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On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Belize communities demand their rights

9 August 2013

Chelsea Purvis, a lawyer assisting MRG’s Legal Cases Team, reports on land rights advocacy by Maya and Garifuna communities.

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, an annual celebration to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.  The theme of this year’s celebration is ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’.

This theme has made me reflect on the many dedicated Maya and Garifuna activists I met when I travelled to Belize this spring.  In Belize, the government has utterly failed to honour its commitments to indigenous communities.  But even as oil exploration begins on their forested ancestral lands, indigenous communities are not giving up.

Maya and Garifuna communities of Toledo, Belize’s southern-most district, rely on the land and its natural resources to preserve their unique cultures and way of life.  During my visit I had the opportunity to visit a number of Mopan and Q’eqchi’ Maya villages. Here communities practice traditional subsistence agriculture known as milpa, a form of shifting cultivation, and use forest resources for medicine, building materials, and items of cultural significance.  I also spoke to Garifuna people – an Afro-indigenous community – in the coastal village of Barranco.  Garifuna are expert fisherpeople and small-scale farmers.  Their language, dance and music have been recognized by UNESCO as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage.

Traditional Maya dance Credit: Chelsea Purvis
Traditional Maya dance / Chelsea Purvis

For many years, these communities have been advocating for the government of Belize to respect and protect their human rights.  In the 1990s the government granted massive logging concessions in Toledo to foreign companies.  And in 1994 the government converted nearly 42,000 acres of Maya and Garifuna traditional land into government land, the Sarstoon-Temash National Park.

In response, indigenous communities worked to come to an agreement with the government to protect their lands.  In 2000 the government signed the Ten Points of Agreement with the Maya people of southern Belize, in which the government ‘recognizes that the Maya People have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long-standing use and occupancy.’

Despite this step, in 2001 the government then opened Toledo – including Sarstoon National Park – to oil exploration by US Capital Energy Belize Ltd, a wholly owned Belizean subsidiary of American company US Capital Energy Inc.  It did so without consulting or seeking the free, prior and informed consent of the Maya and Garifuna communities that have traditionally used and occupied this land.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found this to be a clear violation of international law.  The IACHR in 2004 issued a report recognizing Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo.  It recommended that the government delimit, demarcate and title Maya ancestral land.  The government failed to implement the IACHR’s decision, however.  So the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), on behalf of Toledo’s Maya communities, brought domestic actions challenging government logging and oil concessions.  The Supreme Court of Belize in 2007 and 2010 ordered the government to recognize Maya land rights, demarcate and title their land, and cease and abstain from interfering with their right to property.

Credit: Chelsea Purvis
Temash River / Chelsea Purvis

The government of Belize simply ignored these binding rulings.  In flagrant violation of the Supreme Court’s orders, it permitted US Capital to begin oil exploration on Maya and Garifuna land – again, without consulting indigenous communities.

Furthermore, the government recently terminated its co-management agreement with the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) to perform day-to-day management of the park Sarstoon-Temash National Park.  SATIIM‘s Maya and Garifuna rangers have worked for years to protect the park from poaching and illegal logging.

The government of Belize appealed the 2010 ruling.  Last month Belize’s Court of Appeal finally released its decision.  I was glad to hear that the Court affirmed Maya property rights over Toledo lands.  But the Court also struck out court orders requiring that the government take specific action to protect Maya land rights.  This is deeply concerning because the government urgently needs to protect Maya lands.  SATIIM says that US Capital has already built a road through the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and has begun constructing its first oil platform in the wetlands.

I asked Maya and Garifuna representatives in Belize about their next steps.  The MLA and TAA, having consulted with over 300 leaders from Maya communities, have decided to appeal the Court of Appeal decision to the Caribbean Court of Justice (see the MLA TAA press release).  They have also filed a new Supreme Court case against the government.

SATIIM, on behalf of the five villages bordering the park, has also filed a case against the government and has requested a court order to stop US Capital from drilling in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park (see the SATIIM press release).

On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I celebrate the perseverance and strength of indigenous communities in Belize. I also hope that the government of Belize takes seriously the call of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who today urged states to respect their agreements with indigenous communities.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.