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“Giving to”, or “Taking away from” the Maya?

Editorial“Giving to”, or “Taking away from” the Maya?

“The Appellate Jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice”, comprising seven Justices under “The Right Honourable Sir Dennis Byron, President, and Justices Nelson, Saunders, Wit, Hayton, Anderson and Rajnauth-Lee” on October 15, 2015, “… affirmed the decision of the Supreme Court that Maya customary land tenure existed in all of the Maya villages in the Toledo District of southern Belize and constituted property within the meaning of the protections guaranteed in sections 3(d) and 17 of the Constitution of Belize …”

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The timing of comments derogatory to the cause of our Toledo Maya citizens by area representative Michael Espat on the occasion of PG Day a couple Saturdays ago is “unfortunate” indeed, coming as it did when the international spotlight is upon Belize for good things that our nation is being praised for. There is enough to divide us as a people, and it is regrettable that a politician, sincere in his belief or not, should risk spurring the natural human instinct of self-interest in the general citizenry against one group, the Maya, who are deemed to benefit in a tangible way from the ruling by the highest court of our land, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). We can work things out, but it is not made any easier by stoking the “crab in the barrel” trait still prevalent in our post-colonial mentality.

In this discussion/debate on the carrying out of the CCJ’s Consent Order for the government to respect the communal land rights of our Maya people resident in a number of villages in southern Belize, the focus of many of us has been on the large tracts of land that would supposedly be “given” to the Maya; but what about the Maya perspective that what has been happening to them is that their traditional lands, which they have been accustomed to using from generation to generation, are continually being “taken away” by simple allocation of lease or title to other individuals not even resident in or near their villages?

In reality, the Maya are not asking for anything that they have not been accustomed to having for generations – the land upon which they live and grow their food for a living. In some cases, these lands have had absentee landowners from colonial days, and have been passed down or sold to other absentee buyers. But suddenly now, a big investor/owner appears; and the financially poor, but still resilient from growing their own food for a living, Maya people are saying, ‘this is my land’ – no paper, but communally owned (in their traditional style) and worked for generations. And the highest court, the CCJ, has backed them up.

One of the main tourist attractions in Belize, aside from the Barrier Reef and the cayes, is the presence of various Maya archaeological sites – Altun Ha, Caracol, Xunantunich, etc. Belizeans and foreign investors benefit daily from the cultural legacy of the Mayan people in Belize. And, while the high unemployment and poverty rate in urban areas has often been linked to the escalating crime rate, it has been remarked that, despite their very low per-capita income, the members of our Maya communities that live in these southern villages have not experienced a similarly high crime rate. When a young man in Belize City is poor and unemployed, he most likely has to deal with hunger issues while at the same time observing extravagant affluence daily of other more fortunate members of the community. Thus the greater incentive and temptation to crime. But for the Mayan youth in any of the so-called “poor” villages in southern Belize, lack of finances does not mean hunger. There may not be many lavish comforts, but they have a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep in, and they can always find some produce to eat, because they are on the land. The Belize City youth has no “land” from which to gather food to soothe his hunger.

What those of us in the comfort of our jobs and homes in the cities and towns have to consider is that, removing the land upon which their sustenance depends from the Maya, and allowing outside “investors” to gobble it all up with their big financing, will leave the Mayan youths without land just like the Belize City youth. And soon we may have a new generation of Maya youth joining the already overwhelming crime wave that is yet to be solved.

Do we want to “give” the whole district to the Maya villagers? Of course not. But do we want to, do we have the right to, “take away” all the land that they have depended on for their sustenance for generations? The court says no.

Some folks have pondered the possibility of us regular citizens from urban areas being denied entry to certain attractive sites that may fall under the communal rights of the Maya; but have they considered that already in many areas of the country and the cayes, the foreign owners have barred entry to Belizean visitors with their “private property” signs, sometimes illegally blocking citizens’ passage along the beach? Between the financially poor Maya communities and the wealthy land-owning “investor”, with whom do you think your chances will be better at being welcomed for a visit as a fellow Belizean?

Our little Belize was once described by Baba Leroy Taegar as The New Jerusalem. This Jewel is special, indeed; and our little light shines for all the big nations of the world to see. Home of the largest Barrier Reef in the western hemisphere, the country’s prime minister Hon. John Briceño has only recently been center stage in the region as he received the Sovereign Restructuring Award of the Year in New York City in recognition of the Blue Bond for Ocean Conservation refinancing project our government signed with The Nature Conservancy (TNC). And just last week, the Belize Government shone in international media with our humanitarian quality as a people by assisting the United States in providing a second chance at life to a forty-two-year-old former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had served twenty years of confinement, including torture, for crimes committed as an Al Qaeda member when he was a young man.

It is said that “charity begins at home.” Belizeans all will be wise to look carefully at all angles of this Maya Land Rights issue, before jumping to hasty conclusions. Belize needs our Maya citizens to survive and thrive as our nation moves forward in development. And they must know that Belize is the motherland that has given them a home like no other.

Our Mennonite Belizeans are industrially advanced and financially strong, and own many thousands of acres of land in Belize; but nobody is hollering “balkanization”? Why “stress” about our impoverished Mayan Belizeans in the south because they have come up with a stronger legal grasp on the land their fore-parents have toiled?

Above all else, there must be respect throughout this process. And it seems clear that it is not only about real estate; but what the Maya villagers want, and the CCJ ruling has emphasized, is a guaranteed say in whatever development is allowed to take place in and around their villages that may affect the health and sustainability of the natural environment from which they traditionally seek their livelihood. And it is a similar cry throughout the region and the world where indigenous peoples are even losing their lives in the struggle against greedy multinationals to save their environment for future generations.

For the global indigenous movement to help save the planet from climate disaster, this is another golden opportunity for Belize to be an example to the world. There will be compromises, but there must be respect. FPIC means Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

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