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Belize: Advocating Maya people’s rights to land

22 November 2016

In 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report recognising Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo. The IACHR found that the Government had violated Maya people’s right to property and equality under international law, and it recommended that the Government delimit, demarcate and title Maya ancestral land.

MRG has been advising SATIIM (Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management), a small NGO in Belize that is working to protect the rights of the Maya in Toledo in relation to Belize’s non-implementation of this IACHR decision.

In 2007, the Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association, on behalf of thirty-eight Maya communities, brought an action in the domestic courts for non-implementation of the IACHR decision.  The Supreme Court of Belize ordered the Government to recognise Maya land rights, demarcate and title their land, and cease and abstain from interfering with their right to property. The Government never appealed this decision. After 2007, very little progress was made in terms of enforcing the customary land rights recognised by the Supreme Court of Belize.

Another lawsuit was lodged with the Supreme Court in June 2008, seeking a declaration that the Government’s failure to protect the Mayan rights is a violation of the Constitution, and requesting that the Supreme Court order the government to abstain from carrying out any activities on Mayan land. In 2010, the Supreme Court clarified that the 2007 judgment applied to Maya throughout Toledo and issued an injunction prohibiting concessions.

After a government appeal was lodged to the 2010 judgment in 2013, the Court of Appeal affirmed Maya land rights finding that Maya of Toledo possess rights to land and resources in Southern Belize based on their longstanding use and occupancy. However, it also found that the Supreme Court had erroneously found that the Constitution of Belize imposes a positive obligation on the Government to adopt affirmative measures to protect the rights of the respondents. Based on this, the Court of Appeal revoked the Supreme Court’s order of injunction against Government, concerning interference with Maya land.

That decision was appealed by both sides to the Caribbean Court of Justice and the matter was decided by consent judgment, with the recognition of Maya land rights and entitlement to titling of their land forming a major part of the judgment.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that that judgment has yet been implemented.

Additionally, a claim was brought by SATIIM and four communities to stop US Capital operating in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. This was heard in October 2013 and judgment was delivered at the end of March 2014.  In a strong ruling, the Supreme Court held that government permission to commence oil drilling and construct roads in the national park by US Capital Energy was unlawful on the basis that the permission was granted without the government seeking the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Maya communities. However, a few weeks after issuing this order it was modified to provide that the government need simply make good faith attempts to obtain consent rather than actually obtaining it.  The Supreme Court also went on to order mediation between the parties.

MRG has submitted several shadow reports in its advocacy for Mayan rights including a report to the Working Group and a report to the Human Rights Committee for the Universal Periodic Review of Belize. Concluding observations from Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and concluding observations from the Human Rights Committee have both condemned the government of Belize’s non-compliance with the IACHR recommendation.

MRG continues to give support to the work of SATIIM, and in March 2014, MRG and SATIIM delivered an oral statement at the adoption of the UPR report for Belize in March 2014. Furthermore, in August 2014, MRG, together with SATIIM, the Maya’s Leaders Alliance (MLA) and the Indigenous People’s Law and Policy Programme (Arizona), submitted an alternative report to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in respect of its examination of the USA regarding the USA’s failure to comply with its extra-territorial obligations with regards to US Capital Belize which had parent companies registered in the US.

Key documents: