Photo: Vandalized sign at entrance to Laguna alongside village sign placed by Government officials
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 18, 2023
The land dispute that threatens to become violent between Laguna, a Maya village, and non-Maya village Yemeri Grove in the Toledo District, continues unresolved. On Wednesday, May 17, Laguna village leaders called a press conference in their village to reject Yemeri’s ownership claims, to establish that they have knowledge of their land boundaries, and to call on the Government to respect their rights and intervene appropriately.
Two weeks prior, on Wednesday, May 3, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs held a press conference where it was announced that Laguna Village leaders had illegally placed concrete survey pegs as boundary markers on the same reserve crown land claimed by Yemeri Grove. Minister Dolores Balderamos Garcia affirmed that only the Ministry of Natural Resources can authorize such activity under Belize law. The disputed land extends from one end of Laguna’s cemetery up to the Southern Highway and across the street up to the highway.
Senior Lands officer Alfred Cal told the press that they are not aware of concrete markers having been placed before on what the Mayas consider their customary land. But, on Wednesday, the Laguna leaders showed the press aging concrete pillars at their cemetery — placed there, they say, since about 2000. Sebastian Itch, the village chairman, told Amandala that just as customs change and their people also started building concrete houses, they started using concrete pillars as plot markers instead of the trees they had customarily used (Madre Cacao, Gumbo limbo) because those rotted over time.
The entrance to the Laguna is off the Southern Highway and was indicated by a Laguna-placed sign, but that was vandalized in about 2019, and the accusation is that Yemeri residents were to blame. Itch said that when they complained, the Government erected a new sign at the same location – indicative of acknowledgement that their village starts there.
The concern of Laguna regarding Yemeri’s claims is that they are accompanied by threats of violence. Village elder Cayetano Ico said that he and his parents moved to Laguna when he was 16 years old in 1964, but the village was established as far back as the late 1940s. He said that when they arrived, there were only 12 houses in Laguna, and through the years, everything was peaceful. Ico says they co-existed with nearby communities, including a non-Maya 9-mile community. Now, Ico says, he is hurt by all the propaganda about their village, and threats rather than discussion. He affirmed, “We want to live in peace … rather than go and threaten, or they want kill, or they want du dis and du dat. The truth of the matter is, I will not accept nor appreciate those things, because we have been caring for our lands from ages. It’s not just yesterday … I will never give up, nor I will leave.”
Land distribution in Laguna is handled according to their Mayan customary practice of submitting requests to village leaders who would then assign individual and farm plots, marking off the boundaries with trees—and now, concrete pillars.
Such was the case last year when parcels were distributed in an area the leaders call Laguna New Site, which they say was set aside precisely for expansion. However, Itch reported that on April 20, 2023, Yemeri Grove residents led an effort to destroy or remove more than 34 of the concrete pillars they had put down on 22 plots. Itch stated, “We have faced human rights abuses and criminal threats from persons of Yemeri Grove … They have been to the homes of our leaders – armed and threatened ….”
Government officials held one meeting with representatives of both villages to find an amicable resolution to the issue, but no other meeting took place thereafter. Instead, the Government called its May 3rd press conference, at which it publicized the findings of Alfred Cal’s report, which was not shared beforehand with either side. Chairman Itch said one meeting is not enough, and shared that a couple weeks ago, they sent a proposal to the Ministry for a resolution of the issue, but they have not received a response.
Apart from asking the Government to continue appropriate intervention, Itch called on Government officials to desist from making inflammatory comments that can further endanger their lives. He remarked that when Minister Balderamos Garcia essentially said the Mayas want all the lands and everything on it, “it makes others feel that they can do what they want to us, including claiming and taking away our land because the Minister undermines Laguna publicly.”
“This needs to stop; we remind the Government and everyone that we are not begging for our rights … We want everyone to understand that the CCJ basically has told the Government that a politician can no longer put their hands on our land – that they cannot sell our land to anyone,” he further said.
In a prepared statement, village elder Rosa Shol remarked, “While everyone else values this land with money, we see it differently. Our land is our life. We do not intend to sell it. All around us, we see land being sold – thousands of dollars – but there is still poor people after they sell their land.” She called on the Prime Minister to go out to Laguna to see for himself what the situation is and urged, “Do not wait until violence happens.” Ico repeated, “This is a peaceful village … we don’t want no enemy. We don’t want no violence. We noh want bloodshed. That’s what I want to tell the Government and the media. If these people continue, God knows what will happen – and I won’t accept it.”
Asked if they will continue to develop land they consider theirs, but which is still in dispute, Itch responded, “Absolutely. We are well within our lands, and that is our right, and we will assert our rights over our land.” For her part, Deputy Alcalde Monica Coc-Magnusson said, “… our lives and our livelihoods are intricately tied to the lands that we use and occupy. If we don’t toil, if we don’t wake up in the morning to go to our milpas, if we don’t go look for our bush sticks, if we don’t go hunt and gather, we’re going to die. So, them asking us to stop what we’re doing is like saying to us to stop breathing.”