CCJ Settles Communal Land Rights Case; Crowds Inside and Outside Court
The courtroom of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin was filled to capacity this morning for a session of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Observers, both
from the general public and the legal community, crowded in to hear arguments made in the Maya Customary Lands Rights case, which was argued before the
Caribbean Court of Justice.
But, before that case could begin, the Court delivered the consent order which was entered into by the Mayan claimants and the Government of Belize.
The court formally declared that the judgment of the Court of Appeal is affirmed meaning that Maya Customary Land Rights exist. The court also formally
accepted Government's undertaking to develop - in consultation with the Mayans - the necessary administrative and legal steps to protect those land
rights. That will include land ownership rights at the Lands Department, and any other agreed upon terms between the Mayan communities and the
A very important portion of the consent order is that the Government has to consult with the Mayan people about how outside persons or entities will
get permission to exploit resources inside Maya Customary Lands. The Government cannot grant concessions, permits, for resource exploitation - such as
logging permits and oil exploration concessions, and land titles - without first consulting with the Villages which own that land. Notably, the court
also declared that it retrains the jurisdiction to supervise that the Government commitments are carried out. It has set April 30, 2016 as day when the
litigants will report back to the court as to progress of the implementation of Customary Land Rights System.
Outside of court, we spoke with the new Executive Director of SATIIM - she said that it is a great victory for the Mayans:
Froyla Tzalam - Executive Director of SATIIM
"If you listen to a lot of the arguments as SATIM has done previously with Greg as spokes person and leading the legal charge, it's a vindication.
We're very happy with the results. I'm sure if Greg was here he would be saying the same thing, it's what has been argued all along. It's an
affirmation of our rights and because of that, if we are the owners of our land, we must be party to any thing that happens to our property. We have
never asked for squatters rights, we are not squatters, we're indigenous people, aboriginal people and certainly the judgment that was read out today
made no mention of squatters. So I am definitely agree with how the judge pronounced his judgement."
"Do you believe there is room for Maya and non Maya to exist and live peacefully and together?"
"I think your question has 2 answers. First of all, it is the recognition of customary land ownership within the Maya communities. If you have other
non Mayas living within that area, then that would have to also bring their rights under the customary land system. They should be no reason why you
couldn't have one or the other or why you only have to have one. I believe that the fact customary land ownership now is going to be a legal system,
it's going to be legalised is a step in the right direction.'
"How would you answer to those critics who say that because of this case coming out the way it has been decided, it has created a special interest
group? Because Mayas in Toledo have such a large control now based on the way the legal arguments have been decided - but there are other persons
living in Toledo as well."
"Again, I think your question is very similar to what Aron is asking. Where do we go from here? And I think we can only answer that when we start to
implement the system."
With that judgment finally declared, Antoinette Moore, attorney for the Mayan Claimants, began outlining her submissions on why the Mayans deserve
damages for all the years when their customary land rights were ignored.
She went back to the mid 90's in which the Government of the day granted logging permits for approximately 500,000 acres of land sitting within the 38
villages belonging to the Mayans. She also focused on the concessions that the Government entered into with companies such as US Capital Energy for
resource exploitation within the Mayan Customary Lands. She also pointed out how lease holders who received their documents from the Lands Department
forced Mayan villagers off their property and destroyed their lands to make way for whatever development they intended to use the land for. She
submitted that her clients were entitled to damages for 20 years of struggle against the Government's indifference to protect their rights, which
created these incursions until customary land.
Denys Barrow, attorney for the Government of Belize responded that the Government is not liable for any damages, and that any damages which were done
against the Mayans should be sought against the persons who committed them. Additionally, Barrow submitted to the court that the level of damages
sought has only grown now because of the outcome of the consent order, and it was not being pressed for before this. He vigorously objected to these
damages be granted because it would be, in his opinion, unfair to be exposed to this new claim. Also, Barrow submitted that the court should not grant
an award of damages against the Government based on untested allegations of who owned the land in question.
After the case, we spoke with both attorneys:
Denys Barrow - Attorney for GOB
"Position of the government is that in relation to golden stream, a claim should have been brought against the man who they say did the damage and
question whether the land belonged to that man or to the Maya village needed to have been determined in the course of court proceedings properly
brought. So government says, not a penny for that. We did not do anything, we are not even sure if that land was owned by Mr. Johnson as he claimed or
owned by Mr. Cal and they claim. So that is something government should not pay for. In relation the matter of moral damage, there is the fact that
Belize is not owned now, is not controlled now by the descendants of the European invaders and conquerers. It is we, all of us who are here right now
who own Belize. I lay the point that they Maya are not entitled to damages for the privation of their rights, for the oppression which they have
suffered any more than the Africans, they other Indian persons, East Indians, Garifuna, Mestizo, everybody. So everybody has a claim against the
colonial system, which we inherited upon independence. It is now at the stage where, these claims have been brought forward and government is in a
position and it has magnificently done - to say, you know what? Let us give the Maya their wise and put their system of land ownership on a legal
statutory legislative footing. So this is what government has agreed to do. Government should not be made to pay, you and I should not be made to pay
any damages to the Maya for the wrongs they have suffered through the years.”
While that was happening in court, outside on the ground the Maya people were protesting. A crowd of people from communities and villages in the south
came out with their signs and posters making known their demand for land. But the issue is not that simple. It is a highly divisive issue with the
National Mopan Maya Council demanding individual land rights on one side and the leader of the Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcalde Association
embracing the communal land victory on the other side. We met with the groups this morning at the Battlefield Park and got the account from two sides
of the spectrum.
Candido Chun - Vice Chairman, National Mopan Maya Council
"We are here for individual land title, we want land title. Once you have land title, you have security. We do not have land, we need individual land
"And the communal land will present more challenges for you all?"
"Of course, yes, exactly so. This communal system is old fashioned, this thing is not working for the Mayas, it's not making it. What we need is
individual land title, that's what we're here for."
Edgar Cal - Village Council Chairperson, Santa Elena
"We want, I want my land title. That is why we're here suffering under this hot sun and we will be waiting what the court ruling and we are not
agreeing with communal land. As Cristina is predicting saying she is Maya Leaders Alliance but we haven't elected her, she is not elected by the
people. She and her husband are running an organisation as a business. The reason why I say as a business is that, they are not bring to us the
financial statement, how they are paying their lawyer, how they are getting here to this court, that's why we are here and we are showing them and we
want to show them that yes, we are not supporting communal land."
Hellen Cagbon - Secretary NMMC, Santa Cruz
"Cristina doesn't attend meetings to our villages. She only have meetings with the claimants and then we don't have any idea of how she spend the money
or where the money is being spent."
Cristina Coc - Spokesperson, Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcalde Association
"The Maya people that are standing here around me right now and if you look at the faces here, we are not here to fight the government anymore. All the
struggle and fight over whether or not the Maya people own those lands. Whether or not those lands are the property of the Maya people. That issue has
been put to rest. The court now for several years, the supreme court of Belize, twice. The inter-American commission, the court of appeals, and now the
highest court in this land, that we answer to, the Caribbean court of Justice has affirmed that Maya people in southern Belize, practice a unique
system of land tenure. And arising from that practice, from the use and occupation of those lands gives us rights to the land that we currently use and
occupy. It has affirmed our rights as Maya people to those lands. So that question of whether or not we want leases or we want to own our land
communally or we want to have title - those lands belong to the Maya people."
"Unfortunately my brothers and sisters on the other side are very confused, they don't realise that they too have won. Even though, they're very
confused on how they have won. If you look around me right now, you're looking at the faces of men and women, who are traditional leaders in 38 of our
Maya communities. These are not people that are looking after their own individual interests. These are people that are looking at safe guarding the
interest of each and every member of their communities. Within our communal and collective ownership of our land, there is individual derivative rights
to property. The people on the other side are very confused because, within the rights we have to these lands, those people have the same protection
for their own individual land if that is what they seek. Only now, they don't have to subscribe to the government to ask for permission to lease those
lands. They need to go to the authority, which is their community by a collective majority to seek and register their interest in those lands."
So we took it back to the other side - to the anti-communal land group and asked if indeed, they were the ones confused or misinformed. they told us
that it is not a question of bewilderment but of upholding basic human rights.
Dalia Sho - Pueblo Viejo Resident
"It is not a matter of confused ma'am if I may respond to that. It's a matter of us being respected. First of all, we shouldn't have been here because
as a Belizean, we have that right, we're entitled to own a piece of land in any part of this country. For example, I can live in any part of this
country and own a piece of land but what will become of my people, my Maya people, who are afraid or ashamed being miseducated about a piece of land.
Have they told our people what is the benefit of owning a titled land? Have they told the people the advantage and disadvantages of being in a communal
land? That's what I want them to educate my people."
"Looking at the scene out here, there is a clear division here. How does this scene now affect the over all image of the Maya community? That image of
unity. Because as you see, there's a clear divide here."
"It looks like a segregation yes, but I must say, we are here because we have been disrespected in the sense that out rights - our human rights have
been violated because of false representation, misrepresentation."
Herminio Sho - Pueblo Viejo Resident
"One of my main reason for be here is, is to represent the people who have been misinformed in terms of this communal land issue. We have people here
that are out here both sided. If you look at it, we're one people, we want to call ourselves indigenous people but trust me, this is not kind of
indigenous thing. People have a voice, and I think people need to voice the opinion they have in mind.”
The CCJ has reserved its decision on the question of whether or not the Mayan Claimants are due any damages that they have now claimed.
Press Conference To Reflect On Gains
After the case, the Maya Leaders in support of the decision held an impromptu press conference at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel.
We attended, and here's what they had to say a few hours ago:
Alfonso Cal - President, TAA
"I'm glad, you know why? Because the majority is with me. The majority is with us. The community is seeing now what we are achieving. We have come so
far but they're yet to go. But we pray god - that god will help us because we are people not fighting with gun or machete but with justice. Our rights,
we have our mouth, we need to speak. That's why I'm not ashamed today, for 3 decades; I start when I was young and up to this date, I'm really happy to
see my people, that they were with us together."
Martin Chen - Chairman, MLA
"Today, the world knows what we are doing here in the country of Belize. It's not only Belize, the world knows why we are here today. So, I must thank
you all for coming. I know some of us wake up. I was taking my bathe in the river, 1 o'clock this morning. I got on the road side 3 o'clock in the
morning. Maybe some of us get tired and depressed - but we need to be here today. So, I must thank you all, ladies and gentlemen, who are here today
with us. Like Mr. Cal said yes, we have some little group on the side that don't like us. They do not understand what we are struggling for. But like
Mr. Cal said, we are fighting the cause them and also - not only for us here, for every Maya."
Cristina Coc - Spokesperson, MLA
"For us, what is important is that the government finally admits that they were wrong. This land is in fact ours, we have never changed that position -
that has always been what we have asserted as Maya people. And yes, there was no need to be dragged from one court to the next, but we endured, we
started as a people, a one people - and we are here today as one people. And everybody said, how in the world can the Maya people challenge this
government to court? We had never been to the courtrooms, all we know is our Alcalde Cabildo. But today, this whole world, all of Belize, all of
southern Belize is looking up to you as you lead. And know that yes in fact authority can be challenged when they are wrong - and justice can be served
if you remain united as a people."
Antoinette Moore - Attorney for Mayan Claimants
"You had courage, and it's quite, humble, strong courage and I've have learned from that. I've learned from your patience. Even sitting here waiting
for us to come upstairs, patience over years and years and years of going to meetings, coming to court, travelling from Toledo to Belize City. I've
learned from your patience, I've grown from watching how you, as a people have operated.”
This afternoon, the PUP sent out a release congratulating the the Mayans for the victory before the CCJ today. They reminded that it was a PUP
administration, which signed an agreement with the Mayans of Southern Belize. That agreement was called "Ten Points of Agreement" which stated, quote,
"The government recognizes that the Maya People have rights to lands and resources in Southern Belize, based on their long standing use and occupancy."
Effect of Mayan Communal Land Rights Ruling For US Capital Energy?
At the top of the news, we gave a blow by blow of today’s huge appeal case, which was heard by the Caribbean Court of Justice in Belize today. So, what
effect does this consent order have on the case brought by the Mayans against the Government of Belize because it granted an oil exploration permit to
US Capital Energy?
Viewers may remember that US Capital has a permit to explore for oil inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park, which the Mayans say that the Government
granted to them without consultation within the Mayan communities. They asserted that this was especially important because if, by some misfortune, the
Temash Drill site were somehow to get out of control and there is a spill or some sort of environmental hazard emerged, they would be the ones directly
impacted by a decision they had no say in. It also sparked great controversy when the claimants harshly criticized the government for its decision to
extend that permit by waiving the expiration date last year after the case ended up before the Supreme Court.
The last we heard of that case was that it was to have been taken through the process of court ordered mediation. We asked SATIIM's Executive Director
for an update, as well as her opinion of how this victory before the CCJ could possibly affect that case. The main issue in that case, is whether or
not the Government was correct to grant that permit without consultation with the Mayans. This new consent order delivered today says that the
Government cannot make any sort of decisions, such as this permit, without involving the Mayans in that decision. Froyla Tzalam told us this afternoon
that SATIIM will look at the judgment in the context of that permit to US Capital that they are challenging:
Froyla Tzalam - Executive Director of SATIIM
"It's not that we're anti-oil development or any kind of development but what ever happens in our land, must be done with out full consent. Not the
consent that's being carried out as we know as, according to many of the communities, where it's just a quick meeting, an hour the most, names are
collected and that's it. That's not consent, that's just a collection of signatures. For us, we can only continue - you ask the question about the case
we have at hand. Unfortunately, it has almost seem to have died a natural death. Certainly, the vindication of judgment will serve to refuel some of
the arguments that we would want to look at. Where do we go from here? What options do we have? To me, the glass is really three quarters full."
Denys Barrow - Attorney for GOB
"This is also a point that I made to the court, that consultation is not required to be held with the 38 villages, with the umbrella organisation - the
Toledo Alcalde Association, the Maya Leaders Alliance, etc. Consultation is to be held with the affected village because it is not all 38 villages
which will be affected. If the affected village want to have assistance report representation from the umbrella organisations, it is entirely open to
them to seek that. But we need to be clear who government need to negotiate with, who's consent it must get and it is not it must get the consent of
the whole world. After that first permit was granted, the one which was challenged - government went and consulted with Sunday Wood village. Full, two
times they consulted with the entire village and got their consent.”
So, what’s up with the oil explorations at the Sarstoon Temash Drill Pad? Has US Capital pulled out? That was the subject of an article in the weekend
Issue of the Amandala Newspaper, which reports that the company has packed up its drill rig and shipped it back to Mexico.
We asked SATIIM’s Executive Director if they have any information on the status of the operations at the Temash Drill pad. Here’s what she told us:
"You know anything about the current status of the US capital exploration at the Temash Drill pad? Had that continued? Has it seized? Is it stalled?
What is happening with that as far as SATIM is aware?"
"The information has come to us, is that they have currently stop drilling and this would be the second time they have stopped drilling at A1 drill
site. I believe they are to start in 3 months time. One reason I've officially given is the fact that the poisonous gas was being released. The other
unofficial reason and I think is the more fundamental reason is that investors are pulling out. You all are aware there is a global oil slump in
prices. I believe that US capital is being affected just like all other exploration companies around the world. Investors are biding, they're waiting
their time to see what happens - but to answer the question, have they stopped? No, they're just in pause. What does this judgement mean for us? I
believe that we will have to look at. Certainly as you're aware, the permit had been extended to them for one more year. We would have to look at the
legal status of where they are and align it with this current judgement."
The Amandala quotes Alistair King, the representative of US Capital Energy in Belize, as saying “It’s not over until it’s over!” That’s because they
will be allowed to drill deeper to check out the geological formations and find out if oil can be extracted in commercial quantities.
Commentary: The court ruling on the Maya land case in Belize will also impact Garifuna
By Wellington C. Ramos
Long before the Europeans came to the Caribbean, Americas and other parts of the world, people and nations were living in peace in their respective territories on this planet earth. History tells us that it was not only the Europeans that were roaming this planet committing atrocities against other people and nations in the beginning but several other nations as well.
However, when we examine the nature of the atrocities that were committed against people and nations before the new world order was established in 1945, they are guilty of the most genocide and violations of human rights. Many of these occurred during the colonization of the world, when they went to all the continents and established their brutal rule by force with no regard to the indigenous people and nations.
The establishment of the United Nations, World Court and other international institutions, gives people and nations the opportunity to seek redress and reparations for all the atrocities committed against their people and nation. Some of these indigenous people and nations have sought redress in national and international courts but have been denied justice.
The feeling by the governments of these countries is that, if they were to grant them redress, it would set a bad precedent for other indigenous people and nations to bring more cases against them. Many indigenous people and nations are extinct from this planet because of the atrocities committed against them by Europeans and their subsequent governments.
For those who still exist today, like the Mayas in Belize, Central America and the Garifuna people in St Vincent and the Grenadines, only God knows how they still exist. The Spanish and the British came to torture, kill, imprison and displace these people. A significant amount of their men, women and children were killed. Today, in the countries of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua atrocities and human rights violations are still occurring.
The governments of all countries in the world have the power to ignore or totally disregard the rulings from the national, regional and international courts. This has been happening in this case with the Mayas in Belize for years now. Another issue is the role of the political parties and the lawyers in this case. It appears to me as if when the UDP are in power the PUP lawyers aggressively go after the government and when the PUP are in control of the government the UDP lawyers do the same.
It was clear that both the UDP and the PUP were inclined not to grant the Mayas their customary land rights. This may have motivated the Mayas finally to take their case to the Caribbean Court of Justice for final resolution. All they were doing was playing politics to get the Mayan votes and keep them divided. The failure by both of these political parties to act based on the court rulings is enough evidence for anyone to come to this conclusion.
Both the UDP and the PUP are afraid that the Mayas will be given special rights to their land that other Belizeans do not have. The fact is that these indigenous people had these rights centuries before the British, Spanish and Belize government claimed Belize to establish their control.
This may have motivated the Mayas finally to make the right decision to take their case to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which is Belize’s highest court. It will be left to be seen if the UDP administration will now abide by the court ruling. If they do not, the Mayas will take Belize to the International Court of Justice for final resolution.
Belize cannot afford to have the Guatemalan claim and the Maya claim cases going before the world court because it will appear that these people are fighting for something that does not even belong to them. It is better to settle with the Mayas than to play hardball, because it will only get worse later on.
Now that the Mayas have won their case, it is time for the Garifuna people, organizations and the National Garifuna Council to bring their case to retrieve all the Garifuna Reserves that were granted to the Garifuna people by the British government when they landed in Belize. Even the Mennonites in Belize have rights to their lands and no Belizean can go to their communities and do as they please.
Over the years the governments of Belize have used eminent domain to take some of these lands for public use, village and town expansion without consulting the Garifuna people. The officers of the National Garifuna Council at the time went along with all of the government’s land grabs. Let us see if the new officers in this current organization will do the same thing.
If the National Garifuna Council (NGC) does not take advantage of this ruling, other Garifuna organizations in Belize and abroad will be forced to do something on behalf of their people to protect their lands. We who live in the southern parts of Belize cannot go anywhere else to control and claim land. The people in the north and west will never allow us to do that. The land availability in the north and west is becoming less due to population growth, village and town expansion, the cane farming and other industries.
When those lands are all used up, these people will be coming to the south to take or buy lands from our people who are desperate for money. We have some people among us who like to say that they will take our land because we are not doing anything with it. Yes, we have land but no machines or capital to do some constructive things with our lands.
The constant depriving us of capital by our governments to develop the land is a policy that works to the other people’s advantage to buy our land from us for little money. Then they label the people in the south as lazy and beggars. Even some of our own people, do not understand the Belize’s government policies towards the south and the impact it has on poverty in the southern part of Belize.
I now call on all Garifuna men and women in Belize and abroad to ask the National Garifuna Council of Belize to address the Garifuna Reserves in the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts. This issue has remained quiet for too long. Some of our people in Belize would like to address this issue but they are afraid of losing their jobs and other repercussions that will follow. To them I say have no fear because the spirits of our ancestors will be with you all throughout your struggles and they have never abandoned us.
The first thing we need is an inventory of all Garifuna lands in the south. The Lands Department has a map and we should get it now to see where the lands are and what their current status is. If any of those lands were sold to any individual or individuals without our written consent and approval, we will demand that the government of Belize revoke those titles. They will then be issued the same amount of land elsewhere. We know what to do about our problems and we are going to do what is needed to be done.
The Caribbean Court affirmed that these traditional land rights, belonging to 38 Maya villages in Belize’s Toledo District, constitute property as defined in the provisions of the Belize Constitution that generally protects property free from discrimination.
High Court Orders Belize to Recognize and Protect Maya Traditional Property and Rights
On April 19th the Caribbean Court of Justice announced its judgment affirming the 2013 holding of the Court of Appeal of Belize that the Maya indigenous people of southern Belize have rights to the lands they customarily have used and occupied for many generations.
In the judgment, the court affirmed that these traditional land rights, belonging to 38 Maya villages in Belize’s Toledo District, constitute property as defined in the provisions of the Belize Constitution that generally protects property free from discrimination.
The court's judgment, which was entered by consent of Maya parties in the case and the Government of Belize, will require the government to demarcate and officially register Maya communal lands, and protect them against incursions by outsiders. The Court accepted the government’s undertaking to adopt the necessary “legislative, administrative and/or other measures” to that end and, in the meantime, to refrain from and prevent acts that would adversely affect Maya land rights. The Court also ordered that, in 12 months, both the Maya communities and the Government present a report about implementation of the judgment.
"This judgment of the Caribbean Court of Justice sets an important precedent worldwide, building upon ever-greater recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples internationally," said Professor James Anaya who has been involved with the case since 1996 as the chief architect of the legal strategy. Anaya is an internationally known legal scholar and advocate and was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2008-2014.
Anaya explained that the judgment "reinforces the international standard that Indigenous Peoples have collective property rights based on their own customary land tenure systems, even when they do not have a formal title or other official recognition of those rights, and that states are bound to recognize and protect those rights."
He further noted that, “the case sets an important precedent for understanding that such traditional indigenous property rights are protected by the constitutions and laws across the world that generally protect property.”
Anaya also pointed out that the Caribbean Court of Justice decision followed a 2004 report issued by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) that found Belize in violation of its international human rights obligations for failing to recognize and protect Maya customary land tenure. Although the Government mostly ignored the IACHR findings, the same report helped bolster the Maya claim and was referred to in lower court decisions that were then affirmed by the Caribbean Court of Appeals.
For representatives of the Maya communities that have been fighting for their rights for decades, the recent court decision, which was consistent with the IACHR findings, was very good news.
"We have had to grovel before these courts for more than 30 years," said Alfonso Cal, the top traditional leader for the Mayan people.
"But now we are happy that the highest court has stood again with my people by putting Belize on the road towards the right side of history," Cal asserted.
Cristina Coc, a spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance said that the court's judgment provides Belize with another opportunity to rewrite its relationship with the first peoples of the country. She stated that the struggle of the Maya people was also for all of the marginalized people of Belize and the world.
"We're hoping that the courts in this country and elsewhere will do the same thing," Anaya added, noting also that many courts throughout the Americas are looking at precedents in dealing with indigenous rights to territory and resources.
"Belize is in a crossroads right now, and it has a chance to reverse the history of denial of rights to Mayan people," he said.
"And it is incumbent upon international agencies and donor countries that they support Belize as they move forward with judgments to recognize Mayan peoples rights," Anaya said.