By William Ysaguirre
Belize City, April 22, 2021—It has been six years since the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ordered the Government of Belize on April 22, 2015, that it should have “free and prior consent” for any development, construction, issuance of logging licenses or oil exploration permits, for any exploitation of the natural resources in lands traditionally occupied by the Q’etchi Maya of the Toledo district before the arrival of Europeans.
Notwithstanding that CCJ is the highest court of appeal in the Belize justice system, and that the Toledo Maya had spent over a decade in litigation to achieve this judgment, there are Belizeans who are not of Q’etchi ethnicity who reject this ruling and say the government of Belize is not acting in a fair and equitable manner in its administration of lands occupied by Belizeans who are not Maya.
These Belizeans argue that while the CCJ’s consent order may apply to those lands surrounding over 40 villages which are almost exclusively Q’etchi, there are other many other villages which are occupied by Belizeans who are not Maya. A case in point is Barranco, where the inhabitants are predominantly Garinagu, another indigenous group, who settled that area from 1862 when the Garinagu first arrived in Belize.
These Non-Maya Belizeans are discomfited by a moratorium which the Government of Belize has imposed on the entire Toledo District, as it seeks to establish what exactly are the Q’etchi Maya communal lands. They say this “unfair” moratorium is causing them significant distress, frustration, anxiety and uncertainty, because the Lands and Survey Department is not accepting the payment of taxes on leased lands. The Department has also stopped issuing permits for lands to be surveyed, even in areas and villages where the inhabitants are clearly not Maya. Some private property owners in Toledo are now finding their ownership challenged the Maya.
For the Q’etchi Maya, this is their norm, and they say “wake up and smell the coffee!” They too have been frustrated by the glacial pace at which the Toledo Mayan Land Rights commission has been moving to delineate, measure and demarcate what lands are clearly the Q’etchi Maya traditional communal lands dating back centuries. The Mayan Leaders Alliance is claiming 2 million acres, but have been frustrated by the previous administration’s attempts to weasel out of complying with the order.
The Q’etchi Maya Leaders Alliance formed in 1999 won their first court victory in 2007, when the Supreme Court of Belize upheld their right to tenure of the land they had traditionally occupied in two villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz. In 2008, 36 other villages who were not party to the 2007 judgement also filed a claim in the Supreme Court and their rights were also recognized by a Supreme Court judgement in 2010.
The government of the day rejected the suggestion of the “Balkanization” of the Toledo district, and the suggestion of the formation of a Toledo Maya “homeland”. The new UDP administration appealed the decision all the way to the CCJ, when the Q’etchi Maya won again in 2015: the “Consent Order”. The CCJ also awarded the Toledo Maya Bze$300,000 in damages, but to this day they have not seen a penny! The Barrow administration took the $300,000 to establish the Toledo Maya Land Rights commission, chaired by former Minister Lisel Alamilla. Thus began four more years of waiting, with the Maya periodically reporting back to the CCJ on their lack of progress; it was not until 2019 that Pablo Mis of the Toledo Alcaldes Association reported some progress in the implementation of the order.
Yet only a few weeks prior to the November 2020 general elections, the inhabitants of Golden Stream, Medina Bank, San Pedro Colombia, Indian Creek, Laguna, San Marcos, and Sunday Wood villages were alarmed to see land surveyors who appeared all of a sudden, to survey parcels of land which the Q’etchi Maya had been farming or living on. This was notwithstanding the “prior consent” order, which ought to have protected them against such an invasion!
For the Toledo Maya, it has been the normal S.N.A.F.U. (situation normal all f–ked up). When Hurricane Iris hit southern Belize in 2003, the storm blew the thatch roofs of the community guest hostels in 20 villages which were participating in the Toledo community tourism project, and the hostels suffered water damage to the interiors. The European Union awarded these villages €300,000 in relief funds to refurbish their community guest hostels, but the EU funneled the money through a local NGO, the Janus Foundation, as the local disbursing agency. Janus appropriated 70 percent of the money – €210,000 for “administrative costs”, leaving only €90,000 to be shared amongst 20 villages! Some of the Maya were so incensed at this turn, that they wanted to reject funds, but wiser heads prevailed, saying something is better than nothing. So each village received €4,500, about $9,000, when the EU had originally intended for each village to receive €15,000!
Another fact to be considered is that the Toledo district is largely uninhabited, and some individuals own large tracts of land. While others are obliged to squat on land for which they have no lease or title, but where they can engage in subsistence farming to eke out an existence. In the past, in other parts of the country, the cañeros lands in the North, the government has stepped in to regularize this land occupation by a land lease, which might later be converted to freehold title.
The CCJ order restrains the government of Belize from issuing any leases or grants to lands or resources under the National Lands Act or any other Act. GOB may also not register any interest in land which the Maya claim, nor issue nor renew any authorizations for the exploitation of resources such as concessions, permits or contracts which authorize logging, prospecting or exploration, mining or similar activity under the Forests Act, the Mines and Minerals Act, the Petroleum Act, or any other Act. The CCJ recognizes the Government’s authority over all lands in Belize, but that the CCJ retains jurisdiction to oversee compliance with the “consent” order.