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MRG welcomes Supreme Court decision upholding Maya land rights in Belize, but deplores Government decision to appeal

20 August 2010

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) welcomes a 28 June ruling by the Supreme Court of Belize upholding Maya rights over land and resources, but deplores the government’s recent move to appeal the judgment.

The judgment came after a decade of court action between the Maya community and the Government of Belize. In 2007, the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of indigenous Maya of two villages in the Toledo district to their traditional lands and resources and declared those rights protected by the Constitution of Belize.

In 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also concluded that Maya have ‘communal property rights to the lands that they have traditionally occupied and used’ and recommended the government of Belize demarcate and title Maya land in ‘full collaboration with the Maya people.’

‘This new ruling sends a clear and binding message to the Government of Belize that it cannot continue to ignore the decision of the IACHR and deny the Maya rights to use and enjoy their ancestral land,’ says Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Head of Law.

This most recent case came about after the government refused to implement the 2007 decision and extend the effect of the judgment to other villages in the region. Despite the verdict being legally binding, the state has continued to grant logging, oil, and hydroelectric concessions on Maya traditional lands and leased communally held indigenous lands to private, often non-Maya individuals.

‘This decision means that Maya communities can determine how they use and distribute land. It allows Maya people to make our own choices and recognises that Maya customary practice has a valid place in Belize law and society,’ says Gregory Ch’oc, Executive Director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM).

The Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh also ordered the government to title the land and cease from granting leases and resource extraction concessions over all Maya villages in Toledo district, and suggested that the same approach should be taken with Maya villages in Stann Creek District. Both districts contain Maya communities.

In early August, Prime Minister Dean Barrow confirmed his government will appeal the Supreme Court decision, claiming that it is ‘injurious to the public interest, it is injurious to national unity and it is injurious to the development of the Maya community.’

‘Instead of appealing the judgment, the Government should now take steps to implement the rulings of its own domestic courts. This would include engaging in effective consultation with the community to establish an appropriate demarcation and titling process, and stopping the extraction of resources from Maya traditional lands,’ says Lucy Claridge.

SATIIM have expressed serious doubts about the independence of the judiciary in the forthcoming appeal. According to the organisation, Chief Justice Conteh is retiring, and is not being granted the habitual time to clear his active caseload before he leaves.

‘We urge the government to reconsider its adversarial stance toward Maya land rights, and to sit down with us to develop a clear and efficient process by which customary land ownership in southern Belize can be settled, so that everyone involved can get on with priorities of economic development, cultural affirmation, health, education and environmental protection,’ added Gregory Ch’oc.

The Supreme Court judgment is also consistent with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for which Belize voted at the United Nations.

Notes to editors

  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.
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