The Government’s insistence to allow drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP) in the Toledo District—which could happen as soon as August, according to Prime Minister Dean Barrow—will inevitably lead to a further fallout between the Barrow administration and the Maya of Toledo, who have joined forces with opponents to drilling inside protected areas, and who have issued a public declaration that drilling on what they deem to be their ancestral lands would be both illegal and in violation of a court injunction granted in 2010.
Government has no intention of stopping petroleum exploration onshore, especially not in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, managed by Greg Ch’oc’s organization, because geologists have said that it is perhaps the area with the highest oil potential in Belize, Barrow told the press at his quarterly press conference Tuesday. “That position will not change...” he insisted.
Barrow said that US Capital Energy Limited (a company whose parent company is registered in the British Virgin Islands, and which also has interests in Guatemala) is expected to start drilling within the next 6 to 9 months. “Drill they will,” Barrow commented.
The Maya declare that the lands upon which Government has issued blanket concessions to drill are a “sacred trust.”
Ch’oc, in a statement released today, said: “SATIIM will challenge any illegal action in order to preserve the rule of law in our country. We are not saying that development cannot go ahead, rather that the Government must recognize the legally bound sanctity of our national parks.”
He continues to maintain that only seismic activities associated with the exploration phase were addressed by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that was completed in 2007.
The Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), as well as the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), Ch’oc’s non-governmental organization which co-manages the Sarstoon-Temash National Park (STNP) along with the Forest Department, both issued statements this week.
On Wednesday, the MLA and the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) asserted that there is no clearance for oil drilling in the Toledo District.
“Since the Sarstoon-Temash National Park is made up of lands used and occupied by Maya villages, it is illegal for the government to allow drilling to go ahead in the park, at least until those lands have been demarcated and titled,” the statement said.
It explained that on June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court issued a specific injunction which, in effect, put the cuff on the government, barring it from undertaking any activities that could be deemed to have an adverse effect on “the existence, value, use or enjoyment of the lands located in the Toledo District, occupied and used by Maya villagers,” without the informed consent of the Maya.
This prohibition, said the MLA, includes concessions, permits and contracts. They also point to the concession granted to Paradise Energy Limited in 2010, which also covers villages they deem to be ancestral lands.
Amandala notes that the US Capital concession covers the vast majority of southern Maya villages—but it also covers the internationally renowned tourism destinations of Placencia and Seine Bight, as well as Independence and Punta Gorda.
However, the more vocal opposition to oil exploration has come from the Maya, who continue to assert their claim that the area is ancestral territory of the Kekchi or Q’eqchi and Garifuna communities, whose access to medicinal plants, building materials and food materials within the STNP were limited at the time the area was put under protected status.
Contrary to these views, Prime Minister Dean Barrow has gone on record to say that the Supreme Court has cleared the way for drilling in protected areas—a statement that SATIIM has taken serious issue with, particularly since it was the Prime Minister who held brief for the organization when it took the matter to court back in 2006.
Barrow told Amandala today, “Having appeared on the case, having represented SATIIM in that matter, I am absolutely certain that the judgment in fact permitted the exploration process in the national park, and that exploration process includes drilling.”
The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) supports SATIIM and said today that, “The Court decision had nothing to do with the commercial drilling of oil out of the ground, but only for oil search. To give the impression that the Court gave the go-ahead for anything else is a misinterpretation of the decision.”
Amandala has perused the 2006 decision, and we could not find any declaration in that document that the said drilling is permitted—but interpretations vary over what the reading of the decision implies.
This is what the decision, made by Acting Chief Justice Samuel Awich, said: “Of the four grounds of SATIIM’s claim, only one has succeeded, namely, that the permission to enter the Sarstoon-Temash National Park was given and preparatory work was started without an environmental impact assessment of the project having been carried out...”
Awich overturned the permission given by the Forest Department to enter the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, but ruled: “It will then be open to the Forest Department, having taken into consideration the environmental impact assessment recommendation, to decide whether or not to grant permission to the Company to enter the Sarstoon-Temash National Park for the purpose of carrying out seismic surveys.” [Emphasis ours.]
On this ground, US Capital had to do an EIA. Amandala also viewed the EIA, posted online at the website of the Department of the Environment: http://www.doe.gov.bz/. Dated June 2007, the document is titled, “Environmental Impact Assessment for US Capital Energy Belize Limited: Seismic Survey – Block 19.”
The executive summary of the document notes: “The project plan calls for an exploratory phase involving a series of seismic surveys on land to be followed by exploratory drilling if the results of the seismic survey warrants further investigation.... This environmental statement addresses only the seismic activities associated with the exploration phase.” [Emphasis ours.]
Notwithstanding the statements in the document, Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, told Amandala last month that the approval that had been granted to US Capital Energy to shoot seismic tests in the area also covered exploration wells as a part of this first EIA process dating back about 4 years—2007.
The Government is unequivocally firm in its stance. The decision to proceed with petroleum exploration was made under the former administration, which issued a contract to US Capital, owned by Brian E. Richter of the USA, in 2001 and gave an extension, after the SATIIM lawsuit, in 2007.
That contract has been upheld by the Barrow administration, which has not revisited the agreement, based on our conversations with both the Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega.
The contract, covering roughly 800,000 acres, calls for the Government of Belize to get a 7.5% royalty from petroleum sales, and 5% to 25% of production receipts after the company deducts its expenses. The 5% end of the range is collected for the first 50,000 barrels produced daily—the 25% would be collected only in the event that daily production reaches 150,000 barrels. Belize Natural Energy (BNE) has been producing far less than the volume on the minimum end of this scale.
In the agreement between GOB and US Capital, the parties “recognize the possibility that exploration in the contract area may result in the discovery of fields that may extend cross-border – Belize/Guatemala.”
Awich’s ruling, noted: “It is reasonable for SATIIM to suppose that in the event the result of the exploration confirms that there is oil in the park in exploitable quantity, the Government will declare the Sarstoon-Temash National Park or part of it to cease to be a national park. SATIIM would then lose its financial, proprietary and community interests which include employment of people from the local communities.”
The Prime Minister said in a recent media interview, that with respect to the US Capital exploratory tests: “Everything is coming up roses”—meaning that they believe petroleum prospects in the park to be great.
SATIIM said it is joining forces with the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage and APAMO, as they call for a referendum so that the people of Belize can decide on the future of their country.
“Sign the petition at APAMO, The Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage and SATIIM and have your voice heard,” said Ch’oc.
Barrow saw a copy of the referendum petition, he said for the first time today, when our newspaper showed it to him. He told Amandala that he would, consequently, consider drumming up his supporters to vote “no” in the referendum, since it is not only limited to offshore drilling but also includes protected areas.
Barrow also stated that the results of the referendum would not be binding, and he expressed the view that the Coalition, while it may get the 17,000 signatures required to trigger the referendum, will have trouble getting 60% of voters to weigh in at the polls. He said that he is going to give a 3-month deadline for the Coalition to get the petition in.
As to the risk of a political fallout for ignoring referendum results, Barrow said that he does not believe a majority of people are against petroleum exploration both offshore and in protected areas. He is clearly inclined to accept that a majority of people may be against exploration offshore—and he told us today that he would not permit any offshore drilling before the next general elections in 2013.
However, his stance is not as cautious where protected areas onshore are concerned: “With the protected area, really, I am prepared to take my chance, because I think that SATIIM block, is very high potential and, man, I want [to] find more oil... but the offshore, man, why would I run that sort of a risk,” the Prime Minister commented.
This issue is clearly about to foment into a major people’s movement. According to the MLA and TAA, they, too, will join forces with the Coalition, as well as the Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO), Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA), and other groups that are united in the call to ban petroleum exploration inside protected areas and offshore.
It is clear, though, that the stance of the Maya also extends to what they deem to be ancestral lands—a position fiercely opposed by the government. Barrow forecasted Wednesday that the dispute over the lands claimed by the Maya will be litigated all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice.