In the classic movie, The Usual Suspects, the antagonist Keyser Sosa tells his interrogators at the police station, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.”
The Garifuna settled in Southern Belize at a time when it was not a part of the settlement. Sue Noe, in her research article on the topic of Garifuna land rights, said that she found documents that made her suspect settlement of Garifuna in the territory south of the Belize Settlement as early as 1799. This is within the year following the Battle of St. George’s Caye.
While we celebrate that famous battle annually, which won the territory by a force of arms from Spain, what exactly was the territory won by the famous Baymen in 1798? That territory stretched from the Rio Hondo to its most southern point, the Sibun River. The territory between Sibun River and Sarstoon River was not a part of the territory won in that famous battle. That territory, between the Sibun and Sarstoon, would not be officially recognized as a part of the Belize settlement until the 1859 Border Treaty.
Before the Treaty of 1859 between Guatemala and the British, two distinct groups lived there. They were not indigenous. The Maya and the Garifuna. The Maya of Belize are our first peoples today. The Garifuna were resettling as early as 1799, according to the Sue Noe document, within the territory south of the Sibun River. Neither group was indigenous until 1859, when the Border Treaty was signed between the aforementioned Guatemala and the British.
Judge Conteh, in his judgment, would later say that at the time of the signing of the 1859 border treaty the Maya had their human rights — that their rights pre-existed the border treaty of 1859. This concept also applies to the Garifuna, who were not a part of the Maya land rights case. We in Belize have always respected the culture of the Maya. Our history books tell us of their great prehistory in what is today Belize. The Garifuna, on the other hand, who occupied their territories prior to the 1859 treaty, have been lied to and have been bamboozled out of their rights in Belize.
The Garifuna have been looked at erroneously as former slaves of colonial masters. That was never true. Garifuna leaders have been convinced for the greater part of the last two hundred years that their legal rights as human beings did not exist.
How could the Garifuna for all these years be charged for land occupied by or acquired by their ancestors over 200 years ago, and be charged now, today, for lands that at the time of their settlement were not a part of the nation that would become Belize? What’s more, the GOB sells Garifuna land, in an unabated manner, to Garifuna buyers and to others. Garifuna territories that have been settled on or acquired through the years include but are not limited to : Dangriga, Punta Gorda, Georgetown, Seine Bight, Hopkins and Barranco. The rights of any Garifuna who lives in these territories and has had to pay for land in those areas, were violated.
Another result of the Maya Land Rights Case was that the Maya, as a collective, as a part of their human rights, had a right to own their land collectively. The same, again, is true for the Garifuna’s land, which they occupied before colonialism. The governments of neither the British nor Belize today, were present at all when the Maya and Garifuna were occupying their territories. After signing an 1859 treaty with Guatemala, the British set out to charge the Garifuna for land they were using before that treaty was signed. Nonsense!
A major part of the Garifuna’s dysfunctional practice of continuing to pay GOB for land they own is that many must not know they do not have to pay GOB for land they have inherited through generations for 200 years. Neither does GOB have any right to sell land already owned, nor does it have a right to title that land from its original owners — in this case, the Garifuna. In some places in Hopkins, the government puts a price of $40,000 for a lot on land owned by the Garifuna. No, this is a violation of our rights. We already own Hopkins. The Garifuna keep playing along with the Government of Belize and are competing for land they own with foreigners and wealthy Belizeans rather than simply asserting their rights, through a court of law, to their land. Thus, the greatest trick, these last 200 years, that the Government of Belize ever pulled, was to convince the Garifuna that their rights did not exist.