The Maya Leaders Alliance, the Julian Cho Society, and the Toledo Alcaldes Association, via a press release issued on February 8, alerted the nation about an attempt by an international wildlife conservation organization, Flora and Fauna International, represented by Ms. Lisel Alamilla, to take control of land in the vicinity of Indian Creek, one of the 38 villages in the Toledo District that the Supreme Court of Belize (SCB) ruled in 2010, and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) affirmed in 2015, had customary land rights over lands they traditionally used for their livelihoods.
The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJT), at the website ejatlas.org, says the Government of Belize began giving out massive long-term logging concessions in the Toledo District to foreign companies in 1985. The EJT says that in 1996 the Malaysian company, Atlantic Industries was granted a concession to harvest logs in 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of the rainforest of Toledo.
This invasion of their lands alarmed Mayan Belizeans, and to defend their livelihoods the Toledo Maya Cultural Council (TMCC) and Mayan alcaldes sought protection in the courts. When the TMCC, under their leader, Julian Cho, now deceased, went to court to block Atlantic Industries, they sought control over 500,000 acres, acreage similar to the tract that our government had issued to the Malaysian company to exploit.
It must be noted that Mayan Belizeans were also alarmed because Belizeans from other districts, some of them representing rich Americans; and rich Chinese who had purchased Belizean citizenship, and unscrupulous political operatives were turning their attention to acquiring land in Toledo from cash-poor Belizeans in the district, and lands traditionally used by the Maya that were officially crown land.
In other parts of Belize, the government has acquired large tracts from landowners whose titles extend deep into our colonial past, and these have been given over to Belizeans for the expansion of villages, for agricultural purposes, and in some cases for management by conservation groups.
Unlike Belizeans in other parts of the country, our Mayan brothers and sisters in the south, for the most part, did not stake out parcels of land for individual ownership, but, as per their customs, they worked the land communally.
The case brought by the Mayans of Toledo did not give them the relief they sought, and they took the matter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which found that the government had violated their rights, and recommended that the government demarcate and give title to the Maya over lands they traditionally used.
In 2007, in a landmark case, the Chief Justice of Belize, Dr. Abdulai Conteh, ruled in the Supreme Court that our Mayan brothers and sisters in Conejo and Santa Cruz had customary land rights over the lands in those villages.
After the 2007 victory in the Supreme Court, Mayan leaders brought forward a claim that included the lands in 38 villages, and in 2010 they got another favorable ruling in the court. That case was slow in coming to court, largely because the government of the day was stalling, and in 2009 Mayan leaders charged that while they waited for the case to be heard, the government, very disrespectfully, continued issuing leases and logging concessions in lands they traditionally occupied.
After the 2010 ruling the government (UDP) said that while it was supportive of the ruling for the two villages, it couldn’t countenance the ruling for 38 villages, and appealed. In 2015, the CCJ upheld the Supreme Court of Belize’s 2010 ruling.
Danielle DeLuca, in a 2015 article “Maya Win Unprecedented Land Rights In Belize At International Courts” published in the magazine, Cultural Survival, wrote that the CCJ established in its 2015 ruling that the 38 communities “have rights to the lands they have customarily used and occupied”, that “traditional land rights constitute property equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law” and that our government should “register Maya village lands”, and “cease and desist from any further interference, destruction, or use of the lands that would interfere with the Maya peoples’ enjoyment of their lands.”
After the CCJ ruling Ms. Alamilla was given the task to work with the leaders of the Maya to implement the ruling of the court, but the government she served clearly was more interested in stonewalling than respecting the court’s ruling.
When the PUP took over the reins of government in November 2020, it signaled to the world that it would not be pussyfooting around the ruling of the SCB and the CCJ on Mayan customary land rights, by forming the Ministry of Human Development, Families & Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs — the first time “indigenous peoples’ affairs” was given so much attention by a government.
Kory Leslie, in a story in the Amandala dated Tuesday, January 19, 2021, reported that the Minister of Human Development, Families & Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Hon. Balderamos Garcia, speaking on the consent order that the CCJ issued to the Belize government back in 2015, told News5: “We want to signal a new day of respect, first of all, for all the Maya people and, secondly, engagement. We may not always agree, because there is the concept of what you call free, prior and informed consent.”
It could be interpreted that Ms. Lisel Alamilla is trying to force the new government to resolve a matter that the government she served, as a Senator, as Minister of Forestry, Fisheries & Sustainable Development, and as Chair of the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission, failed to do during their more than twelve years in office, from 2008 to 2020.
In 2007, the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) challenged US Capital Energy, over a concession the government had given the company to explore for oil in an area the Maya claim as traditional grounds. It is to be noted that when oil was found in privately owned Spanish Lookout, the Mennonite community, which has only been here since the 1950s, collected substantial royalties. Without rights to ancestral lands they have been using communally, the Maya, as a community, would not get a cent.
Implementing the court’s decision for Mayan customary rights might hit some uneven spots where it involves lands privately held by foreigners, or by Belizeans who are not Mayan, or Belizean Mayans who have belief in the Western system of private ownership of land. In this recent case of overreach by the conservation organization, the land in their focus is in the vicinity of Indian Creek, and we all understand the ruling of the court.