BELIZE CITY, Mon. Apr. 20, 2015–The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has been able to broker a major settlement between the Government of Belize and the Maya of Toledo, southern Belize, in what leading Maya activist, Cristina Coc, said has been a 30-year struggle for them.
“It’s been quite the struggle,” said Coc, spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), one of the parties to the CCJ appeal, adding, “…we’ve reached a certain point of maturity with our communities understanding that we will not tolerate any further violations.”
Although the CCJ had set two days’ of hearing to be held in its historic first sitting in Belize—being held as the court enters its 10th year of operation and its 5th year as the final appellate court of Belize—the court has today remarkably been able to lead the parties into developing a consent order, which settles virtually all the points of contention between the parties.
“It is a good step forward for the communities and the Government, as we attempt to implement this court order, because it is an order that has to be implemented…” said Antoinette Moore, SC, attorney for the Toledo Maya.
“I am happy to report that the situation is that there is settlement on almost all of the issues which were raised in this appeal and the issue which remains outstanding is the matter of damages or compensation which the Maya are claiming should be awarded,” Denys Barrow, SC, attorney for the Government of Belize, told the media after a case management session which concluded this afternoon.
Barrow told the press that substantial issues have been agreed and compromised on by the parties, as well as determined by the court.
“The Maya certainly are equally entitled to the respect for the rights which they possess in relation to lands that they have used and occupied and this is what the Government was quite free in accepting…” Barrow told us.
“The Government also acknowledged and accepted voluntarily that it would do what was necessary to ensure that the mechanism is developed to put the Maya rights under proper administrative and legislative footing. So there is a lot more to come and I think this is when the rest of society, the rest of the communities, would be able to make their contributions as to how this matter should move forward. So I think, really, what we are looking at is for there to be equality and fairness all around,” Barrow added.
“We are ecstatic that the Government has finally decided to get on the right side of history. All along for the last 30 years we’ve been saying the same thing. Our position as a Maya people has never changed. We’ve continued to say it: that those lands that we currently use and occupy – that we’ve occupied for generations, have been our homelands; have been our lands and finally the Government admits that we have been right all along,” Coc told the press.
“They have not only admitted that – they’ve submitted and signed on to a commitment that says they are going to protect that. They’ve affirmed our rights to those lands and resources, and they’ve agreed to protect that. So, of course, we are ecstatic. We’ve come a long way…” she continued.
The Government has, however, not moved from its position on its liability to pay damages to the Maya. Barrow maintained that any damages which should be paid for any particular injury should have been claimed against the person who did the damage.
The Maya are claiming $61,000 for alleged land rights violations in Golden Stream Village, as well as broader damages, “moral damages” for wrongs which the Maya say have been done to them over the years and perhaps over the decades, Barrow explained.
The Government attorney said that since all that remains to be determined during the scheduled CCJ hearing on Wednesday and Thursday is the issue of damages, the court is expecting to spend perhaps not more than an hour hearing submissions on damages from the parties.
Barrow told the press that a lot of the history of this litigation and a lot of the baggage stems from a failure to understand what the Supreme Court decision, as originally given, encompasses. On the one hand, he said, there was the view by the wider community that the Maya had been given the whole of Toledo; on the other hand, there was the view that what had been given was simply a recognition of the rights which the Mayas have as human beings and as persons who have historic claim on the land on the basis of their occupation.
Barrow said that the Maya’s physical occupation over the period entitles them to rights, just as, in another part of the country, occupation for, say, 30 years, would entitle someone to squatters’ rights.
“I do not accept whatsoever that the basis of this is squatter’s rights…” Moore told us, in reply.
She said that the parties are coming to the same conclusion through fundamentally different paths; and those conclusions are that the Maya have rights, and the lands must be demarcated and ultimately titled so that the Maya people can enjoy those rights.
She said that whereas the Government maintains that those rights are not based on indigenous ancestry, the Maya continue to refute that stance.
Moore added that the order which the CCJ has made is now affirming what the Court of Appeal ruled, and that ruling had in turn affirmed what the Supreme Court had previously ruled: that the Maya of Toledo have rights over the land based on their indigenous ancestry or indigeneity.
Naima Barrow, Barrow’s daughter and co-counsel for the Government, said that the recognition to rights also extends to the Maya’s culture to farm in a certain way, to fish in a certain way, to come together in a certain way and to administer their affairs in a certain way, so it is all of those things that have to be looked at.
Last week, Maya leaders issued a statement, again decrying what they say are illegal contracts issued by the Government over Maya lands. We asked Barrow whether he expects that this issue will be ventilated and finally settled at the CCJ, and he said, no! He said that there is more which needs to be done, and this will include dialogue with other Belizean communities in the south, as well as with the wider Belizean society.
Moore said, on coming out of the case management session held today, “We actually have an agreed upon order that will be signed by the Caribbean Court of Justice indicating these things, as well as the court retaining some supervisory jurisdiction over this matter.”
Moore said that the land dispute has gone on for many, many years and unfortunately the Government has previously made commitments to the Maya which it has not honored. She said that it is important to the Maya community that the CCJ will maintain some kind of supervision ever after the case concludes, “…to ensure, hopefully, that the Government does indeed do what they say they’re going to do…”
Coc said that it is not only the 23 villages which are parties to the case that will benefit – the benefits will accrue to all 38 Maya villages, but, she said, today’s victory is one for all of Belize, because it shows that when you are consistent in standing on the right side of justice and defending that, that justice will come.
Alfonso Cal, president of the Toledo Alcaldes’ Association, another party to the CCJ appeal, also expressed his jubilation in speaking with the press today. He said that their Belizean brothers and sisters can see that although they have endured in the struggle for a long time, they are still fighting together, united, and other Maya villages which did not join the appeal will still benefit from the protection which the 23 litigating villages will receive.
“We are also hopeful that on Wednesday we will come out 100% victorious! We feel 100% victorious already!” Coc said, referring to the matter of damages which the CCJ is expected to probe on Wednesday.