Maya take GOB to court again!

Due to an adjournment, the case of the Belize Bank against the Prime Minister didn’t take off this Friday morning, as had been planned, but another very important matter was heard in the Chief Justice’s courtroom this morning. It is a landmark case over land rights in Toledo – the case of the Maya of Golden Stream Village versus the Government of Belize, and a Belizean-born rice and citrus farmer, Francis Johnston. But as small as the case may seem, it is symbolic of a wider conflict over land rights in what official statistics claim is Belize’s poorest district.

The Maya of Golden Stream went to court today for an injunction to stop Johnston from bulldozing what they claim is their ancestral property – but Johnston contends that he has a lease to the 50 acres in question. The dispute blew up in April and May when the police had to be called several times to intervene.

It appears that the core of the dispute is between Johnston and members of the Cal family. After the court session, we spoke with one of them, Alfonso Cal, former chairman of the village, as well as Johnston, to get their side of the story. And the disputing parties claimed that they have all suffered serious financial losses over a problem that the Government was supposed to fix.

Johnston bills his losses at $25,000 to $30,000 – money he says he had invested for the coming crop year, because he has undertaken to put all farming works on hold until the matter is decided by the court. The Maya estimate that the loss in cacao alone was $26,000, but they cite losses in several other crops.

“If you notice today, rice gone up, flour gone up, and that’s where I am really hurt when they bulldozed my crops. I feel like I am a dead man now,” said Cal, indicating that he has no choice but to continue his farming tradition to feed his family. “I have children, 11 children, 4 of them are at high school, and that is why I planted the cacao. I had 1,300 trees… Now it’s destroyed and I can’t do anything about it.”

Caught in the middle is the Government, who, the parties contend, was responsible for settling the matter before it got out of hand. Attorney General, Wilfred Elrington, appeared in court for the first time today in the capacity of defense counsel for the Government.

“The record shows that the Government has not been doing anything to harm the villagers,” Elrington told the court, in Government’s defense. “The lease is valid and good unless pronounced otherwise by a court that Johnston is not the owner of the property. The court has to first pronounce that the land in question is theirs before they can claim that the lease is not valid.”

He also told the court that the case of the Mayas is misdirected, because it lists the Government as defendant – when the Government has done nothing to harm the Maya and their crops.

He noted that even though the lease is 20 years old, the current complaint arose when Johnston recently began bulldozing the property.

“We all have equal rights. They [the Maya] should not claim rights not held by the rest of us,” Elrington told the court, adding later that “Government is not at odds with the Maya people.”

In his filing to the Supreme Court, Golden Stream’s alcalde, Juan Pop, asked for an urgent injunction against the government, but the verbal argument focused on stopping Johnston from further bulldozing a 50-acre plot of land in the village.

Johnston told the media that the Maya are victimizing him, because he has been paying taxes for the land for 20 years, and he has been farming there for 15.

“Give each one of us an equal right, because we are all born Belizean - some of them are not, but I am a born Belizean, and I work hard every day and I have my farm,” he told the media. “I have citrus, I work hard every day. Sometimes they steal away 30% of my crops, something like that, but it’s a thing I have to live with until I die, because I can’t be there all the time.”

Johnston was not yet listed as a defendant when the case was called up Friday morning, and so he appeared without an attorney. The Chief Justice advised, after seeing that Johnston was not served with papers, that since he was a central party to the case, he should be served. The Chief Justice asked Johnston if he could hear from him on the claims of the Maya.

In an un-sworn statement, Johnston told the court that he got the land from his brother-in-law, Salvador Bochub (a man of Mayan descent). Johnston is married to Bochob’s sister, Amelia. He said Bochub purchased the land from Louis Mendez for $800 in the late 70’s, and he got the land from Bochub in settlement of a $25,000 debt in the 80’s. Bochub’s lease dates back to 1987.

Johnston told the court that he had planted out only 20-25 acres of the land, but this year, he decided to plant out more of the land, and that’s when all the trouble started, because the Maya – who claim the land as a part of their ancestral heritage - were also planting out the land.

He said that things came to a head some weeks ago when a group of Maya confronted his hired help with machetes, ordering him to stop.

The Maya claim that they videotaped the confrontation, and they dispute Johnston’s account of what happened.

Antoinette Moore, attorney for the Maya of Golden Stream, told Amandala: “In order to attempt to accommodate Mr. Johnston and to protect rights of others, Government had the obligation to cease all activity until this could be worked out. Instead, they gave Johnston the go-ahead…he started bulldozing…”

Speaking in court on behalf of the Maya, Moore claimed that Johnston has destroyed thousands of their cacao trees, corn, plantains, cassava and other crops, costing them tens of thousands of dollars in damage – money she claims they rely on to send their children to school.

Johnston told the court that someone sneaked on to his property in the dark of night and planted some cacao trees.

“That is not true. Who is crazy to do that? Nobody could plant in the night,” Cal told Amandala, when we asked him about this claim. He told us that Ya’axché Conservation was supervising the planting of the cacao trees.

The Maya don’t have any formal title to the lands in question – in fact, Johnston is the one who now holds lease to the property, but the Maya contend that the lease is invalid, based on their customary land rights. However, both Attorney General Elrington and Johnston fiercely dispute that position.

“The suggestion coming from Mr. Johnston is that the present claimants only moved to the village in about 1985,” said Elrington. “If they were not there before, it could not, it would seem, be customary Mayan lands, you know. There would have been a break and others would have been there. That has to be established, in our view, for them to qualify as being one of the villages that fall under that rubric. And so these things are all matters of fact that have got to be looked into, and so it is our view it is only when those issues are resolved, and there is a pronouncement, that in fact, those rights can be made to apply to those villages.”

The Maya are relying on a precedent-setting judgment of the Chief Justice himself – that ruling having been made October 18, 2007, in the case of two villages in Toledo (Conejo and Santa Cruz), asserting that the Maya have a valid claim to customary land rights.

Moore told the court that the matter in question is a “serious tribal issue.” The Maya of Golden Stream use rotational farming, and villagers collectively use and manage the natural resources, and say they have done so for many years, the attorney told the court. She furthermore argued that even though the government has yet to demarcate the land, the Maya know their traditional boundaries and usage areas for farming, hunting and gathering.

Cal told Amandala that he arrived in Golden Stream in 1982. He said that he was born in Pueblo Viejo, near the border of Guatemala and 5 miles into Belizean territory.

“That’s the same problem I have from then, because from that time when I was 16 years, about 400 Hispanic people reached where I was working, they told us that Pueblo Viejo is still for Guatemala. They were telling us that the border was Rio Blanco, Santa Elena. That’s why I and my family moved,” said Cal.

He said that 7 brothers (himself included) and his father moved to Golden Stream, but he was the first to arrive in 1982. He stayed with another family for three years until he moved to the place where he now resides with his family. He said that it was a former village chairman who assigned him that piece of land he now occupies.

Cal said several Maya have tried to get individual leases and were refused. Only five received leases, and a total of 250 acres of village land is now under dispute. He is hoping that the court will make a decision for them.

Citing an affidavit of Lands Commissioner, Noreen Fairweather, filed for the Government, Moore noted in court that Fairweather had cited difficulties in trying to balance Maya customary land rights with existing legal estates. Still, that same affidavit revealed that only two weeks ago, Government completed the transfer of the land from Bochub to Johnston.

On March 27, Government had issued a circular, ceasing all lands transactions in rural Toledo, but they amended the circular in April to reflect only Conejo and Santa Cruz (the villages in last October’s customary land rights judgment), leaving all other villages at risk, said Moore.

She said that the Police Commanding Officer in Toledo sent a letter to the alcalde, Pop, saying that Johnston should not be disturbed in the village, because the March 27 directive had been lifted.

“Ultimately, it’s the government’s responsibility to secure the rights of the Maya, and to protect their rights as well as the rights of all other Belizeans. Ultimately, it’s the government that issued the lease on land that was Maya land that was used in traditional ways by the Maya people of Golden Stream. It was ultimately the Government who issued that lease. And apparently, according to them, who transferred the lease, just in the last couple of weeks in the midst of this serious dispute, they took the opportunity for whatever reasons, quite questionable in my view, to transfer the lease from one party to another - a person, Mr. Johnston, who claims that he has been farming that land for quite a long time. But then we have villagers in Golden Stream who also say that they have been farming the land. So we clearly have a factual dispute as to what’s going on,” Moore remarked to Amandala.

“There’s a National Lands Act and clearly, either that’s going to have to be amended – there needs to be some clear legislative work done and this is part of the attempt that the Maya leaders, on behalf of the Maya Council and the Maya communities and myself as their counsel, have been trying to engage the government in doing over the last several months,” Moore suggested.

She told us that the Maya have tried to get the CJ’s 2007 judgment enforced through a 12-member implementation team, which includes a spokesperson of the Maya Leaders Alliance, Alfonso Cal (one of the affected parties in this case), and the head of Toledo Alcalde Association.

The Toledo Alcalde Association, led by Martin Chen, will be the umbrella organization under which the full claim will be filed at the end of the month, Moore informed. It will not just be on the part of Golden Stream, however, but on behalf of all 38 or 39 Maya villages they say are located in the district of Toledo.

We were also informed that in an attempt to settle the dispute, a meeting was held in Golden Stream on May 18, at which the police and area representative, Juan Coy, met with villagers. But they say the critical people from Lands were not present.

CJ Conteh said that the case before him raises some grave issues that have ramifications flowing out of his prior judgment on Maya customary land rights in Toledo. He disagreed with Elrington’s claim that the request for a court injunction was an attempt to “shut down the government.” He said that the Maya are simply pleading to the court for protection under the law. He underscored the need for the Government to work out an accommodation between the disputing parties, in the public interest.

Elrington told the media that after the change in political administration in February, he met with the Maya at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on two or three occasions to find out exactly what they were claiming. The Solicitor General, Tanya Herwanger, was to work out the schedule of discussions, and to work out all the loose ends, he said.

Elrington explained that demarcation of the lands in question is important, and they have got to identify what those rights of the Maya are - do they include entitlement to petroleum under the ground? There is an ongoing timetable, he said, adding that he was surprised to hear the other side say in court today that there was a breakdown in those negotiations.

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