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Progress & problems in Maya land policy negotiations

HeadlineProgress & problems in Maya land policy negotiations

Photo: Hon. Dolores Balderamos-Garcia – Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs

Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia stated in Parliament, “Throwing tantrums and threatening the Government cannot work in the difficult situation that we are now in.”

BELMOPAN, Fri. Feb. 2, 2024

The Government of Belize (GoB) and the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) as Appellant in the Maya Land Rights case are now seemingly on a collision course over the Maya Customary Land Policy. The latest iteration of the draft policy forwarded by the Government to the Maya on January 5 this year features a methodology for the recognition of land tenure that the TAA says a majority of Maya village leaders finds unacceptable. Clause 5 under “General Guiding Principles” in the policy consists of customary land for each of the 41 Maya villages being restricted to a circular area of between 1 and 3 kilometers from the center of the village, based on population size.

Minister for Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia has clarified that the policy provides for the villages to claim land beyond the 1 to 3 km radius, however, they would have to provide proof of continuous communal occupation. Clause 7 of the “Overriding Policy Objectives” in the policy states, “The registration of title to Maya Customary Land Tenure in lands beyond the circular areas shall be effected on the basis of proof of continuous use and occupation of the claimed lands in accordance with Maya Customs for at least 30 years immediately prior to presentation of the application for registration.” The Maya find it objectionable that they must apply for additional land based on evidence, as they say that the Government can then choose to deny the applications.

Making reference to the gathering of Maya village leaders and villagers in Santa Elena on Saturday, January 27, Minister Balderamos Garcia affirmed in the National Assembly during a House Meeting today, February 2, “… Government will stand strong and firm! We will not be bullied or succumb to unnecessary threats as we carry out our responsibility to the Maya people and to all Belizeans! … Throwing tantrums and threatening the Government cannot work in the difficult situation that we are in!” She insisted that there will be need for compromise; hence, she says, not everyone will be happy. The Government’s responsibility, says the Minister, is to find a compromise between the Maya and third parties. She noted that they are now in a difficult phase because, after many millions of dollars from donors being pumped into the delimitation effort by the Maya, they have only concluded the demarcation for 3 of the 41 villages. The Minister declared, “We cannot allow this process to be open ended.”

Speaking during the segment of Statements by Ministers, Hon. Balderamos Garcia made reference to the 10-point declaration that the villages signed at the Santa Elena meeting. Though she described some points as “encouraging” because they speak to the recognition that both sides must sit and talk and negotiate to come to an agreement, she highlighted section 4 which she described as concerning. It states, “The land is our life. The land is our future, and we stand united to protect it for our children and their children’s children. The land belongs to us Maya Q’eqchi and Maya Mopan of Southern Belize.” The Minister said this reminds her of Leo Tolstoy’s short story titled, ”How Much Land Does a Man Need?” She summarized the story of a man who was told he would receive all the land he could walk until sundown. The man didn’t walk, he ran, so hard that he caught a heart attack and died “because he wanted all the land.” Minister Balderamos Garcia then questioned, “And how much land did that man need? ‘Bout 8 feet soh and 4 feet soh and 6 feet soh.” Her moral, she said, was that “the land is forever, but we must share. We must remember our children. We must remember other people. We cannot claim the whole of the Toledo District.”

In an interview after the House Meeting, Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño commended Minister Balderamos Garcia for her work and said the Cabinet has all confidence in her to address this issue.

PM Briceño also expressed disappointment in the Maya elder of Mabil Ha village who tore up a copy of the latest draft Maya Communal Land Policy in a show of rejection of the document. The PM remarked, “It was so unbecoming of that leader; and that leader was very shrill and making all kinds of accusations.” He reminded that the Caribbean Court of Justice has praised the [government] for the progress made toward implementation of its April 2015 Consent Order. The PM shared, “We already have the FPIC. We’re going through the entire consultations, and we are going from village to village – extensively! And sometimes to the frustration of the Cabinet because we feel that this needs to come to an end.” The PM said the elder’s behaviour does not bode well when it comes to building good will from both sides. He remarked that there are many indigenous people who do not share the view of the appellants and who prefer to have individual titles. The PM also reiterated that the policy is still at a draft stage and is not etched in stone.

In response to the remarks by Spokesperson for the TAA, Cristina Coc, who said that they will come to Government since officials chose not to take up their invitation to meet them in Santa Elena, the PM stated, “Well, I could give them my address … and they are welcome in Orange Walk Town, and they are welcome to come and visit me anytime they want. But this is not how it works. Not because you say ‘come to Santa Elena Village,’ we have to come there. Come on! We have been meeting regularly. And why would you go into an area where you have a few hundred people that are not happy? And then what? You are going to go into a shouting match. That does not make sense. You move from that area whereby people can sit down and speak rationally.”

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