Maya rebut GOB in land rights appeal

In a hearing that may continue at the end of this week, the Court of Appeal this afternoon began to hear the response of the Maya leaders of Toledo in an appeal lodged by the Government of Belize, challenging the June 2010 ruling of former Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh, which reaffirmed that customary land rights do exist in Southern Belize and which restrained the government from issuing leases and concessions on the lands in question without proper consultation with the Maya.

Whereas the Maya contend that the rights they claim have existed before the European colonizers came to the region, they have gone to court for formal declarations, because they want something in writing to acknowledge their ownership of the lands they continue to claim.

The Government had appealed Conteh’s 2010 decision, but in their cross-appeal, the Maya leaders have added a claim for damages—damages they claim Conteh should have awarded to them for alleged discrimination by the state.

In the Court of Appeal hearing on Monday afternoon, Senior Counsel Antoinette Moore set out the summary of her response to Government, whose case had been presented by Senior Counsel Lois Young on Thursday and Friday, March 17 and 18, and for the earlier part of Monday.

(For more on the government’s case, see the article in last weekend’s edition of Amandala titled, “Maya Land Rights appeal hearing begins.”)

Presiding over the case are Court of Appeal president John Sosa, Justice Dennis Morrison and Justice Brian Alleyne.

Moore started out by telling the court, as Conteh had emphasized in his judgment, that the case is not about land—it is about so much more; the respondents say that it is about the lives of thousands of Maya in 35 Maya villages, villages which Moore said existed for between 15 and 120 years with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the state.

Since the founding of the villages, said Moore, the people have used their land according to their own customs and laws, which date further back than living memory. She emphasized their connection to the land and how central it is for their culture and survival.

The appellant, the government, has, in essence, said that the Maya are nothing more than squatters, said Moore, adding that relief has been sought from the court for violations of sections 3, 16 and 17 of the Belize Constitution, addressing fundamental rights and freedoms; protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, etc; and protection from deprivation of property, respectively.

Moore said that the case rests on legal principles to be applied to the question of whether the Maya of Toledo have any interest in real property and what the legal consequences of that interest would be.

She said that whereas in the 2007 case of Conejo and Santa Cruz, two villages in Toledo, the Maya sought and received a declaration of native title, the claimants in the 2010 case did not seek nor were they granted such a declaration.

What they did seek, said Moore, was injunctive relief to protect their use and occupation of the lands in question, until such time that the government rectifies its discriminatory treatment of them, she told the court.

She added that the Maya have been seeking official documentation of their titles.

Whereas she told the Court of Appeal that the Chief Justice decided correctly on the central issues in the land rights case, Moore said that the Maya have one complaint: that Conteh failed to grant them an award for damages for loss, distress and inconvenience due to discrimination against them.

Much of the appeals case has dealt with historical and anthropological evidence, as well as citations of authorities from other jurisdictions in which similar land rights cases have been argued.

A pivotal work that has been cited by both sides is the 1930 work of J. Eric Thompson, titled, Ethnology of the Mayas of Southern and Central British Honduras.

Amandala was able to download a PDF file of the work, cited with reference details by Moore, in the online archives of the University of Illinois, where Moore told the court the full book (200 and odd pages) could be located.

Moore referenced three pages, including page 35, which demonstrated how the Manche Chol of Belize very likely intermingled with the Maya. Thompson makes reference to a group known as the Kekchi Chol.

This note is of interest, since the Government has taken the position that the Maya who have brought the case against the government, under the banner of the Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Maya Leaders Alliance, as well as 9 other Maya leaders, are not indigenous to Belize but are recent migrants from Guatemala, coming to Belize in the 1800’s, around the same time that the Garinagu did.

Moore referred to the citation of the Kekchi Chol, one of the groups of the Belize Maya, as “a separate ethnic group.”

“Those are strong words – separate ethnic group,” Justice Sosa commented.

(The Kekchi Maya have contended that they are descendants of the pre-colonial Maya of southern Belize and that their ancestors had intermingled with the Manche Chol.)

Moore presented samplings of the extensive affidavit evidence filed by the Maya for the Supreme Court case, to make the point that in all the Maya villages in question, there is a pattern of land use governed by the alcaldes.

Farm lands are demarcated for specific farmers, but they are not able to sell lands to outsiders. Only certain types of lands, such as lands for house lots, can be automatically passed down to family members. One affidavit noted that a Maya hunter can enter the farm of another Maya to hunt game but cannot farm crops there without permission of the person who has been given alcalde permission to farm on the land.

Moore also made the point that the state, and the British rulers even at the time Belize was still a settlement, had formally acknowledged the alcalde system—a type of local mayor with power to act in certain cases as a local magistrate.

She told the court that whereas the government has argued that a common feature of customary land tenure is communal land tenure, the customary law of each group should be looked at separately to determine the system and one cannot generalize.

Moore referenced the case of the Mabo on the Murray Islands of Australia, where villagers individually own lands although they assert customary land rights.

Moore also told the court that the Maya believe that the land belongs to the gods, and they cannot be owned or possessed by any one person; they believe they are borrowing the lands from the deity.