October 25, 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a major battle to stop logging and oil
development in southern Belize, Maya Indians have won a preliminary ruling
in their human rights case against the government of Belize. The Inter-
American Commission on Human Rights, on October 20, 2000, issued a
report announcing that it will consider the merits of the complaint that
indigenous Maya communities filed alleging that the government has violated
their human rights by failing to recognize their rights to their traditional
and by granting logging and oil development concessions on those lands.
The Commission ruled at its session this month that the Case of the Maya
indigenous communities and their members against Belize is admissible and
that the Maya have alleged facts that, if proven, constitute violations of
Belize’s obligation to protect human rights.

The Mopan and Ke’kchi Maya are Indian peoples who have inhabited the
southern region of what is now Belize for hundreds of years ­ long before
European settlement. Some 15,000 Maya people live in villages throughout
this tropical forest area. Traditionally, the Maya are subsistence farmers,
they also cultivate small cash crops such as corn, rice and beans. Their
economic and cultural survival is entirely dependent upon the land and its
resources, but the Maya’s rights to their traditional lands have never been
recognized or protected by Belize law.

The Toledo Maya Cultural Council, a non-governmental organization that
represents the Maya in southern Belize, filed the petition with the Inter-
American Commission in 1998. The petition asserts Maya land rights;
accuses the government of illegally granting logging and oil concessions on
Maya ancestral lands; and calls for the demarcation and protection of the
Maya’s territory. The case was submitted by the Indian Law Resource
Center, an indigenous rights law firm based in Helena, Montana.

The Maya’s struggle with the government of Belize over land erupted in
1995, when a Maya farmer on his way to his corn plantation came upon a
bulldozer and other equipment that was being used to cut a logging road
through the jungle in the Columbia River Forest Reserve. The Maya
eventually learned that the government of Belize had awarded 17 logging
concessions on over 500,000 acres of land in the rain forest surrounding
villages. The Toledo Maya Cultural Council, with assistance from the Indian
Law Resource Center’s attorneys, initiated proceedings in the Supreme Court
of Belize late in 1997 challenging the government’s authority to grant
concessions on Maya traditional lands, and filed the petition at the Inter-
American Commission when the Court failed to take any action on the case.

The Maya’s efforts are beginning to work. On October 12, 2000, Prime
Minister Said Musa signed an agreement affirming that the government of
Belize recognizes for the first time “... that the Maya People have rights
lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long-standing use and
occupancy.” This is an important step forward for the Maya, as it is the
time ­ despite years of advocacy and legal proceedings ­ that the government
has been willing to accede to even this symbolic recognition of indigenous
rights. The so-called Ten Points of Agreement also sets forth a framework
for discussions between the government and the Maya that could result in
concrete legislative and administrative measures to secure Maya lands and
resources; but only if the government has the political will to implement
terms. The timing of the Commission’s decision to consider of the merits of
the case is propitious, since its investigation is likely to be a powerful
in the mix.

Greg Ch’oc, chairman of the Ke’kchi Council of Belize, spoke on behalf of
the Maya leaders who negotiated the agreement on the day it was signed:

It is our sincere hope that the agreement between the Maya
and the government will bring tangible benefits to all
Belizeans, but at present it is only words on paper. We
must work together to make sure that these words become
reality, and that the 12th of October is forever remembered
in Belize for the events that have taken place today.

The stakes just got a lot higher. Last summer the government announced
that AB Energy, a US-based oil company registered in the Virgin Islands,
would begin conducting exploratory drilling in areas claimed by the Maya.
The concession covers over 700,000 acres that includes indigenous lands as
well as private holdings, national protected areas and the adjacent marine
shelf. Oil exploration experts now believe that there may be very valuable
deposits that lie in deep strata far below the early exploration wells that
dug in the region.

The Maya are very concerned about the potential destructive impact that oil
activities will have on their culture and livelihood, and on the environment
Belize. The area covered by the concession is ecologically unique. It
contains the largest surviving highland deciduous forests in Central
Some of finest mangrove forests anywhere lie along the coast, and the
reef is the second longest in the world. In light of these risks, the Maya
asked the Indian Law Resource Center to submit a request to the Inter-
American Commission to call upon the government to suspend the
concession until the issues in the petition have been fully resolved.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a body of the
Organization of American States (OAS) that was created to promote the
observance and defense of human rights by member states. All the countries
of North, Central and South America, except Cuba, are members of the
OAS. As a member of the OAS, Belize is bound by the human rights
principles that are outlined in the American Declaration on the Rights and
Duties of Man.

For More Information, contact Deborah Schaaf, staff attorney at the
Indian Law Resource Center, at 406/449-2006.