Another Great Article 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
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
Having land in the "reservation" 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 "reservation" 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
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." 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.