Letters — 29 July 2014

Dear Editor,

On July 18, 2014, the Government of Belize released through their press office an announcement in essence saying that delivered to the Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Gaspar Vega from Dr. Joseph Palacio the head of Barranco Village Council were some 39 applications for title to lands in the Barranco area one would presume. See the letter at this site; https://www.facebook.com/GOBPressOffice.

The release was written by Palacio and released by the Government Press Office of Belize. According to the statement, it is “a vital step in building the foundation of renewed economic development”. The statement also said this is the outcome of a meeting with the Hon. Prime Minster held several weeks earlier.

In the weeks leading up to this moment, the Government of Belize (GOB) and US Capital Energy, an oil company trying to extract oil from the area surrounding Barranco and other villages, had been working overtime on the villagers to gain their support and to take support away from Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) in an important court case regarding use of land rights of indigenous peoples in Belize.

Barranco is a village of Garinagu. SATIIM has filed a case against the GOB and US Capital Energy seeking that they properly consult the indigenous people who own the land collectively before issuing permits for the drilling of oil. This is a landmark case which will define the rights of Belize’s indigenous groups in accordance with international law to give free and informed consent before the Government issues permits to companies which will seek to extract natural resources and their right based again on international law to share in profits from the exploitation of the natural resources within their ancestral lands.

Recently, the courts in Belize, via Justice Michelle Arana, issued a judgment which leans toward the GOB in the case. During this case Garifuna organizations in Belize have steadfastly remained mum.

Barranco is a Garifuna village. Whether the National Garifuna Council (NGC) has given them any advice or council is unknown at this point.

In the weeks leading up to the press release, it was unknown if Barranco would join the fight for indigenous land rights with SATIIM or work with the Government and US Capital Energy in spite of the fact they had not sought out the free and informed consent of any of the indigenous groups in the area.

One can probably conclude accurately the press release answers this question without doubt whom the village of Barranco wants to support. Barranco has chosen to accept land titles to farm lands in Barranco, it is presumed, and to participate more in the agricultural development and the sustainable exploitation of the natural resources in the surrounding area according to the release.

By the Garifuna community in Barranco accepting titles to what are communal lands of indigenous people at this moment, it may change the game adversely for them. If the GOB is giving individual titles, then how can the land be communal? There are fundamental issues involved in this latest development.

In basic geometry, they use the example of a pie. If Baranco and the surrounding area is a whole pie owned by the Garifuna, why would they then settle for 39 title applications for farm lands? They own the pie but negotiated for a slice?

Another example of this is the district of Stann Creek, in which the Garifuna town, Dangriga, is located. Imagine that the Garinagu owned the district of Stann Creek and they negotiate with the Government to own only Dangriga.

Here is another example – if Creoles own the Belize District and negotiated with the Government to own Lake Independence within the District of Belize. In both cases of negotiation, the Creoles and the Garifuna then think they got a good deal.

This makes absolutely no sense, and is illogical and laughable. International law such as United Nations Rights of Indigenous peoples Declaration says; Article 26

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.

3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

Clearly, Barranco is negotiating for what it controls. This just doesn’t make sense. In any case, the lands are the lands of Garifuna, not of Garifuna in Barranco, but the indigenous Garifuna – period. This idea of the land being Garifuna must be considered as Barranco residents went to bargain with the Prime Minister and possibly the attorneys for US Capital Energy.

Who represented Barranco in this meeting? Who represented Barranco in the negotiations? It doesn’t appear the negotiations were fair, from any point of view. Any person with some common sense will surmise that we will be hearing Barranco supports oil drilling.

In fact, the press release at least in Belize implies just as much. As it was known, the Government was courting the Garifuna population in Barranco for support. It actually didn’t take much for them to possibly get the support. A meeting with the Prime Minister and a few land titles later and there you have it. Simple!

What about the damage already done by US Capital Energy? By one known estimate, it is at approximately two million dollars. Was this a part of the negations to pay for that damage? Many questions persist, but few answers coming forth at this time.

The Hon Deputy Prime Minister, in the meanwhile, says all 39 titles will be ready within a month’s time. This is a record pace by Belizean standards; some people have been waiting for a lot for more than 20 years in Belize.

Garinagu, all Garinagu in Belize, in the meanwhile, have been led into the sewers by the pied piper that is their own leadership, which refuses to seek assistance and advice in handling these important issues which have international implications, and help to mold the way the local law sees its indigenous population.

It is setting a bad precedent by engaging in what appears to be downright illegal to unilaterally turn communal lands possibly given by the Crown into individual titles and to possibly lose some of the land in the process and the rights to the exploitation of natural resources contained on the land by foreign investors and the local Government.

Garinagu, leadership who know they cannot function in the international environment must step down in favor of those who are able to serve our nation in a healthier way. Time after time, the leadership continues to be the most impeding element to Garinagu progress and the reason why we continue to take giant leaps, backward!

Joseph Guerrero,
Garifuna Activist


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