The Judges of the Caribbean Court of Justice, the Belize's highest court of appeal, are in Belize for their first ever sitting in this country. They arrived on Saturday, and they will be hearing cases until Thursday.
One of the cases they hope to deal with in person is the Maya Communal Land Rights Case. As we've reported, former Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh ruled in 2007 and 2010 that the Mayans in 33 villages of Southern Belize have customary land rights over their ancestral lands. That's pretty much the same thing that the Court of Appeal affirmed in July of 2013, but they did not grant the relief that the Mayans were asking for. The Court ruled that the Government did not have to protect those rights by legislating their ownership with the Lands Department.
So, both sides decided to appeal since the Appeal Court's decision was not fully in either party's favor. That brings us to this week where the Court of Appeal has set aside 2 full days to hear what they expected to be a rigorous and intensive appeal. That's until this morning's case management conference, which was held in closed doors. That's when the Government attorneys Denys and Naima Barrow indicated to the court that they would settle most of the point in dispute with the Mayan litigants. We waited outside of court for an opportunity to speak with both sides about this unexpected settlement, and here's what they told us:
Denys Barrow, SC, Attorney for GOB
"There is settlement on almost all of the issues which were raised in this appeal and the only matter which remains outstanding is the issue of damages or compensation which the Mayas are claiming. I think a lot of the history of this litigation - a lot of the baggage stems from a failure to understand what the Supreme Court judgement has originally given, includes and encompasses. There is under one hand the view in the wider community that the Maya have been given the whole of the Toledo district. There is the view on the other hand that what has been given were simply recognition of the rights which the Mayas have as human beings and as persons who have a historic claim to the land or occupation of the land. so I think the fact of their physical occupation over the period that they have been there, would entitle them in the same way how in a different part of the country if someone has been living there, in government land for 30 years they have what we called 'squatters rights'."
Antoinette Moore, Attorney for Mayans
"We are coming to the same conclusion but through fundamentally different paths. So we are coming to the conclusion that yes, Maya people have rights to the land. Yes indeed those lands must be demarcated and ultimately titled, so that Maya people can have complete rights to those lands. Now the government wants to say it is not based on their indigeneity and we are saying that's not so. Now we put that dispute to the side basically because we are coming to same results, that the Maya people have lands. But I must say that this court is now in the order that's been entered by this court, is now affirming what the court of appeal said which affirmed what the Supreme Court said. And that is that the Maya people have rights to the land based on their indigeneity. So I do not accept whatsoever that the basis of this 'the squatters rights'."
So, what are the leaders of the Mayan Communities saying about this concession by the Government? Well, they told us that it is a welcomed outcome:
Christina Coc, Spokesperson, Maya Leaders Alliance
"We're ecstatic that the government has finally decided to get on the right side of history. All along for the last 30 years, we've been saying the same thing. Our position as a Maya people has never changed. We've continued to say that those lands that we currently use and occupy, that we've occupied for generations has been our home lands. And finally the government admits that we have been right all along. We have been right all along, they have not only admitted that, they've submitted and signed on to a commitment that says they're going to protect that. They have affirmed our rights to those lands and resources and they have agreed to protect that and so of course we are ecstatic. We've come a long way, our struggle has been quite the struggle."
Alfonso Cal, President, Toledo Alcalde Association
"Our brothers and sisters from Belize and throughout the breadth Belize can see our struggle. It takes a long time, but we are still fighting together, united together, and the others that didn't sign they were seeing that it is good. And now they feel that they didn't sign but, they feel that were protected by the land rights."
So, the main Belizean case which the CCJ was scheduled to hear has been reduced from 2 days to about 1 hour or so on Wednesday. As you heard, the final point being disputed by both sides is about damages that the Mayans are claiming for. We asked both sides for their position on this issue, and here's how they explained it:
Antoinette Moore, Attorney for Mayans
"The claim for damage is really our two-fold; one is, what we call Pecuniary or actual damages that were suffered by one particular village and this was in 2008 which really prompted the second case being brought on. When an outside individual claim to have lease to lands in a Maya village came in and bulldozed the crops of several villagers. And so those persons in that village and ultimately that village suffered damages. And we have claimed for that as well as a general damages for all of the villages really having to fight all these years for rights that they've always had. And that the government simply failed to either recognize or recognize and then failed to protect."
Denys Barrow, SC - Attorney for GOB
"Government is saying that government is not liable to pay any damages and that any damages which should be paid for a particular injury done should have been claimed against the person who did the damage and not government."
We'll be there on Wednesday for the outcome of that abridged appeal, and we'll update you accordingly.