Regional — 03 September 2013 — by Kareem Clarke
Media tours US Capital’s drill site in Sarstoon Temash National Park

“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” – quoted by Greg Ch’oc, Executive Director of SATIIM from southern Belize who relentlessly fights for the rights of the indigenous Mayan communities of the Toledo district.

US Capital’s rep could not explain exactly how a spill in the Temash River would be contained

By now, most Belizeans are aware of the ongoing impasse between the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and US Capital Energy Ltd. over the oil exploration activities that were permitted by Government to take place at the Sarstoon Temash National Park in the deep south of Belize.

A few weeks ago, on August 7, SATIIM’s Executive Director, Greg Ch’oc, promised to take the major media outlets from Belize City to the site where the oil drilling is scheduled to be conducted. The reason for this, as Ch’oc explained, was so that the wider public could get an actual view of US Capital’s proposed drill site, which happens to be located 600 meters inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park.

The bone of contention for SATIIM lies in the fact that the national park, which is a broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest measuring 41,898 acres, was declared as Mayan communal lands by the Court of Appeal in July of this year. However, the NGO argues that even though a court judgment has been handed down, the area has been subjected to unwarranted oil exploration activities without proper consultation with the neighboring Mayan communities of the “buffer zone”.

The American transnational oil exploration company, US Capital Energy, was provided with a permit to carry out oil exploration and subsequent drilling exercises on what is understood to be Mayan ancestral lands, to which the Mayan communities have customary rights.

Last Thursday, the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology and Public Utilities issued a statement which basically says that the Government maintains that its actions to issue licenses, concessions and all necessary permits as required by law are “completely legal and consistent with the decision of the Court of Appeal.”

This was after a group of 9 community leaders, 5 SATIIM park rangers and its programme officer, Martin Cus, were barred from entering the drill site to do their routine patrols on Friday, August 23. The group was reportedly met by heavily armed police and BDF soldiers, who according to the O.C. Punta Gorda Police, Simeon Alvarez, were there to “keep the peace” and “prevent anything from getting out of control.”

SATIIM and the Mayan communities, on the other hand, are of the opinion that both GOB and US Capital are engaged in illegal activities on Mayan customary titled lands and subsequently released a stern public statement condemning what they term as the “lawlessness of their [GOB and US Capital’s] intention in the region…” through “sustained efforts and continued harassment of SATIIM and the indigenous communities in their management efforts.”

SATIIM and the Mayan community leaders have been adamant about the issue, particularly because the NGO has co-managed the national park since 1997, but more significantly because they believe that they have been denied access to the very land that they own.

SATIIM and the Mayan communities have therefore promised that they will not desist from traversing their traditional lands and have refused to be told how and when to go about embarking on their routine patrols in the area.

This is perhaps why SATIIM and the Mayan community leaders felt the need to invite the media to the drill site last weekend to expose what they term as unsanctioned works being carried out by US Capital Energy.

As agreed, a group of media personnel from the prominent media houses in Belize City, including one that is based in Belmopan, boarded a flight at 8:00 a.m. from the Belize City Municipal Airstrip this morning, en route to Punta Gorda to look at the actual situation on the ground at the Sarstoon Temash National Park.

Before doing so, though, the group met none other than Alistair King, whom they questioned about US Capital’s position on oil exploration on Mayan communal lands. The country representative for US Capital told reporters that US Capital Energy basically works along with the government, which is their partner; and that they work based on the permit received from Government.

King added that the government’s position is that the lands in and around the drill site are national land and not Mayan land; therefore those are the conditions under which they (US Capital) work. He mentioned that the government should have done a better job of explaining this to SATIIM and the communities of the buffer zone.

He also told reporters that US Capital currently employs about 30 people from the surrounding areas, and that many times they (US Capital) do not get their side of the story out, but there are people from the south who are in support of the oil exploration activities.

After a 1-hour flight over the picturesque coastline of Belize, the group arrived at their destination. They were then transported through the beautiful town of Punta Gorda to the SATIIM headquarters on Main Street, where they then prepared to make their journey to the embattled drill site via watercraft.

After a slight delay and a short briefing from Greg Ch’oc, the team boarded a boat at about 12:00 midday from the seaside and headed out on a 40-minute excursion, past Barranco Village and through the Temash River to get to the drill site. The scenic natural life and ecosystems, which are a part of the river’s edge, stood as a testimony of what could be lost as a consequence of the devastating effects a potential oil spill would have on the marine life and the wildlife that reside in the area.

The drill site, which can be accessed from the river’s edge, is located approximately 300 meters from the water body, and it could spell disaster if this body of water were to be contaminated at any time by crude oil that would be pumped from the drill site.

Ch’oc pointed out that these are among his greatest concerns, along with the fact that the drilling will be done in wetlands, which is not stipulated anywhere in the EIA that US Capital possesses.

The path to the drill site was particularly treacherous; however, the media group got out of the boat and entered the cold, murky water, guided by Ch’oc and 8 of the Maya leaders, alcaldes and personnel from SATIIM.

They all then waded through waist-deep water, through mangrove and thorny bushes, while securing their equipment. Upon reaching the site, the team was met by a police officer who insisted that all cameras be turned off before entering the drill site.

This was immediately met with resistance because a cameraman from a local television station in Toledo could be seen recording footage on the site. The cameras were therefore allowed to roll and the media and crew went onto the actual drill site. Personnel from the Forestry Department and some BDF soldiers were also on the scene.

After emerging from the water, Ch’oc felt it necessary to make an on-site address, in which he explained that he brought the media to the drill site for two purposes; one of them was because US Capital has insisted that SATIIM’s park rangers get permission from the government and US Capital to go to the area, which has been classified as their (the Mayas’) property; and they refuse to be told how and when they should enter the park.

Secondly, he said he brought the media because the area is completely surrounded by water and there is no provision in the environmental assessment in the case of an oil spill. This would be something that would be quite difficult to contain, he warned, and could lead to potential contamination and degradation of the other natural resources of the area.

Ch’oc then said that he wants the government to come to the table and discuss the problems with them. He explained that he took the media there so that the world could see the injustices and double-standards that occur in the Sarstoon Temash.

Ch’oc said that they have been through the court for 18 years in an effort to affirm that the lands are Maya ancestral lands, and mentioned that the granting of permission to US Capital to drill in the area is the most blatant violation of the rights of the indigenous people and a form of discrimination; therefore, the global community needs to know what is happening – that the oil rig will be established on an island. In conclusion, he called on the conscience of the political leaders to do what is right for the country.

Also present at the site was US Capital’s site engineer, Nuani Cayetano, who was in charge of the site, known as Temash Number 2. He said that US Capital intends to raise the drilling platform about 1.75 meters above the water level and then they will begin constructing facilities such as a drilling pad and putting precautions in place so that they don’t have any seepages or spilling.

He pointed out the area where they are going to drill, and said that 600 meters of the drilling area lies within the national park, which, according to Cayetano, is well within the 900 meters that they were allowed to use. He said that about 50,000 cubic meters of material have been used so far to construct the road.

However, he was not able to state how they plan to deal with a spill, if one was to occur, and what standards will the company employ in terms of constructing the drilling facilities. He said that all their works are vetted by international bodies, so interested observers would have to consult with the international community when it comes to the standards to which they adhere.

Cayetano said that the road to the site was built in April and they got permission to work within the national park in May.

During the interview, the police officer who wanted everyone to turn off their cameras attempted to collect the names of the persons conducting the interviews, but could not explain why when the cameras were turned on him.

Cayetano said that after the filling is done, a crew of drilling experts will come to Belize to conduct the drilling operations. He stated that the size of the platform is 109 meters by 87 meters. So far, the site engineer said that they have raised the platform 1.2 meters above the sea level. He said that the question of how a spill would be contained if one was to occur was a question for the drill engineer.

After observing the current status of the drill site and the road leading up to it, the group made their way back through the marsh, back into the boat and back down the Temash River to Barranco.

From there, they traveled by bus on a 10-mile journey to the village of Midway, where Ch’oc and the Maya leaders and alcaldes held a late evening press conference.

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