Chief Justice rules in favour of Maya rights

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It's a case that in one form or another has been pursued for over a decade. On one side Mayan activists, based in Toledo, have energetically sought to advance their claim to traditional communal land rights, both legally and in the court of public opinion. On the other side the government of Belize, relying largely on its perceived legislative and executive authority, hasn't said much and defended the lawsuit with little enthusiasm and even less in the way of resources. Today the indigenous efforts paid off as the Supreme Court gave government a major lashing. News Five's Janelle Chanona reports.

Cristina Coc, Director Julian Cho Society
"We've come united in justice, united in love, united in peace and I am so pleased [crying] that today is a true Maya day."[/i]

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Today Mayas of southern Belize celebrated the ruling of Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh that the villagers of Santa Cruz and Conejo in the Toledo district have constitutionally protected customary land tenure rights over the areas surrounding their communities.

Cristina Coc
"For the first time I feel we can truly celebrate true independence and true right to life. I feel that for the first time the Maya can go home to their humble villages and realize for the first time that we have been given respect for our right to life, and our rights to the territories that we have long protected, that we have long cherished."

Antoinette Moore, Villagers' Attorney
"It seem to be me to be a slam dunk; we basically won on all the issues that we presented to the court. But these communities now have something to stand on, to say they own this land. They have ownership interest in this land and therefore if there any oil found or if there is any logging concession, they have a right, a constitutional right, to benefit from those concessions, to benefit from whatever is derived from those concessions on their land."

It took the C.J. more than three and a half hours to read his ruling in the case and in his decision, the judge pointed out that the claimants' case was bolstered by a ten point agreement signed in October 2000 in which Prime Minister Said Musa supported the villagers' position and the fact that community leaders had gone as far as demarcating their communities and submitting the boundaries in a map to Belmopan. The Mayas never got a response and their frustrations eventually led them to the Supreme Court. In today's judgement the C.J. contended that Government's decision to ignore the Mayas' rights and to issue mining and petroleum concessions in the area was an act of racial discrimination. But Moore is quick to point out this morning's ruling is not the end of her clients' struggle.

Antoinette Moore
"I think now with this order...very, very strong orders and judgement coming from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Belize...that the Government of Belize will have to comply with what is both now domestic law and international law."

"The implementation of the orders is not going to be simple matter and it will require cooperation from the claimant villages as well as from the Government officials in the various departments that are involved, obviously the Ministry of Natural Resources is a key element."

The Ministry of Natural Resources is key because today the C.J. ordered that Belmopan must demarcate the villages without prejudice to the rights of other communities as well as cease and abstain from issuing any more concessions for mining and oil prospecting without the informed consent of the villagers.

Greg Ch'oc
"What has happened over the last... since the independence of Belize has been less [than] honourable, has been a violation of the right of the Mayan people of Southern Belize and has been an injustice and has been a breach of the fundamental rights. And today's ruling I believe allows a new beginning for Belize, for investors. We want to be an integral part, that's always what we've been saying, we want to be at the table where all Belizeans deserve to be and I think for the Belizean public, let us stop talking, let us stop calling the talk show and venting our frustrations, let us do something to take back Belize and really make it our own. And today we've shown that it can happen; we have demonstrated that."

Janelle Chanona
"Are you concerned that some people are going to take this as a balkanization of Belize...that everybody will try to hold their corner?"

Greg Ch'oc
"If what I saw over the media last week where the government has practically given every last centimetre of Belize for development concession, oil development concession, is any indication how much far removed how the Belizean people from determining where this country go, I can't see how any Belizean can look at what we've done today as a balkanization of Belize, rather than to tell the Belizean people, we have a role to play as Belizean, we have a role to play in defining our destiny, we have a role to play in making Belize what we want it to be...not two or three politicians defining the future for us, that I believe is the significance of the work we've done."

And according to Professor Steven James Anaya, a specialist in Indigenous Rights, the Maya of Belize have also forged a significant legal precedent as the Chief Justice highlighted the human rights of indigenous people in the Constitution of Belize.

Dr. Steven James Anaya, Human Rights Professor
"So it's not just a matter of material interest or gain that we are talking about with indigenous peoples and their right to land. It's about their basic right to life and he made that connection explicitly and that's significant. We haven't seen that in decisions in other countries so explicitly. So I think it really is going to reverberate around the world very quickly. There is a lot of international focus on the rights of indigenous peoples and this case is going to be noticed and rightly so I think."

For attorney Antoinette Moore, today's ruling could also have repercussions here at home as other villages in the Toledo district now have the opportunity to have their rights legally recognized and protected.

Antoinette Moore
"One of the initial findings of the court, that there exists Maya customary land tenure in Southern Belize, it was a generalized issue of dispute between the parties and the court found on behalf the claimants. And then of course, it went on from there that there are Mayan customary land rights for the people in Conejo and Santa Cruz but the very initial issue was a very generalized one which will and does affect all thirty-eight villages so should they seek to exercise their rights they certainly can."

Following the court's decision, the Mayas paraded through the streets to the Radisson Hotel where they held a press conference. Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

Government's attorney in the case, Nicola Cho, is away on study leave but in his decision the CJ pointed out on several occasions that Belmopan never presented any evidence to assert the non-existence of Mayan customary land tenure rights or to refute the testimony or evidence of the claimants. Cho had argued that any Mayan claim or title to land was extinguished when the British assumed sovereignty over Belize. Conteh disagreed stating that archaeological evidence in the area suggests otherwise and that "in the dark recesses of the forest, the Maya did not know what was happening to their land in the corridors of power ... Regardless of when territorial sovereignty was established, the authorities did not ... displace, discharge or extinguish any pre-existing rights to or interest in land" ... because "their long standing use predated European presence". It is not clear whether government will appeal the ruling or how it will react politically. When contacted this evening Solicitor General Edwin Flowers told News Five that government is still digesting the sixty-seven page document.

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