General — 11 April 2014 — by Adele Ramos
Schism deepens over oil drilling in southern Belize

Garifuna community may also mount claim for ancestral, communal land rights in Sarstoon-Temash

Tensions continue to run high between some members of the Maya community and US Capital Energy, after what Greg Ch’oc, executive director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), has described as a “bullying” attempt by US Capital Energy to summon Maya leaders to a meeting at their Punta Gorda office on Tuesday morning, so that the company could give them their interpretation of the ruling.

Ch’oc told Amandala that, “US Capital had written to community leaders inviting them to a meeting, and what was interesting is that Michael Peyrefitte and company officials were going to interpret the decision of the court to the leaders.”

“When did Mr. Michael Peyrefitte [US Capital’s attorney] become the legal counsel for these communities? Is this even ethical for his profession?” Ch’oc questioned, in a statement issued Tuesday.

“US Capital Energy and its operatives need to understand that maintaining the status quo – bullying communities — is no longer an option and that this action by the company is a vile disrespect for indigenous communities,” he added.

Peyrefitte told Amandala on Wednesday that some members of the Maya community, who said that they could not reach SATIIM for an explanation on the ruling, went to US Capital and asked what the ruling means for the Maya community. US Capital then offered to have him, Peyreffite, explain it to them. He said that the company photocopied the court ruling and gave it to several alcaldes.

“The judge made it very clear that she wanted engagement. If the Maya community is asking for someone to come and explain [it to them]… how is the company to blame for that? Aren’t we engaging?” Peyrefitte said.

One of the village leaders who received an invitation from US Capital to attend Tuesday’s meeting is Dr. Joseph Palacio, chairman of Barranco, one of the bordering villages of the Sarstoon Temash National Park.

“Ask him if it was any secret or clandestine meeting,” Peyreffite urged.

Peyrefitte said that while the judge affirmed Maya land rights, he said that the call for their free, prior and informed consent is not just for the Maya – it is a right held by all such landowners.

“They are for the entire country, not just for you. That is what I was explaining,” he told Amandala.

Dr. Palacio told Amandala that the Arana ruling is significant to them in that it makes the case for indigenous rights for the Garinagu stronger. Palacio said that it isn’t only the land claims, but also other things they have rights to which are protected by indigenous law.

Peyrefitte said that although he explained the court ruling to the indigenous community, he also explained to them that this does not mean that they can hold the country hostage, because under the Petroleum Act, the Minister of Petroleum can override the need for consent, where it is being unreasonably withheld. The state has the right to get the minerals in the subsoil, said Peyrefitte.

Palacio told us that the Arana decision boils down to two points; one has to do with substantiating the Maya land claim, and the other is the need for their free, prior and informed consent.

As for the implications for Barranco, Palacio said that the first major one is that whereas in the judgment, the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP) is said to be traditionally Maya land, his understanding has always been that there are two separate indigenous peoples whose ancestors made use of the land which is now the national park: the Maya as well as the Garinagu.

Dr. Palacio said that the question now is, “Do we [Garinagu] have ancestral, communal rights and do we also have ancestral land rights?”

He said that there have been discussions within the Garifuna community about getting a legal opinion on this question.

In looking at the Arana judgment, there is reference only to the Maya and no reference to the Garifuna people as indigenous people.

“That is a little alarming to me,” Palacio said.

He said that in the constitution of SATIIM, the main claimant in the case, there is a space for a Garifuna representative from the village and the Garinagu also had communal rights to the STNP, but when you read the court decision, that is not reflected at all.

Will the Garifuna community now seek a legal claim?

“I imagine so,” Palacio told us. “This would have to be informed by [a legal expert]. It is crucial enough to look at what is the reality now. Were we all wronged from the very beginning?”

Palacio, who confirmed that he did attend the meeting called by US Capital, told us that it is the responsibility of the Government of Belize to communicate with the people on any such ruling by the court. He said that some Government entity should have been available to explain to people what the ruling means, but that kind of extension service is never exercised by such an entity unless you know someone within the respective department and they do it as a matter of goodwill. He said that the fact that the Government has such a duty to its taxpaying citizens is not accepted here in Belize, and it is a pity that it does not fit into our culture – particularly where rural communities are concerned.

SATIIM said in its statement issued Tuesday that it “urges the Government of Belize to put in place the legal mechanisms necessary to recognize and give effect to those rights belonging to the Maya, which have already been recognized by the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the International Commission of Human Rights.”

It says that they expect that the Government of Belize will start to consult, cooperate in good faith and develop in conjunction with them, fair, transparent and effective mechanisms to ensure that the rights of the communities are no longer trampled upon.

Colin Young, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources, told Amandala today that Government intends to abide by the ruling of the court, and they are still in the process of looking at it and deciding whether the Government will appeal or not.

In a joint statement, released after the ruling, the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage and Oceana in Belize said, “The lesson all Belizeans should take away from this issue is that we all have the inherent right to be part of a consultative and participatory process in the management of our resources—especially when political policies have the potential to cause irrevocable damage.”

Young said that the consultations with the Maya community will continue.

The oil company continues to work inside the national park, and nothing has changed on the ground since the ruling, Ch’oc told us.

Indeed, US Capital had indicated to the media last week, right after the court ruling, that the court had not issued them an order to quit petroleum exploration works inside the park, and consequently, their intention was to proceed with their plans, unless they are advised otherwise.

Ch’oc told us that community leaders are scheduled to meet on Friday, April 11, at which time they will decide how to proceed and make recommendations on what the communities will do about those leaders which they contend are not acting in the interest of their communities.

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