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Alistair King, representative for US Capital Energy in Belize, told Amandala this evening that the company intends to pursue seismic work in the Maya village of Conejo, Toledo, because 32 of 33 men who work with the oil company have signed onto a letter giving their approval.
Village leaders had claimed that US Capital had cut a seismic trail through the village without their permission, and now US Capital, which had told us that they did it by mistake, intends to conduct seismic surveys on that line.
Speaking with our newspaper today, King refuted reports reaching our news desk last Thursday, February 2, that 23 villagers had been fired, in the midst of an impasse between the company and the village over the use of what they maintain is their ancestral lands.
“Nobody was fired,” King claimed categorically.
However, in a statement issued today, the Sarstoon-Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) reported that “José María Martínez sacked the workers at 10:30 on Thursday, 2 February.... The sackings amount to collective punishment for the village leadership’s insistence that the community decide together their response to the company’s activities, including its transgressions and ultimatums.”
Conejo chairman Enrique Makin had told Amandala on Friday that 23 people were fired because of the dispute over the seismic line running through Conejo. He said that the company “wanted our response in a [hurried] way,” but the villagers wanted to make a collective decision in the community meeting this weekend.
“They are trying to force us, the way how I see it,” said Makin.
After a meeting with the leaders Friday, SATIIM reported that, “Martínez had previously called Conejo’s alcalde (Eufemio Makin) and chairperson (Enrique Makin) to a meeting on Saturday 28 January at the Coral House Inn in Punta Gorda, where he had pressed the leaders to give an immediate answer as to whether the company could insert and detonate explosives on the seismic line, illegally opened on their land.”
SATIIM continued to report that Martínez had told the village leaders, “We’re in a hurry; we need to know urgently, to know if we need to divert. And if that happens, the people of Conejo will no longer have work.”
A community meeting held in the village yesterday, Sunday, was aborted, allegedly to avert a move by US Capital Energy to use that meeting to lobby for support for the company’s position.
Amandala has been told by both Makin and King today that the villagers, off work since Thursday, have gone back to work.
King told us that whether the villagers had agreed to let US Capital use the Conejo lands or not, the men of Conejo would have remained employed.
He said that when people are fired, they have to be paid benefits, and the fact that there was no payment last Thursday means that there was no firing.
He rebutted the claims of both Makin and SATIIM that the oil company had been muscling the villagers to enter into a unilaterally drafted agreement put to them by the oil company.
Whereas Makin said that the US Capital rep, Martin Choco, a Maya of Silver Creek, appeared with a letter already drafted to have the villagers sign, King claimed that the letter originated with the villagers.
Makin told us that usually only men show up at the community meetings, but when the community meeting was called at 3:00 yesterday, Sunday, they were really surprised to see the men, their wives and their children. The oil company convinced them to bring out their wives, he said.
“The workers were quarrelling with us. They don’t give us time to explain... They are saying we caused the dismissal,” said Makin.
He said that the workers were angry over a letter he and the village alcalde wrote US Capital, a letter also copied to the media, objecting to the fact that the company had run a seismic line through the village without their permission. US Capital had told our newspaper that they ran the line there in error.
However, King told us today that the company would like to progress with seismic testing on that line and intends to pursue that work this week.
Makin said that they are seeking legal advice, because the letter, with signatures obtained by US Capital, is not something which came out of the community meeting – those signatures were collected after the village leaders, realizing what was about to transpire, aborted the meeting and called an early adjournment on SATIIM’s advice.
King, the US Capital rep, told us, on the other hand, “Had it gone the other way – they didn’t sign, they would still have their job.”
King said that the company realizes that, because of the Supreme Court ruling of 2007, establishing customary land rights for the Maya in the village and restraining the government from granting permission for exploitation on the land without the consent of the villagers, that “the village has to say whether they can go in there or not.”
Asked what the company’s next step would be, King replied that they would continue with the seismic through Conejo.
He said that US Capital apparently has “enough community support.”
“Everybody that works in the village wants to continue” he told us, adding that he believes they will continue this week.
SATIIM Executive Director, Greg Ch’oc, told Amandala Friday, after meeting with Conejo leaders, that they have documented a chronology of the events that have transpired between the village and US Capital.
He spoke with us Friday afternoon after that meeting, and said the leaders had confirmed the firing of workers by US Capital.
Choc told us what has transpired is “an injustice” against Conejo.
“They are trying to push them to make a decision,” he said.
Asked what came of Sunday’s meeting, Choc, who told us he attended the meeting as an independent observer, said US Capital agents, led by Martin Choco, “are insisting they sign the agreement that they took with them.”
Choc said Choco “had a prewritten agreement read out to the community,” which did not mention the violation they committed by running an unauthorized seismic line through the village.
Those present at the meeting, said Choc, represented about 20-30% of villagers.
After the village leaders closed the meeting, said Choc, “People started to go and sign their signature. They signed the document.”
However, he noted, the alcalde was advocating for a collective stance on the issue.
Choc said that there have been reports that “some [villagers] were paid to be at that meeting,” although some stayed home.
Choc said he told Choco, who used to be with Kekchi Council of Belize, “What happened to what we used to work for in the past?” – meaning the rights of the Maya. He said that he asked Choco to look after the people’s interest, although he expressed his understanding that he has a job to do for the company.
“I cannot tell them they don’t need the job,” said Choc.
Choc said that the people were told, “If you sign the letter, everybody can go back to work tomorrow” – meaning today, Monday.
SATIIM said in its statement that US Capital is compounding one transgression with another.
Amandala tried to get an audience with Martin Choco, but up to press time, we have been unable to speak with him. We did leave our number with King, should Choco decide to give us his account of what has transpired.