by Colin Hyde
It must have been truly painful to Dolores, LLB, niece of Father of the Nation, to get a thrashing at the polls in 2003 by the loudmouth, unlettered community activist Boots Martinez. In 1998 Dolores had drubbed Boots, 2123 to 1420; but in 2003 Boots crushed Dolores, 2386 to 1565. Dolores was a minister in the 1998-2003 PUP government, and the PUP won the 2003 general election decisively, but she got sent home. I don’t know why she lost, but I know she had been daubed with a brush that she was cold, aloof, superior, not one of the common people. I bet there was a whole lot a baaling; I bet she must have cried her eyes out on the night she got the pink slip.
Not everyone can grow. You have to have humility to do that. If she lacked humility, she would have become bitter and vengeful. Looking specifically at Dolores, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, in all the heat, midst all the noise in the market, the person we see has been sober, firm, and caring. It’s possible her rising to the occasion on communal land rights is just because Uncle George’s legacy is on the line; for this situation, if not properly handled, could rent the beautiful, delicate fabric of Belize.
Some say that Dolores stumbled when she failed to show up at Santa Elena at the invitation of the MLA. She is human, and she might have felt threatened after some leaders had defiantly torn up the draft proposal. Showing up under police guard, as was suggested she might, would definitely have been a wrong step. One sage said she might have scored a coup if she had agreed to the meeting with rank and file, on condition that the MLA stood down. After all, Dolores sought to meet with the people, not with the MLA. In such a space, Dolores and her team could have had an honest dialogue with the people.
Reservations in the US
The Europeans in the US, justifying themselves with the belief in divine right, systemically exterminated the Native Americans, drove them off every parcel of land they desired. After they conquered the Tribes, the Europeans put them on reservations, mostly barren land. When valuable resources were found under reservation land, the Europeans found ways to cheat the Tribes.
The National Council on Aging (NCO) in the US says “in 2022, there were 324 federally recognized American Indian reservations”, and there are “574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. Not all recognized tribes have a reservation—some have more than one reservation, some share reservations, and others have none.” The NCO says ”the collective geographical area of all reservations is 56.2 million acres, representing 2.3% of the United States’ 3.794 million square miles.” The NCO says 22% of American Indians and Alaska Natives live on tribal land.
Customary land rights in Dominica
Gregoire Crispin and Kanem Natalia in Cultural Survival, said “by 1764 the Caribs had jurisdiction over only 232 acres in a remote area called Salybia on the Atlantic coast [of Dominica]”, and that “on the recommendation of the British administrator, Sir Heskeith Bell, the British government in 1903 expanded the Carib community area to 3,700 acres and officially called it the Carib Reserve. Located in the northeast of Dominica, the reserve is equivalent to 5.77 square miles, or 2 percent of Dominica’s total area. The declaration establishing the reserve officially recognized the authority of the Carib chief, but he was not given actual control of the area.”
Customary land rights in Sierra Leone
Communal land ownership is a complex story in Sierra Leone and it is made more complex because this country, one of the poorest in the world, is just two decades out of a civil war. Sierra Leone is the land of former Chief Justice of Belize, Dr. Abdulai Conteh, the man who made the monumental ruling to respect communal land ownership in Toledo.
Customary land tenure is deep in the fabric of the Sierra Leone in which Justice Conteh grew up. A direct response for the percentage of land in Sierra Leone under customary land tenure wasn’t forthcoming, but it appears that it might be more than 50% of the country’s 27,700 square miles that is under this kind of tenure. The “chieftains” are very powerful people in Sierra Leone. Jon D. Unruh and Harry Turray, in the 2006 FAO paper, “Land tenure, food security and investment in postwar Sierra Leone”, said “that according to the chieftaincy structure, there is no rural land in the country that does not reside within a chiefdom, with the exception of the Western Area”, and that fact “was reiterated by paramount chiefs a number of times during the course of the fieldwork for [their] study.”
Nicholas K. Tagliarino, in the 2018 piece for Transparency International titled, “Towards Land Ownership Transparency in Sierra Leone,” said “customary laws are based on origins, traditions and norms that are deeply rooted in the communities, often go back centuries, and vary depending on the community and ethnic group.” Land in these areas can’t be sold, but they can be leased to outsiders.
As I’ve said before, not any judge, certainly not Justice Sosa, whom the UDP had tagged to be the Chief Justice of Belize, would have agreed to communal land rights. When Justice Conteh made the ruling in 2007, his home country had been just 5 years out of a civil war that lasted 11 years, from 1991 to 2002. According to some sources, 50,000 people were killed in this civil war and 2.6 million were displaced. In 2000 the population of Sierra Leone was about 4.6 million, so the devastation affected everyone directly.
It was a particularly bloody, savage war. Mary Kaldor and James Vincent, in the UNDP report, “Case Study Sierra Leone,” said “the war was characterized by widespread atrocities, including the abduction of children and systematic rape. The conditions that led to the war included a repressive predatory state, dependence on mineral rents, the impact of structural adjustment, a large excluded youth population, the availability of small arms after the end of the Cold War, and interference from regional neighbours.” Some sources say corruption was the main cause of the war, corruption in central government and corruption in the chieftaincies.
Omotunde E. G. Johnson, in his report, “Reforming the Customary Land Tenure System in Sierra Leone: A Proposal”, which is published in the journal International Growth Center, said the customary land tenure system was “introduced in the 1927 Protectorate Land Ordinance” by the British colonial rulers. Johnson said “discussions of reforms of customary land tenure in Africa are often plagued by a romantic idealization of communal ownership.” I say, it’s true that customary land tenure is a romantic system.
Johnson, who can’t “understand the British rationale for some of the stranger provisions in these Land Ordinances”, said that under the basic law, the lands under customary land tenure are “vested in the tribal authorities who hold such land for and on behalf of the native communities concerned.”
Brief notes on Belize and collective land ownership
I find it very difficult to grasp what the MLA is thinking. Let me say again that I 100% support communal land ownership, because romance is such an important part of our lives. But communal land ownership, we shouldn’t go overboard with it, because it is decidedly not competitive.
One of the sticking points for the implementation of communal land rights in Toledo is the acreage. If the 41 villages get an average of 1.5 miles from their center, 185,000 acres of Belize’s land would be committed to this type of land tenure. World Bank’s Country Profile says Belize has 5,676,011 acres, and 1,977,000 of that is suitable for agriculture. Farmers don’t settle on land that isn’t suitable for farming, so these 41 villages would be sinking 11% of Belize’s farm land in a not-so-productive system.