A decade-long struggle for the Maya villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz came to an unexpected, hopeful end last week. Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh granted the order sought by the villages to have their customary land tenure practices acknowledged and secured under the Constitution.
Historically, the Government of Belize has systematically denied the Maya rights to their land, by claiming they were Guatemalan immigrants, therefore without a valid claim.
Under that premise, in 1993 the Government allowed logging on over 500,000 acres in the Toledo District, and granted concessions of over 170,000 acres of rain forest to two Malaysian logging companies. Then in 1997, they granted a permit to US-based AB Energy, Inc., to explore for oil reserves on almost 750,000 acres of land in the Toledo District. Nearly all of these concessions are on or adjacent to Maya lands.
Shortly after that, the Mayan communities responded by petitioning their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. However, before the Commission could issue its final report, the Government of Belize stalled the process in 2000, allowing the exploitation of the land to continue.
In April of this year, the aforementioned lawsuits were filed by the Maya villages, both of which asserted “the Attorney General of Belize and the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment are violating the Maya peoples’ constitutionally protected rights to property and equality by failing to recognize, protect and respect their customary land rights.”
The resultant 67-page judgment, which took the Chief Justice over 2 hours to read in court last week, states the customary land tenure practices of the two Mayan Villages equate to property rights that are protected under the Constitution of Belize, and that Belize is obligated not only by the Constitution – but also by international treaty and customary law (including the recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) to respect and protect Maya customary land rights.
It also states the government violated the constitution in their failure to recognize and protect those rights, and that they must now “cease and abstain from any acts that might…affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of the property located in the geographic area occupied and used by the Maya people of Santa Cruz and Conejo without their informed consent…that in respect to the matter the government also complies with the safeguards of the constitution; that the government…abstain from issuing leases and grants, abstain from issuing any regulations concerning land use, and abstain from issuing any concessions for resource exploitation…including…permits or contracts authorizing logging, prospecting or exploration (include oil), and mining or similar activity.”
“We’ve come united in justice, united in love, united in peace and I am so pleased [crying] that today is a true Maya day,” expressed Cristina Coc, Mayan activist and and Director of the Julian Cho Society.
Another Mayan, Greg Ch’oc, explains that “what has happened over the last… since the independence of Belize has been less [than] honourable, has been a violation of the right of the Mayan people of Southern Belize and has been an injustice and has been a breach of the fundamental rights. And today’s ruling I believe allows a new beginning for Belize, for investors. We want to be an integral part, that’s always what we’ve been saying, we want to be at the table where all Belizeans deserve to be and I think for the Belizean public, let us stop talking, let us stop calling the talk show and venting our frustrations, let us do something to take back Belize and really make it our own. And today we’ve shown that it can happen; we have demonstrated that.”
Professor Steven James Anaya, a specialist in Indigenous Rights, who’s been working with the communities and their attorney, adds that this decision has forged a significant legal precedent…. “it’s not just a matter of material interest or gain that we are talking about with indigenous peoples and their right to land. It’s about their basic right to life and [the Chief Justice] made that connection explicitly and that’s significant. We haven’t seen that in decisions in other countries so explicitly. So I think it really is going to reverberate around the world very quickly. There is a lot of international focus on the rights of indigenous peoples and this case is going to be noticed and rightly so I think.”
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