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Belize court affirms Maya land rights but strikes out protective orders

26 July 2013

In a long-awaited judgment issued yesterday, Belize’s Court of Appeal has affirmed Maya people’s rights to collective land ownership throughout southern Belize. However, in a concerning development, the Court of Appeal struck out court orders requiring that the Government of Belize take specific action to protect those rights.

The Maya communities of Toledo, Belize’s southern-most district, rely on the land and its natural resources to preserve their culture and way of life. In 1994, the Government converted an area of nearly 42,000 acres of Maya ancestral land into Government land, the Sarstoon-Temash National Park – without consulting Maya people.

The Government then opened Sarstoon-Temash to oil exploration by US Capital Energy Belize Ltd, a wholly owned Belizean subsidiary of American company US Capital Energy Inc, and entered into an agreement with the company for oil exploration.

‘MRG welcomes this further recognition of Maya land rights over their ancestral land in Toledo,’ says Lucy Claridge, Head of Law at Minority Rights Group International (MRG). ‘We remain seriously concerned, however, that the Government has failed to protect these rights – most recently by permitting US Capital Energy to begin exploring for oil on Maya land.’

In 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report recognizing Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo. The IACHR found that the Government 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. The Government failed to implement the IACHR’s decision, however. The Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association, on behalf of 38 Maya communities, brought domestic actions challenging the Government.

In 2007, the Supreme Court of Belize ordered the Government to recognize 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. In 2010, the Supreme Court clarified that the 2007 judgment applied to Maya throughout Toledo and issued an injunction prohibiting concessions throughout Toledo. The Government appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal.

On 25 July 2013, the Court of Appeal affirmed Maya land rights. In a 2-1 decision, the Court found that Maya of Toledo possessed rights to land and resources in Southern Belize based on their longstanding use and occupancy.

The Court further concluded, however, that the Supreme Court erred in finding 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 conclusion, the Court of Appeal struck out the Supreme Court’s injunction against Government interference with Maya land. The Court dismissed the Maya people’s cross-appeal for damages. Antoinette Moore, representing Maya communities in the case, says it is likely the parties will appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

‘In the two years that the appeal has been pending, the Government of Belize has taken no steps to comply with the Supreme Court or IACHR decisions. Without consulting Maya communities, it granted a permit to US Capital Energy to begin exploratory drilling on Maya land – a clear violation of international law and the Supreme Court’s 2010 injunction,’ Claridge adds.

MRG urges the Government of Belize to grant title to Maya land and to abstain from interfering with Maya communities’ right to property. To prevent further harm to Maya people, the Government should immediately suspend US Capital Energy’s drilling operations in Toledo.

MRG provides support to the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, which works to protect the Sarstoon-Temash National Park.