The gloves are off. P.M. Barrow and Maya leader go head to head

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

Maya Leader Greg Choq

A war of words between a Maya leader from the Toledo district and the Barrow government took a turn for the worst this week when Prime Minister Dean Barrow told the nation that it is Maya leader Greg Choq who has betrayed him.

Barrow was responding to charges made by Choq, the Executive Director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), who accused Barrow and his government of acting in bad faith when the government secretly granted a license to U.S. Capital Energy, a private oil company, to enter the National Park and engage in seismic testing for oil exploration.

SATIIM and the Government of Belize had entered a co-management agreement for the park, but that agreement expired last year and Choq argued that his organization had continued to co-manage the park and had hoped that government would have consulted with them before issuing the permit.

“If I wanted to respond in kind, I would say I feel that Greg Choq has betrayed me. When he leads a charge that wants to see the entirety of the Toledo District be placed under communal Maya ownership without reference to other ethnic groups in the area.

“I am going to say straight out that he and I part ways. So I am afraid that that’s opened up a divide that in my view is irreparable,” Barrow told the media at a press conference on Wednesday, April 22.

Barrow said his remarks were not a question of his personal feelings, but rather a question of the law and of national interest to Belize.

SATIIM with Barrow as its attorney prior to the February 2008 general election, had taken the then Musa government to court to challenge the seismic tests in the park.

The court had ruled that such tests could only be done after an Environmental Impact Assessment study was carried out.

Barrow noted that the EIA has since been done and hence permission for the oil company to carry out the test for oil.

The move provoked an angry statement from SATIIM, which called the move a secretive one and voiced its disappointment and feeling of betrayal by the Prime Minister.

The permit issued by the Forestry Department to US capital states that testing is not to be conducted in the area considered to be the communal lands of Conejo Village.

Choq however, has called on the Prime Minister to reconsider the permit.

The Forestry Department in defence of the permit, claimed that SATIIM knew of the permit before hand and that it had been dragging its feet on the matter.

The department stated it received only one response from SATIIM in which it threatened legal action if the permit was granted.

Complicating the matter even further is the department’s claim that SATIIM’s co-management agreement was expired in 2008 and technically, need not have been consulted on the matter.

It went on to state that it (Forestry Department) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, has been engaging SATIIM since 2006 on the issue and has made available to SATIIM copies of all documentation that U.S. Capital has provided in its request.

The Forestry’s statement prompted yet another release from SATIIM in which it states that the claim made by the Forestry Department was false and demonstrated the malice with which the department engages SATIIM.

It challenged the Forestry Department and Ministry of Natural Resources to make available all documents relating to the matter public and noted that it had presented three alternate proposals which “would have allowed the permit to be exercised in a manner respectful of the rights and interests of all stakeholders.”

The first was a proposal to revise the Terms of Reference for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), while the second was a proposal outlining the role of SATIIM in the consultation process and a mechanism for the consultations process to be adhered to by US Capital Energy for the EIA, and the third being a proposal for a benefit sharing agreement to be put in place.

Choq claims the proposals were presented to and discussed with six members of Cabinet in 2007 and that it led to the formation of a ministerial subcommittee, whose terms of reference were to determine how to accommodate the proposals.

That committee handed over its responsibilities to a technical subcommittee after a meeting with SATIIM and APAMO but never met thereafter.

The statement further notes that the Department of Environment refused to revise the TOR for the EIA and consider SATIIM’s proposals for consultation.

“In addition, SATIIM and an agent of US Capital Energy engaged in an attempt to develop a framework for negotiating agreements with the affected Maya villages . . . without any explanation, they terminated communication with SATIIM in early 2008. They insisted that the notes we exchanged be confidential.”

The Forestry Department further flexed its power on SATIIM via letters dated April 16, 2008 where it states that the Maya organization was relieved of any and all responsibilities, obligations, rights, and privileges as it relates to Sarstoon Temash National Park under the previous co-management agreement - effectively bringing the issue to a head.

Barrow’s public confrontation with Choq comes just a month after he suspended Juan Coy, his government’s only Maya representative, from his cabinet.

Coy has been suspended for six months on charges that he abused his authority when he requested that authorities return a number of contraband items to a member of his constituency in the Toledo district who was caught smuggling the goods into Belize in late January.

The Reporter