REPORT #489 May 2002

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

MAYAN, Valentino Shal, REPLACES alleged ASSASSINATED MAYAN LEADER JULIAN CHO, in the Southern Hill Country of Belize in publicizing issues of interest to 15,000 Maya! This is ONE SUCH LAND ISSUE!

by Valentino Shal

The Toledo District, Belize, is home to approximately 15,000 Mopan and Qe╠ qchi Mayas who have consistently occupied the area mostly as subsistence farmers. These Mayas being the descendant of the Mayas who once occupied the entire Meso-America are now being marginalized because of unsecured landholdings. The Maya of Belize make up about 11% of the nation╠s entire population and the majority of them have no legal title to the land they use and occupy.

This situation has given rise to new difficulties including the retardation of their development. Politicians have repeatedly used the land to gain favors and to punish those suspected to be in opposition effectively denying indigenous people and Belizeans in general their rights to their land. Major developments such as the construction of the Southern Highway provide easy access now to outsiders to claim land in the area. Construction of a new highway connecting the Southern Highway to the border with Guatemala is an additional concern to the security of the land presently under Maya occupation. This highway will go through the heart of the Mayan territory as it makes its way to the border. Very few people have legal recognition of their landholdings in the area of the proposed highway like the rest of the district. How long will this situation go unresolved?


The Maya people of Toledo, over the years have become familiar with two types of landholdings; the reservation system and the lease. The reservation allows the community to hold the land collectively and its members use whatever area they see fit. Many people prefer this type of arrangement because of the method of milpa farming that is practiced. Since slash and burn agriculture requires shifting cultivation, the reservation provides ample space, or no limitations to movement. On the other hand, the lease system does not allow for much movement but it provides certainty that some people desire. However, there are people who have leases who still move to work in unleased areas (reservation) to do their farming. There are a couple reasons for this. One is that many farmers plant during the dry season a corn crop called the matahambre and this is done usually on the banks of streams and rivers where there is low bush that does not require burning. Those farmers who do this usually have their leases inland, away from the rivers and other water bodies. The other reason is the leased area they have might not be suitable for their type of crop and will then move to a more suitable area.

Having land in the ¤reservationË does not require parceling of land or surveying the land into blocks. An area to be used for this year╠s crop is simply measured and cleared. The measurements are to help the farmer in knowing the size of his farm not necessarily to establish his claim on that piece of land. After the harvest is complete the area is then left to regenerate. Leased land requires the parcels to be surveyed and once this is done some people feel a sense of loss while others feel a sense of gain.

There are Maya communities in Toledo whose lands are parceled out among the villagers into different sizes. For example: Silver Creek and Big Falls. In contrast, there are other communities who do not want their community land to be parceled. They want their village boundary demarcated and land inside then is held under their ownership. It is likely that sooner or later the communities who today prefer communal holdings will want individual parcels. What needs to be done is to secure their interest today so that when they change, land will be available to them. They too will then be secured today and for the future. The fact that collectively held lands are not parceled must not be interpreted to mean that it presents a chaotic situation. There are traditional management systems in place much to the ignorance of the state. Nonetheless, all communities want their boundaries demarcated whether they prefer lease or communal ownership or a combination of the two.

There are people who feel that they don╠t have true ownership of their land unless they have a lease. Not realizing that a lease is not a title to property. Others have little regard for any lease title since they believe their claim and use of the area makes them the owners of their land. Many people still don╠t seem to realize that the ¤reservationË have no legal status and is only an informal recognition of Maya use and occupancy. Opponents of the reservation system claim that lease is better because it provides certainty of who owns what. However, it seems that they fail to realize that leasing of land only allows the leaseholder to use the land as long as he continues to develop and use the land and pays rent to the Government. Additionally, the land still belongs to the government and the Minister of Natural Resources has the right to retract the lease for non-use of land, failure to develop the land, failure to pay the rent or other acts of non-compliance.

If certainty is the concern then it is possible to issue parcels within a reservation. Security must first be established and certainty will follow thereafter. The lease however, is not sensitive to the lives of indigenous people. Land under Maya occupancy is never ¤unused.Ë All and any land under current Maya occupancy is being used even if it is not cleared for farming or other developments. This is where the state needs to understand the way of life of the people. The lease still does not deliver the ownership that it is supposed to bring that the reservation doesn╠t.

Maya land ownership does not stop at securing land holdings. It also goes to the ownership of resources that exists on areas that have historical use and occupancy by the Mayas. If people get secure parcels then who becomes the owner of the timber resources, forest products, the quarries, the Maya temples and the oil? Many people claim that the Mayas destroy the environment but the very table they eat from possibly comes from a forest near a Mayan village. For the past two decades millions of dollars worth of timber products has been harvested from Toledo but there is very little returns for the communities who have managed these resources all their lives. Our people need to benefit more directly from their resources.


It is uncivil of a state to have its indigenous people without secure landholdings. Not only is it their right but it is also their inheritance. It is also culturally insensitive for indigenous Mayas to have to be dragged through a partisan politically-infused land application process.

According to international standards and law, indigenous people have a right to own their ancestral lands and resources. There is no way around that and Belize should establish a programme to address this situation directly. Any programme however, must go to the people first and listen to their needs and interests in regards to land. A general understanding needs to be established and full commitment by establishing a focused mechanism must be the starting point.

The Maya land question is not about getting land; we have land. It is about getting state and legal recognition of land already in use and under occupancy in a way that addresses the needs and interests of the people. In addition to that, it is about establishing ownership and management control over resources for the people of Toledo to ensure our sustainable development. We are fighting for a secure future.

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