Letters — 11 April 2014 — by Carolyn Trench-Sandiford

April 6, 2014

The Editor Amandala,
Dear Sir,

Three statements in the article captioned “Justice Arana Reaffirms Maya Land Rights” in the Amandala of April 6th 2014 resonate with me, and compel me to juxtapose them and add to the dialogue.

The first is… “No to oil drilling until our rights to land, resources, culture, identity and equality are recognized…” as per the SATIIM; and

The second is “The courts have said, repeatedly said, and Arana has said yet again, that the indigenous people should not be forced to go to court to have those rights respected. It is the obligation and duty of the government…” per Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, attorney for SATIIM; and

The third is “At this point, we will continue (to drill) [i]until someone tells us to stop.”

I also wish to extract from and make reference to specific statements in your editorials entitled “Wounded Knee and Sarstoon-Temash” and “Partridge, Sarstoon-Temash and the MAA” of November 2nd and 9th 2012 respectively.
In the former, you compared the struggle of the Maya people of Belize to that of the Native American Indians, as documented in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown, and pointed out how the Native Americans were deceived and overpowered, and their way of life destroyed, all in the name of greed, injustice and racism among others. You also stated and I quote: “We know that our people on the Southside are not politically and historically educated enough to see that the struggle of the Toledo Maya is similar to the struggle of the marginalized black people in the old capital.”

In the latter, you stated and I quote “This is a difficult situation in which the Maya of the Sarstoon-Temash find themselves … the situation is similar to that which the Native Americans found themselves in what is now the United States of America, that it is almost frightening. It is almost frightening because a lot of very bad things came as if out of nowhere and they came without warning.”

I wish to draw your attention to two cases which are also instructive, the background being the discovery of gold in Georgia, USA in 1828, and the stated policies of the opening of lands to settlement and the removal of natives from their ancestral land. At this time, by virtue of the Treaty of Holston (1791), the Cherokee possessed 53,000 square miles of land in four states, including Georgia.

The first is Cherokee Nations v Georgia (1831) in which the Cherokee Nation sought an injunction against laws passed by the State of Georgia, which stripped the Cherokees of their rights under state law, and authorized their removal from lands which the state sought. In the court, the Cherokee Nation claimed that the laws go directly to annihilate the Cherokees as a political society.

However, the Cherokee Nation was itself uncertain as to its status, that is, whether it was a tribe or sovereign, and argued that it was a foreign nation in the sense of the US Constitution and Law. Georgia argued that the Cherokee Nation could not sue as a foreign nation, due to the fact that they did not have a constitution or a strong central government.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of this case, but rather held that it had no original jurisdiction in the matter, that the framers of the Constitution did not really consider the Indian tribes as a foreign nation in the sense of the Constitution, but more as a dependent nation, with a relationship to the US like that of a “ward to its guardian”, and as such, they could not maintain an action in the US courts.

This led to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). In 1830, Georgia passed a law requiring its citizens to obtain a state license before dwelling inside the Cherokee Nation. A group of missionaries and US citizens, including Worcester defied the law, and were tried and convicted in a Georgia Court. They appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming the Georgia Court lacked authority to convict them.

The Court held that the Cherokee Indians were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights” and that the United States had acknowledged as much in several treaties with them.

In the majority opinion Marshall wrote that although it had surrendered sovereign powers in those treaties with the United States, the Cherokee Nation remained a separate, sovereign nation with a legitimate title to its national territory. Marshall harshly rebuked Georgia for its actions and declared that the Cherokees possessed the right to live free from the state’s trespasses. Georgia therefore could not pass the license law and convict Worcester for violation of that law.

Although the decision became the foundation of the principle of tribal sovereignty in the twentieth century, it did not protect the Cherokees from being removed from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast, as while the Cherokee leadership hoped the decision would persuade the federal government to intervene against Georgia and end the talk of removal, Georgia ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling, refused to release the missionaries, and continued to press the federal government to remove the Cherokees.

President Jackson did not enforce the decision against the state and instead called on the Cherokees to relocate or fall under Georgia’s jurisdiction. He was widely quoted as saying, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” his actual words to Brigadier General John Coffee were: “The decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”

In 1835 a dissident faction of Cherokees signed a removal treaty at the Cherokee capital of New Echota. In 1838 the U.S. Army entered the Cherokee Nation, forcibly gathered almost all of the Cherokees, and marched them to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, in what became known as the “Trail of Tears,” where thousands of Native Americans died of disease, hunger and starvation.

It was cutely, or perhaps paradoxically coined “military exigency,” but it reality, it was all about GOLD.

The USA, Cherokee Nation v Georgia (1831) and Worcester v Georgia (1832) and Belize, Maya Land Rights and 2014 may be at different period in time, in different countries and with respect to different peoples, but similarities abound.

Arguably, Belize is a Nation State governed by a Constitution that speaks of respecting “…the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed by their creator..,” and “the principles of social justice and therefore believe that the operation of the economic system must result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to sub serve the common good, that there should be adequate means of livelihood for all…”;

That claims “that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and upon the rule of law …;” … and requires policies of state to “eliminate economic and social privilege and disparity among the citizens of Belize…;”… and to “protect the identity, dignity and social and cultural values of Belizeans, including Belize’s indigenous people..”

But as Assad Shoman posits at page 419 in A History of Belize in 13 Chapters, “The social reality of Belize today, the Belize that history made, the scandalous levels of poverty, social exclusion, inequality and injustice, make it abundantly clear that our society, our governments, are grossly violating the Constitution, and they should be called to account for it.” This is evidenced in the Country Poverty Assessment Report 2010 which depicts a Belize with a 43% poverty rate, which added to the 14% declared vulnerable to becoming poor, represent a possible 56% poverty rate. It also depicts a widening poverty gap of 60.4% and 28.8%, and 43% and 21% respectively between the poorest (Toledo with 61% Maya) and least poor districts (Belize with 46% Creole), and between rural areas and their urban counterparts, as well as between communities and municipalities, with Southside Belize City estimated to be twice that of Northside, and singled out with Toledo, as the communities with blatant poverty conditions.[ii] The landscape of Belize captures the picture.

The Maya people are simply demanding their rights as is embedded in the Constitution of Belize, and supported by several Supreme Court rulings, and reaffirmed by the Court of Appeal Ruling of 2013 as it relates to Maya Customary Land Rights, and by legally binding agreements, including the Ten Points Agreement Between the Government of Belize and the Maya Peoples of Southern Belize, and Belize’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Declaration and Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Is it that all of these rulings are still born? For if they are for the Maya people, then so is it for us all.

I concur with you in that there is much that our people, particularly those living in the Southside Belize City and other marginalized communities, can learn from the struggle and experiences of the Maya people, who have consistently held firm to their principle and beliefs, despite the many temptations, betrayal and refusal of the state to abide by the ruling of the court, a hallmark of our democratic principles of the separation of powers, also embedded in the Constitution.

There is also much that our people can learn from the struggles and experiences of our ancestors, who fought against the oppressive and exploitative twin political systems of slavery and colonization. The plight of the Maya people is similar, as it continues to be for all marginalized and oppressed people of Belize, particularly those on Southside Belize City.

It is one that should serve to ignite a fire in all of our hearts and rejuvenate our nationalistic spirit, to mobilize with them, to rise up with them, and to join them in demanding that our governments fulfill the promissory note as embedded in the Constitution of Belize for a just share of the wealth of our nation for each and every Belizean, for the equal application of the law and a right to live with dignity and respect.

If not, we will continue to be beggars in our own country, waiting for the crumbs to be thrown at election time or from the tables of the very governments that defy the law and the will of the people; that institutionalizes poverty, dependency and authoritarian rule, through the rationing of basic infrastructure and services; that pits us against each other for the crumbs, while they claim and enjoy the wealth for themselves, the select few, and deprive our people of their dignity, and self respect; and who because of their greed and selfishness, continue to place the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our nation at risk.

And if there are those who believe that the status quo should be retained, because they are living la vida, they should be mindful of the lyrics of the song “The Other Cheek” by Tanya Stevens “… even the richest man haffi go learn fi tek a stance when them realize seh dem no safe ina dem mansion, is a tough way fi learn seh yo no really secure, when the problems of the poor come kick down yuh door …”

Carolyn Trench-Sandiford

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