Maya leaders call on GOB to withdraw appeal – recognize customary Maya land rights

The Maya community of Toledo has issued an extensive statement with resolutions in response to the stance declared more than three weeks ago, on Sunday, August 1, 2010, by the ruling United Democratic Party, staunchly opposing customary land tenure in the Maya community.

The Maya statement released on Thursday, August 26, was signed by the representatives of four organizations: Toledo Alcaldes Association, Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the Kekchi Council of Belize, the Julian Cho Society, and bears the logos of the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and the Toledo Alcalde Association (TAA).

In June, retiring Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulia Conteh, had ruled favorably for the Maya in a case filed by the MLA and TAA, asserting that Maya customary land tenure has long existed and continues to exist in Southern Belize, and also reasonably extends to the five Mopan Maya villages of Stann Creek.

Conteh reaffirmed his 18 October 2007 judgment on Conejo and Santa Cruz, declaring “…that Maya customary land tenure exists in all Maya villages in Toledo and where it exists, gives rise to collective and individual property rights under 3(d) and 17 of Belize Constitution.”

However, the Government has decided to appeal Conteh’s decision. Prime Minister Dean Barrow had told our newspaper subsequently that he is very concerned about “the state of confusion” the CJ’s ruling will cause, pointing to dissent even within the Maya community, and more specifically, a faction of cacao growers – dissent between those who support communal land ownership and those who are interested in individual land titles.

“We will take this through to the CCJ [Caribbean Court of Justice],” the Prime Minister commented, adding that until then the status quo remains in Toledo with respect to lands.

In their statement released this week, the Maya representatives say that “ leaders of the 38 Maya villages, we call on the government to do the right thing; to accept the decisions of the Supreme Court, to end the uncertainty and chaos of the land situation in Toledo.”

“We express the desires of the MLA and the TAA to sit down and work out, in good faith, an effective and practical process for demarcating and titling Maya village lands, so that we can all move forward and contribute to the wellbeing and development of our country instead of being mired in legal proceedings for years to come.”

While complaining of continued and unchecked incursions by xatéros in Toledo, the statement directly responds to the text of a United Democratic Party policy statement on the issue of Maya customary land rights.

The UDP declared that the issuance of individual titles to members of the Maya community, as is their birthright, is the right and desirable way to go.

The statement notes that, “Successive governments prefer to have our perpetual insecurity regarding the legal status of our lands hanging over us so that they can promise to do something about it every election. If individual land titles are the birthright of all Belizeans, presumably every Belizean would have one.”

The Maya leaders contend that, “Politicians in this country will no longer be able to buy votes and favors by selling our own lands to us, or by withholding them from us, nor will they be able to line their pockets by selling our resources to their cronies or to multinational companies as evident in the recent Auditor General’s Report of 2010.”

As to concerns expressed by the UDP that, “such a judgment sets an unwise, undesirable and impractical precedent that can create and fuel racial disharmony in our country,” the Maya leaders say that, “in no way does our struggle detract from or takes away the rights of any other racial and cultural group in Belize.”

The Maya statement goes on to claim that it is the government’s tactics that are creating such disharmony: “The government, not the Maya, has gone out of its way to attempt to create racial division over this issue. It has deviously named the plight of the Maya people for protection as Belizeans as ‘balkanization’, ‘state within a state’ and last year for example, it solicited statements from the Kriol organization opposing the case.”

The statement of the Maya leaders clarifies that the court ruling affects only people belonging to Maya villages that practice customary land tenure and follow customary law, or are using Maya lands, and only so far as their rights in those villages are concerned.

The leaders say, “...we are Belizeans... and we seek for true integration into the fabric of Belize’s society.”

The land claim previously quoted by the Toledo Maya Cultural Council is 500,000 acres, which represents roughly 10% of Belize’s land mass, and includes most of Toledo, which the Kekchi and Mopan Maya claim as their ancestral homeland. There are a total of 42 villages in both Toledo and Stann Creek, according to The Maya Atlas.