For the past two days we’ve been telling you about the lawsuit that SATIIM has taken out against US Capital Energy and the Government of Belize. To a large extent, it is based on the judgments coming out of the Supreme Court in 2007 and 2010, when Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh found that the Mayans in 33 villages of Southern Belize have customary land rights over their ancestral lands. That judgment was vigorously appealed by the Barrow Administration in 2011 at the court of appeal. Two years have passed and no judgment was handed down. But yesterday, quite unexpectedly, just as new matters were about to overtake it, the Court of Appeal announced that it was ready with its judgment.
Clocking in at 198 pages, it’s one of the longest we’ve ever come across, and, who wins, who loses? Well, the experts say it’s what might be called “cocks” – in a game of “jacks,” there’s no clear winner and no clear loser.
So, the members of the Mayan community who came to court today listened intently after the session to a quick interpretation by their legal team.
Afterwards, they exited the court, and we asked their lead attorney to give a brief explanation of decision, accepting the limitation that they couldn’t possibly had digested 198 pages, and 66 thousand words in only a few minutes.
Here’s how attorney Antoinette Moore explained it:
Antoinette Moore - Attorney for the Maya Leaders Alliance
"The first thing I have to say is that the decision is 198 pages so obviously having just gotten it in my hands, I have yet the time to read it through - digest it, really what it means fully. I have no idea of the reasoning behind the decision - only what the decision is and so I can tell you that to the degree that I have read but I can't tell you much more than that. I believe next week I can tell you that. Certainly what was said in court was that grounds 1 and 2 - which I will explain - we were successful on (‘we’ being the Maya community). We were not successful on grounds 3, 4 & 5 - putting it the other way - the government who brought the appeal, because they lost at the Supreme Court - was unsuccessful in grounds 1 and 2. Which is essentially are the grounds that affirm indigenous land rights and land tenure by the Maya community in Southern Belize and that is the essential part of the case really and so the Maya Villages were successful in that and the Government was unsuccessful in that. Obviously we're very pleased about that outcome. The remainder of the judgment is the practical part that comes after acknowledging and affirming those land rights - what should happen? The then Chief Justice Conteh had ordered that the government implement a titling or some type of process to document the land rights, just as people have titles to their land - the Maya people have no form of title to document the ownership of the land. So when Chief Justice Conteh ordered that the government some type of administrative process - the majority of this court is saying that the government has no duty to do that. The other practical aspect of the case after affirming the land rights was the then Chief Justice ordering the government of Belize from taking any action or allowing any third party from taking any action that would impair the enjoyment or the use of the Maya people's land. Now this court -the majority decision has said that the government is not under an obligation to do that. So the way we have interpreted it - in the last ten minutes although very briefly - is that this court is affirming the land rights which is very good but they are saying that the government does not have the duty essentially to protect those land rights. I would say it's very likely that we will go to the CCJ, I would also say that it's very likely that the government will wish to go to the CCJ on the part of the appeal that they lost."
"What is your reaction to the decision?"
Gregorio Choq - Executive Director, SATIM
"It's bittersweet I think - at least the court has affirmed that we have rights to the land, that we are owners to the land and that we have rights to those lands as properly defined under the constitution. So in terms of the rights, I believe that we can proceed to protect those rights even if the government doesn't see it fit."
"So will you be taking advice in terms of the possibility for certain constitutional rights?"
"Absolutely, this is not the end here - we are going to take this definitely to the CCJ."
Practical Significance Of Judgment? So, that’s the situation; the Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the rights of the Indigenous Maya communities of the south. But, it has reversed the orders by Former CJ Conteh, effectively removing the obligations of the Government to protect those rights.
And interestingly enough, the Court agreed with GOB’s arguments that in line with the Petroleum Act, the Mines and Minerals Act, and the Forest Act, the Government retains ownership and control of any lands where natural resources and minerals are found after exploration has been done. Their grievance was that Former CJ Conteh failed to take proper judicial notice of these laws and their implications.
That is significant because US Capital Energy wants to conduct oil exploration within the Sarstoon Temash National Park, and SATIIM is trying to block them with an injunction, which is yet to be scheduled for hearing.
In that context, the media asked attorney Antoinette Moore about the implications of the judgment on this and other matters which surround the lands which the Maya Communities are claiming.
Here’s how that conversation went:
Antoinette Moore - Attorney for the Maya Leaders Alliance
"At the time I don't think I can say very much in terms of that. The court of appeal meets every March, June and October - those are the sessions, however they can meet out of session for any reason to deliver a judgment that perhaps wasn't ready in June - they can meet at any time. Obviously there are some interesting issues around the timing because I have filed an application for contempt which is to be heard on Monday with respect to this very judgment, with contempt with the government not obeying the court order. So we shall see what will happen on Monday and I can see why you asked that question, I don't think I have a good answer for you thought."
"Being as dynamic as of late, how do you move forward - that you have a judgment in your favor in essence but things can change rather quickly."
"I think it's a question for the Mayan community - the issues of the Rosewood extraction that comes directly from Maya lands - the issue of US Capital that is directly on Maya lands and preventing people from moving about in their own property. There are - as you said - many dynamic issues right on the ground and I think that this is going to be an ongoing, unfolding process that we are all going to have to observe. I have obviously advised my clients in respect to the law."
Explaining the time and long delay, the President of the Court of Appeal unreservedly apologized to the litigants explaining that this case was particularly complex and time-consuming. Looking at the length of their judgment, it would seem exactly that, but also, the President also explained that recently, the Appeal Court has been called upon to deal with an increase in complex cases such as this on.
It is also notable that in his conclusion, Justice of Appeal Morrison was of the opinion that Governments to come must recognize that in Belize’s history, all forms of governments past have respected the claims to land by the Maya people. He said, quote,
“The Ten-Point Agreement, as well as Act 2 of 2001, which closely followed it, are both of a piece, in my view, with what has in fact been a historic tendency towards recognition of the rights of the Maya. It is to be hoped that this tendency will continue beyond this litigation.” End Quote.
Past information on this legal action....