Wednesday, August 10, 2016
We are the Valley of Peace Maya Farmers Group and below is our story. We hope that you will find a way to help us, as over the past year we have exhausted all our available resources.
We are 8 Maya farmers who have been caring for and farming land in Valley of Peace for from between 6 and 17 years. Though it has been a traditional practice of the Maya, dating back thousands of years, to care for the land and grow our fruits and vegetables wherever it is a good place to grow near our homes and villages, all of us have applied to the Lands Department for leases on the lands we have been farming. We were assured by the Lands Department that we would receive the leases and some were even told that their leases had already been approved. Over the years, when visiting the lands office to inquire about the leases, we were told repeatedly not to worry and to keep farming the land, that the paper leases would be forthcoming.
Farming has provided us with a living as we grow food for our families and also to sell, and it is our only means of income to pay our utility bills, tuition, books and uniforms for our children as well as other basic necessities of life.
About a year ago, we were all presented with notices telling us that we must vacate the land we have cared for and farmed for so many years, and were also told that our land had been sold by the Lands Department. Some of these notices were presented to us in an intimidating way via the Police; one of us was threatened by the person claiming ownership arriving with men carrying guns.
Unlike other land practices and trends we currently see in Belize, where thousands of acres are sold to large agribusiness enterprises (many of whom are outsiders) and cleared to grow food for export — benefitting only a few — we have been maintaining the ecological integrity of the environment with traditional Maya farming practices. We are not clear-cutting, bulldozing or using massive machines to destroy the ecosystem and the natural habitats for bees, birds and other animals needed for balance in nature. Daily, we are witnessing the destruction of the natural environment of Belize, and we stand together in our protest of national lands being sold to grow food never to reach a Belizean plate, when thousands of Belizeans are without the basic needs of food and income. Belize is resource and land rich, but most Belizeans are poor. The government, charged with providing programs to benefit the people, must find better ways to create balance.
If we are to leave our farms, which collectively represent to us over a hundred years of daily hard labor tending thousands of trees we have planted, including coconut, mango, sour sop, mammy apple, lime, custard apple, banana, plantain among others, and the fields where we have planted rice, cabbage, corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cilantro, and yams for our families and neighbors to eat and which have provided us with sustainable (though meager) incomes, we will be among the poorest of Belizeans. We do not wish to be burdens. We wish to continue to be hard-working farmers maintaining a sustainable balance of the lands surrounding our village and providing food for our families.
We have asked for help, direction, and guidance in our plight to save our farms. Last June we sent out many appeal letters, and one to Ombudsman Mr Arzu. He suggested we form a group, which we have done, and we include now about 30 members of hard working farmers in Valley of Peace. Mr. Arzu also suggested we contact the Toledo Maya Land Rights Group toward finding support, which we have done. But, when we contacted Mr. Arzu several times again for additional advice on what to do next, he has not been responsive. In March of this year, we emailed our appeal to the CEO of Natural Resources and received a response telling us that our appeal was forwarded to the Commissioner of Lands, who was “the appropriate officer who would provide clarification. We also sent an email to your office and were hopeful when your secretary, Rosalie Sedasey, responded stating that she was forwarding our appeal to the CEO of Natural Resources for feedback and that she would contact us as soon as she heard back from them. We had also sent our appeal directly to the CEO of the Ministry of Natural Resources. The response was that our concern would be forwarded to the Commissioner of Lands, who would provide clarification and follow-up. We never heard from the Commissioner and we have tried many times to set up a meeting with him by going to the Lands Department and writing letters. We recently went to our area representative, Mr. Julius Espat, who assured us that he would help us establish a meeting with the Commissioner of Lands. Nothing happened again and when we contacted him several times, he was too busy to see us.
At this point we are very disappointed and feel that our government has abandoned their responsibility to us. We are now appealing to you Mr. Barrow in an open letter in hopes that you or someone reading it may be able to help us find clarification. It has been well over a year since we began our quest. We have done everything we have been advised to do and still, we do not know how to resolve this serious problem which has caused our families and ourselves much distress about the future.
We greatly look forward to your response. Thank you.
Valley of Peace Maya Farmers Group