Features — 09 November 2012 — by Adele Ramos
Dispute over Maya lands and oil may be headed to court

US Capital spokesperson to the Mayas: “You can cry all you want, but the oil development is coming.”

Representatives of the Toledo Alcalde’s Association (TAA) and the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) began a public campaign today to firmly declare their position on oil exploration down south, in the resource-rich district of Toledo.

Cristina Coc, spokesperson of the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), said that no conversation about petroleum exploration can even begin until the Maya’s ancestral and customary land rights are acknowledged, because under law, their “free, prior and informed consent” is required, as owners of much of the lands upon which US Capital intends to explore for oil in Block 19.

Alfonso Cal, TAA president, said that many of their village leaders are asking about what jobs will be available. The alcaldes of 38 villages were called to a meeting last Friday, and they were asking questions about what is going on, because they have not been hearing anything from the government regarding the status of their lands, which are included in the US Capital petroleum concession, Cal added.

According to Antoinette Moore, SC, attorney for the Maya, both they and the government are awaiting the decision of the Court of Appeal, following the government’s challenge of the judgment by former Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh acknowledging that Maya people of Toledo own the lands in and around their villages which they had customarily used and occupied.

The Maya say that they have put the company, US Capital, on notice that they may be trespassing if they proceed with their plans to drill without the consent of the Maya.

Martin Chin, acting chair and vice president of the Q’eqchi’ Council, said that no Belizean should be happy with the current formula for the sharing of petroleum proceeds, which gives the company 95% and the government a mere 5%. Belizeans should be talking about getting a 50-50 share, he urged.

The leaders are firm on the need to get any agreement with the oil company, including how many jobs they will make available to locals, in writing. They are concerned that nothing substantial from development projects ever goes back to Toledo.

Chin said that locals also want to know how petroleum exploration will affect their farming lifestyle, because they use slash and burn to prepare their farms, and they would not be able to carry out such activities near oil wells, because of the danger that would pose. The people will also need to be informed of the possible impacts on organic cacao farming, he added.

Moore said that the Government of Belize has specific obligations under international law, the Belize Constitution (which in its preamble cites respective international law and treaty obligations) and the Petroleum Act. Such obligations include the need to get the consent of the Maya, which, they say, has not been sought.

She implored the elected representatives in government to reconsider their position and to engage the indigenous peoples of the south on this matter.

Pablo Mis, MLA coordinator, emphasized the need for the government to get the free, prior and informed consent of the people. He said that project personnel have been saying that they don’t have to drill on the lands – that they could do directional drilling from Guatemala, where they also have petroleum interests.

Mis said that at a meeting held in Elridgeville, Toledo, a US Capital spokesperson hired from Guatemala told them that they could cry all they want, but the oil development is coming.

At the last meeting of the alcaldes, said Mis, one leader stated that the government will ignore them until they use its own law to get Government’s attention.

On Tuesday, the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), the MLA and the TAA met with the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage and their two lawyers. According to Moore, the issue of litigation was discussed, but it is up to the Maya leaders to decide what their next move will be. The Maya, she said, are not against development, but they are for the recognition and respect of their rights.

Coc said that developers, in general, tend to play on the greatest need of the people – that is, the need for jobs, since a lot of the communities of the South are cash-poor. She said, however, that she does not fault her people for wanting jobs, but many accept those offers assuming that they will still be able to practice their customary way of life, when that may not necessarily be the case. The jobs, she said, tend to be short-lived and most of them don’t pay very much.

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