People have power and wealth in many ways, by high position in office and possession or control over money is one of the most common. However, the most basic and humble means of power is to own land. Think of it and you will see how owning a piece of land may be all you need to empower you, establish you and feed you. Yes, land is one of the most valuable and powerful resources Belize has, but this has eluded many of our people who have either failed miserably or taken for granted how important owning land is. Nations have been invaded for a piece of real estate; relatives have feuded and killed over land; some of the biggest frauds have been over land, and politicians have known how to use possession, control and ownership of land as one of the most effective campaign promises to get elected.
This week Belize has seen a magnified version of land disputes, first with the Maya asserting their rights to the communal land and second the Lake-I residents squatting on land in the area of the soon-to-be Chetumal Boulevard Bridge. However, while both have their own nuisances, take note that at the core of it all is the issue of power… who has the power to take control over the land.
Maya land rights
The struggle of the Maya people to assert their right to their communal land started a decade ago in our courts and has been very successful, because Belize like Queensland had to acknowledge that the original people in all colonized territory had what we call in law, native title. This is an interesting but very logical and humane concept, which basically means that if history shows you were the first people in the territory, using it and surviving on it, even if you did not know how to read and write and do not have a paper title or certificate to it, by you being the original people you are entitled to the land. This is seen as a form of reparation after our colonizers invaded, settled or got our lands ceded to them and decimated local native populations.
The Common Law system which we inherited was cruel and arrogant and was premised on the principle that the Englishman took his law with him wherever he was, his law was borderless and not confined to England. Based on this belief for centuries courts refused to rule that native and indigenous people in various British colonies or ex-colonies were entitled to the possession, use, control and ownership of their land.
When I first learned this cruel reality was when I read the case of Maboet’al v Queensland (1992) a decision of the High Court of England which after a century of seeking redress before the courts, the aboriginal Meriam people of the Murray Islands finally succeeded. As I read the various cases before this one, I was amazed at how the native people were deemed and treated as stupid, having no concept of land ownership and downright chattels, not people with rights and were looked down upon because of their way of life… Sounds familiar?
The gist of the Crown’s argument, who were the defendants is that, “when the territory of a settled colony became part of the Crown’s dominions, the law of England so far as applicable to colonial conditions became the law of the colony and, by that law, the Crown acquired the absolute beneficial ownership of all land in the territory so that the colony became the Crown’s demesne and no right or interest in any land in the territory could thereafter be possessed by any other person unless granted by the Crown,” as condensed by Judge Brennan.
Oil companies are the new colonizers
It is based on the principles enunciated in the Mabo case that our Maya people have finally been recognized, after the scourges of colonization, that they were always the owners of their communal land and that their right to it was never extinguished even when by war and invaders they were forced to flee. The fleeing from the land is not deemed as abandonment, because it was not done from a free will, but from a position of survival.
Sadly, both the past two Prime Ministers of this country are attorneys and if they did not fall asleep in classes during their law of property lectures, human rights class or even Constitutional law class, would have had to read all the decisions of Mabo so know very well the legal principles upon which the various Maya land cases have been decided, even the recent SATIIM challenge of the oil concessions.
When Prime Minister Said Musa called it a “balkanization” I was taken aback because I always thought he was very much into Constitutional law, but he like the present PM knew something that the rest of us did not know and maybe not even the majority of Maya people knew… that is, that there might be deposits of oil under their land.
With that revelation come the new colonizers, the oil companies, who have bought their local hired guns and are gunning at the Mayan people, who like their ancestors before must now fight off the invaders. This time, however, they do not need to use bows and arrows because they have the law as their recourse.
The court is clear: the government CANNOT give permission or license to any oil company to enter the communal land of the Maya people, and if the Maya people choose to give free and informed consent that is their prerogative, but they divide and conquer. The lame explanation given by US Capital’s attorney Michael Peyrefitte that they were asked by Maya people to explain the ruling is the lowest… anyone who has lived amongst the Maya people will tell you that they always work through their Alcaldes and unlike what we may believe they still operate pretty much by a system of giving respect to their leaders and they always meet to discuss issues and give a communal and collective position.
Politicians play the field
Now, as can be seen, where there is land there is a politician involved, sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front. Well, in the recent flare up between the residents of Lake I and the area representative Mark King, several things stood out poignantly to me and I feel compelled to share them with my readers.
First, “People that have land in the Gungulung Area were worried because I think most of them were wondering if we were going to kick them off their land because of the government project. Well I’m happy to tell you that is not so. Right? What we will do…I think most of you have seen a guy Mr. Marin here in the back here. He is surveying the land, and when he is done surveying the land, for you people who are on the land all I will do is give you your papers. Right? That is what I promised you before elections. And if the government moves you then they will have to move me because all of us would protest my own government.”
So ironic how these were his words just before elections and now that those same people voted for him, he is calling them aliens and denouncing them. I wish he would have done that denouncing since then because it was the right thing to do. But those same people, who did not have nationality and could not vote, have become accustomed to holding our politicians to ransom and so each is playing his/her game. Because those same politicians are used to making big, false, promises before election to win, knowing they cannot fulfill said promise.
Sorry, but I do not feel sorry for any of them because the “squatters” know that it was not right to sell out themselves and vote and many know they did not qualify for nationality and so had not the right to vote. So they voted Mark King in and got exactly what they voted for. I’m sorry for Mark King because he knows all too well that it was wrong to talk so big, that he will protest his own government, when all he wanted really was to get in power. If he did a Penner on us and facilitated the process to help these so-called “squatters” and “illegal aliens” obtain their nationality, well he must realize he set the standard for them to hold him by. So two wrongs “no mek wah right!”
I opine, what is playing out here is a microcosm of what really goes on each time elections come about. You see we are dealing with a compromised electorate who set a price and a compromised political leadership who pay the price to get in office. I find it hard to believe that today we can find one politician in office who has not bought a vote.
So the squatters claim they are right because they were made a promise to and are cashing in their promise, but they needed to also know that to claim such rights under our law over Crown land, that is land still owned by the Government, they had to be squatting on it undisturbed for 30 years and thereafter they can move the court to give them title. Sad but true, they have not been there 30 years, so they cannot claim squatters’ rights.
However, they might be able to still go to the bank to cash in King’s promise to help them get land, if they acted in defiance of it, but please do not go testify that you voted for Mark King in return for it because you would have just made out a proper case for election bribery… which in retrospect is not a bad idea…… ha ha. But like the Penner case, I cannot see the Police being allowed to investigate how these voters voted for a politician in return for them being allowed to stay on the land and with the promise that they will be helped to get the land they were squatting on. Well this is what happened in Belama Phase Three and Four and so the politicians then set the trend and the immigrants now know how to milk it…do you blame them?
So interesting what is revealed when Mark King opens his mouth: “You don’t come here, do your own thing and then after that tell the government this is what you have to do. That doesn’t work. You don’t come and threaten the government first and then later come around back to realize that I am the one to help you as the area rep and then throw it all on me and the government…that doesn’t work.”
In a nutshell, what he is saying… I and the government are one and the same…. So I guess he will not protest against himself! But as the area representative he knows the reality the people in those areas are facing and I just don’t find it smart not to address the problem until it erupts as it has, because it creates a lot of anti-alien, anti-immigrant and racist sentiments… which I think is not healthy nor fair, simply because it is not only “aliens” who squat and because the people know the only currency of the politician is their vote and so make use of it.
But, there is still much room more to debate this issue and I surely will delight in addressing it more. What say you, Belize? God bless you, Belize!