Headline — 04 April 2014 — by Adele Ramos

Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana ruled in favor of SATIIM’s claim to stop drilling inside the Sarstoon-Temash National Park

“No to oil drilling until our rights to land, resources, culture, identity and equality are recognized…” This was the message boldly printed on the back of white T-shirts which members of the Maya community wore when they listened to the announcement this morning by Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana that she had ruled in their favor in a claim filed last year to stop drilling inside the Sarstoon-Temash National Park (STNP).

Eamon Courtenay, SC, attorney for the Maya, said that the company, US Capital, can only proceed with drilling until April 30, 2014, but every day that they drill or that they prepare to drill without free prior and informed consent, they are in violation of the rights of the claimants.

“The courts have said, repeatedly said, and Arana has said yet again, that the indigenous people should not be forced to go to court to have those rights respected. It is the obligation and duty of the Government…,” he said.

“The Government is duty-bound to pass enabling legislation, and Arana says that it is the duty of the Government to enter negotiations so that they can be compensated, as of right, despite the neo-colonialist garbage coming from the mouth of Mr. Peyrefitte,” Courtenay added.

Last Thursday, US Capital’s attorney, Michael Peyrefitte, Speaker of the House, told the media that it’s all about money, and the Maya leaders only took the dispute to court when the question of what “cut” they would get from oil proceeds came up in the discussions, because the Maya are asking for more royalties than are stipulated in law. However, he conceded that he had not put forth any evidence in court to support this assertion.

“I think this is a decision that goes hard against the Mayas. They want drilling,” Peyrefitte insisted.

“Not now; not this way…,” said Greg Choc, SATIIM’s executive director.

Choc told the media that rather than respond in kind to Peyrefitte, they will take the moral high ground. Choc said that the indigenous communities not only in Belize, but across the world, have shown restraint, have humbled themselves, and have engaged in a peaceful process, having confined their work to seeking the rule of law through litigation.

“We know that those that we challenge still have this neo-colonial mentality, and I believe that it is part and parcel of the process that we are engaged in. We’re not only trying to preserve those laws that exist on the books in the Constitution,” said Choc. He said that the work that they do in defending the struggles of the Maya is also aimed at freeing the minds of our leaders, to liberate them from that colonial mentality.

Last year the Government of Belize announced that the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM)—which had refused to sign a new co-management agreement because SATIIM said the leaders of the Maya community did not agree on the terms—could no longer serve as co-manager of the park.

However, SATIIM contended that they would still continue to act as guardians of the national park, because it constitutes their ancestral lands, as recognized by Belize’s courts.

In the midst of that dispute, though, SATIIM and the leaders of the surrounding communities — Conejo, Midway, Crique Sarco and Graham Creek — took the Government of Belize and US Capital to court, asking the court to quash the permission the Government had given to US Capital to enter the national park for oil exploration.

That case was heard in 2013, but Justice Arana handed down her decision today. In that decision she made two declarations: (1) that the Government’s decision to permit drilling and road construction inside the national park is irrational and unreasonable, because it was made without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous Maya communities who brought the claim to the court; and (2) that the permission which the Government of Belize gave to the company to drill in the STNP breaches the legitimate expectation of the indigenous Maya peoples, represented by the claimants, and she furthermore urged the Government to comply with its obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples to respect the rights of the indigenous Maya.

Justice Arana went on to order the Government “to obtain the free, prior and informed consent” from SATIIM and the communities with respect to any contract, permit or license that falls within the National Park. She then awarded costs to SATIIM and the Maya communities.

Responding to Arana’s ruling, Juan Ico, alcalde of Midway Village, said they are happy that the court has affirmed their right to free, prior and informed consent, and he asked the communities to continue in their resolve to not give up. He also congratulated and thanked the legal team, which assisted them on a pro bono basis, for support in the case.

Enrique Makin, Conejo chairman, said they will continue with the work they have started. He said that it has been “a rewarding experience,” as the courts have continued to affirm their rights.

Eligorio Cus, SATIIM chair and village council chair for Santa Teresa, said that the community representatives who came to the City today to receive the favorable judgment from the court, began heading out after 2:00 this afternoon, and now they must insist that the Government carry out its responsibilities.

Courtenay said that although the court did not strike down the permit which the Government gave to US Capital, the company has only 27 days left on it, and it is up to US Capital if they want to spend the money for the next 27 days, but Arana has re-affirmed the rights declared by former Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh, and declared, likewise, that the Government is under an obligation to consult with the Maya communities.

Choc told the press that SATIIM and the Maya communities will take all necessary steps to ensure that their rights are affirmed.

All indications are, though, that US Capital does intend to drill.

“At this point, we will continue until someone tells us to stop,” said Alistair King, US Capital’s representative in Belize.

King had recently disclosed to our newspaper that the company is driving piles at Temash #2, where they plan to put an oil rig. The rig should arrive from Guatemala in April, because US Capital intends to start drilling at the site by mid-May, King had told us.

“There was no injunctive relief in the orders and that is what makes it very interesting,” Peyrefitte said.

Courtenay said at today’s press conference, though, that the existing permit granted to the company to operate within the park expires at the end of April, and based on today’s court order by Justice Arana, they would have to get the approval of the Maya before proceeding with works inside the park.

The defendants have not yet indicated whether they will appeal. Peyrefitte said that, “If it’s a decision with which we agree, then it makes no sense to appeal.”

King said that US Capital, a foreign-owned company, will be advised by their attorneys on how to proceed, and they will also wait to hear the Government’s position on the matter.

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