The vastly divided opinions of the Maya of Toledo on the very contentious issue of petroleum exploration have rival rural factions at loggerheads, with leading environmental and cultural activists from the south waging a new battle against both the Government of Belize and US Capital Energy, which they contend are not acting in their interest—but solely on the basis of the wealth private individuals can amass from the industry.
The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), and the four communities represented by SATIIM: Graham Creek, Crique Sarco, Conejo and Midway, have issued a joint public statement condemning last Thursday’s consultation held in Sunday Wood, Toledo, after Greg Ch’oc, spokesperson for the buffer communities of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, was barred from continuing his 10-page presentation on the petroleum exploration project which is expected to span vast acreages of ancestral lands.
Officials at the consultation killed Ch’oc’s microphone, we are told, ten minutes into his presentation, and thereafter, speakers from the floor were advised that they had a one-minute time limit to put in their questions to the presenters from the Department of the Environment and US Capital Energy Limited.
The protesting organizations say that with the help of Sunday Wood’s alcalde, Mateo Tush, an outspoken supporter of oil drilling, a move was made to wrestle away the microphone and drag Gregory Ch’oc across the room. “Even the police and members of the military were called in to try to restrain him,” they added.
The parties said they “denounce this denial of freedom of expression that tramples on the rights of the indigenous peoples whose lands, territories and resources are the subjects of the EIA.”
SATIIM and the leaders of the four buffer communities lost an appeal to the Government to have the EIA consultation put off for four weeks, to allow them to get the 300-page document translated in their languages, Q’eqchi’ and Garifuna. Government’s response was that they are bound by law to keep a time-limit for the EIA process.
Amandala tried to get official comment from the Department of the Environment today, to no avail. Whereas several statements have been issued on behalf of the protesting Maya faction, the Government has yet to issue a formal statement to respond to their charges and comments.
We understand, however, that the National Environmental Appraisal Council (NEAC), chaired by Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria, is due to meet on Wednesday, October 31, 2012, to decide on whether they will approve the US Capital’s EIA for exploratory drilling inside the national park, as well as inside surrounding Maya communities.
The NEAC conducted a site visit last Thursday, in the hours leading up to the fiery consultation, which lasted several hours. An official source tells us that the US Capital consultation was reminiscent of that held a decade ago for Chalillo, a contentious hydro-development project which eventually got official approval but which later became the subject of litigation in Belize courts.
Whereas no court proceedings have yet been filed in respect of the US Capital project, there have been suggestions that such proceedings could be lodged in the weeks ahead.
“This disgraceful situation has forced the four communities that SATIIM represents, to take a unanimous decision, which will be made known to this country and the international community in days to come,” the protesting organizations said in their joint statement.
For its part, the MLA said today that, “The government should be looking out for our best interest but instead they are selling us out and our heritage. This will not stand unchallenged.”
Amandala understands that varying estimates put the attendance at last Thursday’s consultation between 500 and 1,000 people – far more than the 150 that could have been accommodated inside the venue. Far more people stood outside the meeting hall listening to the proceedings, which began with nearly three hours of presentations from the DOE and US Capital. Hundreds were actually mobilized by the oil company.
Whereas an EIA consultation should focus primarily on the environmental aspects of the project, there are persons who publicly lobbied for financial benefits from the company. For example, one Maya woman wanted to know “what kind of help is coming” because her husband needs a job and she needs help for her children.
“We need jobs, mi bredda,” another Maya man chimed in.
Meanwhile, a man from the Garifuna village of Barranco said they were asking for help for farming families, specifically 50-acre plots to be surveyed. A seawall in the village is also desperately needed, he lobbied.
Local opponents to the project were just as vocal: “We don’t want any oil company to come here and do what they want,” one Maya woman said.
“If we cannot get them to listen to us, we don’t want to be here,” a male observer said, after Ch’oc was removed from the microphone and refused another chance to continue his presentation, despite verbal warfare and physical scuffles.
There were fewer queries and commentaries on the project itself. For example, a young Maya man appealed to the developers to consider the use of directional drilling, so that the park, which he said their ancestors have long tried to protect, would not be molested.
Querying the content of US Capital’s video presentation, one male observer asked whether the method of sealing the oil wells would be that mentioned in the EIA document—using drilling mud and clay—or the method demonstrated in the video—using cement to seal the bore hole.
US Capital’s rep, Allan Herrera, said the method the company will use is not the method in the EIA but that shown in the video.
The questioner probed: Why was that not described in the EIA? He noted that the method described in the EIA poses serious health risks, since it is very likely to result in the seepage of toxic and carcinogenic substances into the ground waters upon which the Maya communities depend. The toxic seepages, he noted, have also been linked, as evidenced in the case of Chevron in Ecuador, to birth defects within affected communities, such as babies being born with missing limbs. Herrera challenged him to submit the evidence to support what he was claiming.
Audrey Matura-Shepherd, Vice President of Oceana in Belize, who attended the EIA consultation, asked whether the latest contract for US Capital is available, because the contract signed September 28, 2004, was to expire in January 2012, and their requests from the Government for a revised contract have not been met. She noted that the EIA has to be based on a valid contract, and if there is no valid contract, then the EIA consultation is invalid. She did not receive a response to her query.
Matura-Shepherd said that under the contract, 5% of profits are to go to the Government of Belize but 95% to the company. She noted that a paltry US$25,000 is allocated for job training, and the company is not obliged to finance that unless it finds and produces oil.
For its part, US Capital is happy with the outcome of last Thursday’s consultation, which it dubs “a tremendous success.”
The company said that it is “especially encouraged by the overwhelming public support for our oil exploration project!” However, that support, the MLA has said, was only apparent because the company is using “Columbus tactics” on the people of the South.
“We are outraged that these foreign companies come to our land, supported by our own government, and try to buy us and our resources as in the days of Christopher Columbus. When they cannot buy us, they try to marginalize and isolate us,” MLA commented.
The reaction of the opposing faction within the Maya communities has not swayed the oil company. In fact, it has asserted that, “We are preparing for our next phase, based on the trust extended to us by the people of Toledo and in compliance with all national and international laws.”