeting were Minister of Energy, Science and Technology and Public Utilities, Senator Hon. Joy Grant; her Chief Executive Officer in that Ministry, Dr. Colin Young; and Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Senator Hon. Lisel Alamilla.
Oil exploration in the south remains a controversial issue, as parties for and against exploratory works within the Sarstoon-Temash National Parks have all strongly voiced their opinions on the matter.
Despite the initial Supreme Court ruling in early April which endorsed Maya customary land rights, the latter interpretations of the judgment – which arguably weakens SATIIM’s legal position – have led to uncertainty about what the existing laws dictate.
The latest Supreme Court injunction case which was brought by SATIIM will be held next Monday, June 16.