Maya asserting ancestral land rights; say Gov’t leaders ignoring them
Oil continues to be a big front-burner issue in Belize, and Maya leaders from Toledo will tomorrow kick off a public awareness campaign to get their voices heard. They contend that key officials of government have been ignoring their communications and their position paper, calling for the people of the South to be properly consulted so as to ensure that they are not left behind in an impending petroleum exploration project that could span as many as 38 Maya villages in Toledo and several other communities, including the indigenous Garifuna community of Barranco.
Spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance, Cristina Coc, told Amandala today that representatives of the Maya villages are looking at court action, and more specifically, judicial review, as one option, because, in their view, the government is violating a court injunction that bars them from proceeding with any petroleum project on Maya ancestral lands without their free and informed consent.
She also said that nowhere in the contract with the petroleum company in question, US Capital, does it ever state that the lands upon which the concession has been granted are owned by the Maya. Coc said that because the Maya do own the land, the company cannot explore for oil there without their consent and without giving them proper compensation, in the event that they do consent to drilling.
On October 12, 2012, leaders from the various Maya villages wrote Attorney General Wilfred Elrington and Minister of Natural Resources Gaspar Vega, outlining their concerns and position via a letter and position paper. Coc said that via follow-up calls, they have confirmed that the respective parties in government, including Prime Minister Dean Barrow, to whom it was copied, have received the correspondence, but it has been two weeks and they have not replied. After meeting on Friday, said Coc, the Maya leaders have now decided to go public.
Meanwhile, four of the six buffer communities around the Sarstoon-Temash National Park (STNP), Graham Creek, Crique Sarco, Conejo and Midway, are planning to hold community meetings this weekend to get their communities to formalize their position on the way forward, in addressing oil development in the south.
The communities have chosen the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) to be their representative on the oil issue. As for the other two communities – Barranco and Sunday Wood – Ch’oc said that SATIIM would very much like to work with them on the issue as well.
SATIIM hosted a meeting this past Saturday, February 3, 2012, at the Fr. Ring Parish Hall in Punta Gorda Town; however, SATIIM executive director Greg Ch’oc told Amandala that they did not formalize their resolutions on the way forward because they wanted to include more villagers in the decision. He told us that further meetings will be held in the villages this weekend to solidify their resolutions.
Meanwhile, Lisa Shoman, SC, has joined Antoinette More, SC, as legal counsel for the four Maya villages. (Moore is also counsel for the MLA.)
The STNP buffer communities are also gearing up for possible—if not likely—court action; but Ch’oc said the villages will be the ones to decide after they have been empowered with the information they need.
Whereas the Maya activists are seeking a united front, it has been clear that there are some dissenting voices among the Maya. Ch’oc concurred, but he said that these dissenters, who have been crying for jobs and development, have not risen to the challenge to detail their differing positions in writing, to give substance to their positions.
Ch’oc said that the Maya communities are not opposed to development; the communities want development, but they want it in a specific fashion that will adequately benefit their communities.
Ch’oc said that following this weekend’s round of meetings, they will know what to do next. He told us that the four buffer communities had written Prime Minister Dean Barrow asking him to establish a fair, transparent mechanism with indigenous people to address nationally important matters, such as petroleum, but they have received no response to date. He said that SATIIM plans to issue a press statement tomorrow, Tuesday.