Features — 09 November 2012 — by Adele Ramos
Maya secure US attorneys to fight GOB, US Capital

The San Francisco attorneys are from one of the best US firms

The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) has, through its United States affiliates, been able to secure a commitment for pro bono representation from a major international law firm with 600 attorneys across the US, Beijing and London, to help with a land rights challenge they may be mounting against the Government of Belize, as the dispute between the Maya of Toledo and the government over petroleum exploration in the south deepens.

Greg Ch’oc, SATIIM’s executive director, told Amandala today that they want to take things one step at a time. He said that the mandate to seek legal representation was given to SATIIM by the four buffer communities of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park which have chosen SATIIM to represent them on the issue. Those villages are Graham Creek, Crique Sarco, Conejo and Midway.

“All four communities unanimously decided that the need for legal counsel is urgent,” SATIIM said in a press release issued today.

It said that the NGO had retained a legal team of local and international lawyers “to advise on violations to their rights committed during recent oil exploration activities and the prospect of future drilling on their territories.”

Sheppard Mullin Richter Hampton LLP, ranked among the “best law firms” by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers just weeks ago, has deployed two attorneys to the case of the Toledo Maya. The attorneys, said Ch’oc, have experience with environmental cases and work out of the firm’s San Francisco, California, office. They have been in communication with them on the Belize case, and they may undertake a working visit within the coming weeks, he informed.

Additionally, two senior counsels have been engaged in Belize – Antoinette Moore, who has for several years been the attorney victoriously representing the Maya in their land rights claims; and Lisa Shoman, a Senator of the Opposition People’s United Party who recently joined the legal team for the Maya.

The Maya of Toledo contend that the Belize government has been ignoring them, and shunning any meaningful dialogue on the issue of their land rights and petroleum exploration within the territories for which they have claimed and asserted ancestral rights. They also believe that they have been “excluded from the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] process altogether.”

“Indigenous leaders of the south feel they have no other recourse than to hold the government to its legal obligations under both domestic and international law to respect the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of their communities,” they furthermore add.

The indigenous communities restate their call upon the government “to draw upon the Supreme Court decisions which state that the affected Maya communities have customary rights to their land and must give free, prior and informed consent prior to any activity being done on their lands” when making decisions regarding development projects on indigenous lands.

They also say that Government “…must adhere to the human rights principles and standards set forth in the UNDRIP [The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] – which the Belize government has signed – and which further stipulates its legal obligation to obtain consent prior to a project’s approval.”

According to SATIIM, they are fully supported by the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) and the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), who also have a legal team led by senior counsel Moore assisting in what they describe as a “unified cause.”

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