On Thursday, the Court of Appeal delivered a significant ruling in the Maya Land Rights dispute with the Government of Belize. That decision also impacts other cases pending resolution by Belize’s judiciary. Whereas the disputes come under the general umbrella of customary land rights, more specific issues such as oil drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP) have recently taken the front-burner.
Although Thursday’s Court of Appeal decision affirmed Maya ancestral land rights, it set aside certain orders that the Supreme Court had made to give effect to those rights.
Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay is the attorney representing the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) in the legal dispute with the Government of Belize over plans by US Capital Energy to drill inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park and surrounding Maya communities. He spoke of the domino effect that decision may have on the pending case. Courtenay told the media that the effect is not fatal, and they will press ahead with the lawsuit:
“My clients propose to continue the claim, and the primary point for consideration in the court in that claim is whether or not there can be drilling in the national park. And we believe that the law is very clear, that it is not allowed. And that has nothing to do with the question of whether or not you are an indigenous person. That was an additional limb on which we were going to argue, and in fact we are probably still going to argue. As I said, I haven’t finished analyzing the case [from the Court of Appeal], but certainly, it has affected the case, but it is not fatal at all. We still have very strong arguments to deploy.”
SATIIM, along with the villages of Conejo, Crique Sarco, Graham Creek and Midway—all villages surrounding the Sarstoon Temash National Park, where US Capital plans to drill, collectively filed a lawsuit on Monday. The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO), of which SATIIM is a member, joined the suit as an interested party. Courtenay explained the scope of the claim they have submitted.
“The first is that the National Parks Systems Act provides for Nature Reserves, National Parks, et cetera, and when you look at that legislation, it does not contemplate commercial activity in a national park, and what we have here is a decision by the Government to allow US Capital to go into the National Park to do commercial drilling, and it is going to be our argument very forcefully, that the law does not allow for that,” the attorney said.
“In addition to that, we will argue that under the Petroleum Act, as very similar to what was said in Oceana, that you cannot give permission for somebody to either explore or to actually drill for oil where you have a law that would prohibit it. So, for example, there is no point giving somebody a concession over the Barrier Reef, because you can never allow them to drill in the Barrier Reef. And our argument is that the National Parks Systems Act does not allow for commercial drilling, and if it does not, the Minister of Energy cannot give a PSA to allow somebody to, in effect, contravene another law,” Courtenay added.