The Maya of Toledo made a strong showing of over 300 in Belize City this morning, as their representatives marched into the Supreme Court to file two historic class action suits – separate constitutional claims for two Toledo villages, against the Government of Belize, in which they are asking the court to order the Government and third parties to back off from exploiting lands they deem to be traditional and legal Mayan property.
Attorney Antoinette Moore said that she made the filing this morning in the Belize Supreme Court for the villages of Santa Cruz and Conejo in Toledo. The claimants were a group of community leaders, including the alcaldes of Santa Cruz and Conejo. They are acting under the banner of the Maya Leaders Alliance of Southern Belize.
Following a spirited march and demonstration in downtown Belize City, the 300 plus Mayas who had been bussed from the South congregated at a press conference at the Radisson, where they publicized their stance. They expressed the general sentiment that the Government is ready to give land to the rich while the poor – the Mayas included – are pushed aside.
Several Mayan leaders and community representatives spoke, echoing the declaration that they have rights to their traditional lands that should be protected under the Belize Constitution.
Harvard graduate James Anaya, PhD, a law professor at the University of Arizona, had helped the Mayans in achieving victory before the International Human Rights Commission in 2004, and he was here today beside local attorney, Antoinette Moore, when the claims were lodged. Both spoke, as did Mayan leaders, at today’s press conference.
“There are two distinct and somewhat opposing paths that Belize has in front of it today. One path is to continue the long history of oppression of the Maya people, to continue the oppression that began 500 years ago that resulted in, progressively, the Mayan people being deprived of their land, and deprived of their place as equals in the societies that have grown up around them,” Dr. Anaya asserted.
The other, he said, is the one pointed towards by indigenous peoples around the world, “to roll back this oppression and say, ‘No more!’”
Anaya noted that going to court was a last ditch effort, because the government hasn’t responded to any of the requests by the Mayas for recognition of their traditional land rights.
The Mayas contend that even though the Government signed an agreement with them on October 12, 2000, which, at point six, states: “…GOB recognizes that the Maya people have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long-time use and occupancy,” Government has not been respecting their rights.
Those who spoke with the press today indicated that Government has been acting to the contrary by giving their lands to the rich and issuing licenses that give other people rights to resources they believe they should have access to, but are denied.
Manuel Caal, chairperson of Conejo, said, “When a villager would go to the Lands Department and apply for a piece of land, they are either pushed around or asked for recommendation from the leaders of the community, but when it is for big companies or for rich people, those lands are given out without consulting the leaders.”
We note that the claims filed in court today do not specify the size of the land masses in question. In the case of Conejo, village leaders informed our newspaper that the population of roughly 250 Mayas traditionally occupy roughly 7,000 acres of land. Santa Cruz has a slightly bigger population and claims roughly the same acreage.
The claimants of Conejo are telling the court that on May 5, 2006, village leaders wrote the government asking for demarcation and recognition of Conejo Village lands. They presented the Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, with a map and written agreements with neighboring villages affirming village boundaries presented in the map, but Government has not replied.
Santa Cruz leaders say that on February 22, 2007, they submitted a letter to the government asking GOB to issue an immediate public statement recognizing that Santa Cruz enjoys rights to the land and resources its members have traditionally used and occupied, and asking GOB to issue an immediate directive to its Ministries and departments to respect that right.
“We feel, to put it plainly, that the land is ours, because we have lived there before the Government was there, including the British colonial government. We are not alone in believing that this land is ours. A major international human rights body – the Inter-American Human Rights Commission – recently said exactly the same thing when they decided our case against the Government in our favor,” said Cristina Coc, director of the Julian Cho Society.
Coc said the IAHRC had “…concluded that the Government had failed to take effective measures to recognize the Mayas’ communal property right to land that they have traditionally occupied and used without detriment to other indigenous communities and to delimit, demarcate and title or otherwise establish the legal mechanisms necessary to clarify and protect the territory on which their rights exist.”
The Commission had ruled that Government of Belize should enshrine the rights in domestic law and consult with the Maya to give effect to their claimed land rights, without detriment to other indigenous communities.
“Government has done nothing and has not publicly acknowledged that they lost this case – that they were found to be violating our human rights – that is why we have had to push forward and go to the Supreme Court,” Coc added.
Basilio Teul of Santa Cruz, one of the claimants, said Government is not recognizing their rights, but selling out their land and allowing oil companies, loggers, and others to take resources within their land.
Teul said if they win the suit and government respects it, the success would be for their children and the children of their children.
Caal, whose village is adjacent to a protected area, said, “There are times that it would seem the Government has more respect for, say, animals and plants in protected areas, than they have for people adjacent to the protected area.”
Marcus Chen, chair of the Toledo Alcalde Association, which represents 38 Mayan communities in Toledo, said that the Mayas are unified in the struggle for land rights. They renewed that commitment in a general assembly meeting held on March 28.
Manuel Coy, alcalde of Conejo, said the strong showing today is an indication to the Government that they are serious about the land rights issue. He said the legal process would not be easy and called for unity among villagers and their leaders.
Greg Choc, a long-standing Mayan rights activist, said the Mayas are simply being oppressed. Choc recently led a court battle against the Government of Belize after it granted permission to US Capital Energy to drill for oil in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, which his NGO has been co-managing with GOB. The oil concession angered some locals who questioned how Government could give US Capital the green light for oil exploration without properly consulting the Mayas, but limited fishing, hunting and logging rights of the Mayas who have traditionally occupied the land.
Choc commented: “…you learn a bit more about what the violation of human rights means when you are moved off or denied access to the land which your people have occupied for thousands of years so a multi-national oil company can drill, and you are not given a say or a cent; or when the Government passes legislation backing the interests of powerful oil mining or hydro-companies instead of safeguarding your interests; or when you are living on land the government insists it owns just because your proof of ownership is not accepted by the same government.”
He said that all the Mayas are fighting for is “a place at the table where all Belizeans deserve to be.”
“Political directorates have abandoned their fiduciary responsibility and instead continue to cement their partnership with the neo-liberal capitalists,” said Choc. “Our challenge in these times and ages threatens the status quo of neo-liberal imperialists and their homegrown connivers. They will unleash an attack against the promise of our actions.”
Attorney Antoinette Moore said the law is a tool for people to seek justice, equality and the respect of their human dignity.
She said that while GOB feels and acts as if the land belongs to them, international human rights law supports the Mayas’ claim that the land they occupy belongs to them.
A press release issued by the MLA today explained that, “The vast majority of Maya people in Toledo depend on their lands for their survival. They live, farm, hunt and fish; collect medicinal plants, construction materials and other forest resources; and engage in ceremonies and other activities on land within and around their communities. These practices have evolved over centuries from customs of Maya land use and occupancy.”
The statement added that the lawsuit comes after nearly ten years of attempting to resolve their claim with the Government.
In concluding, the release asserted that, “A successful legal action before the Supreme Court of Belize would set a precedent that will oblige the government to respect the lands of all the Maya communities in Toledo.”
The TMCC – Toledo Maya Cultural Council – which lodged a Supreme Court injunction against GOB in 1996 to stop GOB from issuing licenses and permits to exploit traditional Mayan lands, wants the Government of Belize to grant 500,000 acres (about 780 square miles or 9% of Belize’s land mass) to the Mayas, for them to own and develop.