There is trouble brewing in the South. U.S. Capital Energy is providing jobs in the small community of Conejo. Employment prospects are hard to come by but many villagers are upset because despite assurances, seismic testing is taking place on land that should be protected. Is it a mistake on the behalf of U.S. Capital? News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed to the Mayan Village of Conejo and files this report.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Oil prospecting in the south, despite the economic opportunities it affords a handful of residents, is a contentious matter that has divided the Maya community within the Toledo District. On one end the provision of jobs is generating much needed income for some two hundred and thirty-six men and women employed by U.S. Capital Energy Ltd. On the other are concerns being raised that the company is conducting seismic testing illegally within the confines of territory that is considered off-limits.

Conejo is one such village. In 2007 the Supreme Court recognized its Maya Customary Land Title. The ruling prohibited the issuance of permits for oil exploration in that area. Soon thereafter a boundary, fifteen feet in width, was delineated to separate other communities inside the Sarstoon/Temash National Park, a region of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest. Recently, it was discovered that a seismic trail had been cut across the borderline into Conejo.

Pablo Makin

Pablo Makin, Village Council Secretary, Conejo

“There’s a SATIIM ranger that spoke to the village leader, that’s the chairman, mentioning to him that there’s a company seismic line that comes all the way to Midway and enters the Conejo communal land. So the information came from him and he mentioned it to the chairman so the chairman came to me and informed [asked] me if I didn’t have a time to go with the ranger to patrol the line.”

What they found is a path littered with orange and pink markers dissecting a portion of their land. A gang of fieldworkers have prepared a route which would later be used to conduct seismic testing in the area. After traversing waist-high water the team chopped and cleared the existing vegetation before drilling deep into the earth. A charge would then be placed thirty-two feet below the surface and the subsequent explosion measured and recorded.

The entire process is done using a Global Positioning System to ensure accuracy as well as the direction of lines drawn. Questions have been raised as to whether this line was placed here intentionally. Greg Ch’oc, Executive Director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, doesn’t believe that this is an accident.

Greg Ch’oc, Executive Director, SATIIM

Greg Ch’oc

“Absolutely not. There is no way you can claim ignorance when you are using this kind of technology and tools because they are as accurate as you can make them to be and the line that you have seen clearly demonstrates that these lines were deliberately cut and they knew what they were doing.”

Overhead, a helicopter transporting mechanical equipment passes by. Since there are no roads in this vast, protected wilderness the chopper serves as the beast of burden, carrying man and machine to their designated location. Activity is constant. Despite protest that exploration in the reserve is illegal P.M. Barrow has gone on record to say that the company is acting under a license.

Dean Barrow

Dean Barrow [File: December 16th, 2011]

“The exploration activities, the seismic activities, whatever that are taking place, those activities are taking place under a contract, under a PSA, under a license that is legal, under a license that confers certain rights on the U.S. Capital Energy. You know that way back when the question of the legality of some aspects of that license and the regime went to court and the court made a decision so that what has been happening since that time is entirely consistent with our laws.”

For its mistake U.S. Capital, through one of its representatives, has proposed restitution. According to Enrique Makin, accepting compensation now may lead to a much bigger issue should oil be discovered in Conejo.

Enrique Makin, Village Council Chairman, Conejo

Enrique Makin

“So we met with him and [he] was asking us permission to do the drilling on this line and asking us what they [the villagers] need to compensate the village [since] the line has already passed [through our land], you know.”

Responsibility, says Ch’oc, should also be accepted by the government since the Ministry of Natural Resources failed to make certain that a proper map identifying the location of the seismic line was utilized during the exercise.

Greg Ch’oc

“When you look at the plan, the map that they submitted to the Forestry Department the line clearly shows line number eight coming from the bank of the Sarstoon River all the way into Conejo. I think that I also take task at government, they should have ensured that U.S. Capital Energy provide a map with the seismic line on a topographical map. That provides geo-reference so that anybody looking at the map could and would be able to see where those lines are in relation to the boundaries of the community.”

What is to happen as a result of this error remains to be seen; however the village is seeking legal counsel to determine if indeed compensation is an option going forward. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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