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“We are coming to you, Government!”

Headline“We are coming to you, Government!”

Mayas commit to step up their actions “to defend our land, because this is our survival!”

SANTA ELENA VILLAGE, Toledo District, Sat. Jan. 27, 2024

The Government’s effort to negotiate an acceptable and workable agreement with the Maya communities of Toledo suffered a big setback on Saturday when, in effect, the Government representatives “stood up” the Maya villagers who had requested and expected to meet them face to face to air their grievance with the proposed Maya Communal Land Policy draft. The politically savvy Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs saw the value in the engagement, but the Government’s lead attorney did not, and thus the trust and confidence in the genuine sincerity of the state was severely diminished among the Maya villagers who had congregated in Santa Elena.

While the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia in an interview on Thursday, January 25 indicated that Government officials would meet with residents from the 41 Maya communities of Toledo on Saturday in Santa Elena Village, a release the next day confirmed that she had misspoken. On Thursday she said they would attend, but would have police present to ensure peace. However, the Friday press release notified that the Government would proceed with its scheduled consultations in Punta Gorda Town on its latest controversial draft of the Maya Communal Land Policy. So, while hundreds of Maya villagers were waiting in Santa Elena, the Government officials were gathered at the Social Security Board conference room in town.  

The Government’s lead attorney on the Maya Land Rights case, Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck did not think it prudent to take up the Maya’s invitation. He said nothing productive could come from discussions or interactions with “a mob,” even though the Minister acknowledges that, at some point, they will need to engage the communities rather than just their leaders.

Leslie Mendez, attorney for the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), an Appellant in the Maya Land Rights case, said the intention was for the Government officials to hear for themselves directly from the villagers how they feel about the policy and what is their response to it. She expressed, “We have told them, but they sometimes don’t believe us. Sometimes they think that it’s only a few people, about 10 people, who think this way.” When one village police passionately demanded, “The Government should come here and face us!” the crowds erupted in agreement.

While villagers took turns at the mic to affirm their individual positions, their stance was emblazoned on their posters. One read, ”We reject # 5.” Another said, “Dividing Belizeans is your strategy. We will not allow it.” A third affirmed, “All of Belize is being sold out except for Toledo! We stand to protect our lands!!” But since no Government official showed up to hear and see their message, the Mayas committed to ramp up their actions. One placard read, “You will need our votes again. Think about that.”

TAA spokesperson, Cristina Coc made reference to the commitment of the ruling People’s United Party in its Plan Belize Manifesto that it will “respect the communal land rights to ancestral land.” She declared, “We will not stop until this Government has delivered on their promise … and if this Government does not deliver on their promise, we promise them, that in a year and a half, we’re not just going to reject this policy. We are going to reject this very Government.”

In an emotional delivery which roused the crowd to join her at the mic, Coc directed herself to the Government, proclaiming that they will get their message across. She stated, “But the Government knows that it needs us. The market in Punta Gorda – we supply the food for everybody in that town. You take our food, we take yours! … We will not be blinded by the little projects, the launch of many projects in our villages. Even before our houses are connected, they want to celebrate the launch of a project, right? Communities, it is time for us to stop our Government from fooling us! It is time for us to stop our Government from blinding us with these little projects. The projects are short-lived. Our land is forever. We deserve those projects because our taxes are being paid.”

Coc then spoke about taking their message closer to Government. She declared, “You see us here now; we might be 3,000. The next time you see us, we’re not gonna be 3,000. We’re gonna double our numbers every time we come to you. We’re gonna double our numbers in Belmopan. We’re gonna double our numbers in Belize City … we are going to bring our people to the Prime Minister. We are going to bring our people to the ministers in Government who are writing this policy. We are not going to sit and take this disrespect. We are coming to you, Government! We are going to find you in your homes; we are going to find you in your offices. We are going to find you on the streets … You don’t come to us, we are coming to you.” With her words then close to being drowned out, not only because of those crowding around her but also from emotion, Coc cited the late Maya leader, Julian Cho, saying, “In the words of the late Julian Cho, come hell or high water, we are going to fight! Come hell or high water we are going to defend our land, because this is our survival!”

In her own emotive presentation, human rights attorney Mendez spoke of the life-changing experience it has been to be working in the Maya communities of Toledo for the last three years. She considers it “the highest honor and privilege of her professional career to serve these communities …” She then expressed gratitude to the communities for setting an example to the country “that integrity still matters. That not everything has a price. That the land is not for sale, and that communities always come back.”

At the meeting, the communities signed a 10-point declaration which will be presented to the Government on Tuesday, January 30.

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