Adele Ramos

“…Because of their displacement, persecution and historical conflicts with the Guatemalan Government … the Q’eqchi, in particular, must be concerned, apprehensive, and suspicious of the proposal to take our border dispute to the ICJ.”
- Dr. Jaime Awe, Belizean archaeologist

“The Republic of Guatemala’s unfounded claim to the southern part of Belize is of grave concern to the Mayas of Southern Belize.”
- Greg Ch’oc, Maya leader, executive director of SATIIM

“…I think they are the ones most affected by not having a demarcated border, as there are regular Guatemalan incursions into their territories.”
- Valentino Shal, chairman of Toledo Maya Cultural Council


Public discourse over the Belize-Guatemala dispute has intensified in recent weeks, with both Cabinets in Belize and Guatemala giving their resounding stamp of approval to have the matter settled in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), but the general sentiment from Maya leaders in Toledo, one of the communities that would be most impacted, suggests a rejection of their position, because of concerns that Belize would be putting much at stake in going down such an uncertain road.

Understanding the ongoing Belize-Guatemala dispute requires a deep understanding of Belize’s historical timeline – everything from the occupation of this territory prior to the colonial times by the indigenous inhabitants of the region – the Maya – to more recent migrants across the borders of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. The Maya are central to Belize’s historical matrix, yet no real attention has been given to their voices in the ongoing debate over the Guatemalan claim and the proposal to seek resolution at the ICJ.

At the end of last week Amandala canvassed the opinions of four Maya leaders, as well as Belizean archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology. Two of those Maya leaders, as well as Dr. Awe, responded, sharing with us very insightful perspectives on the Belize-Guatemala differendum.

“The Republic of Guatemala’s unfounded claim to the southern part of Belize is of grave concern to the Mayas of Southern Belize,” says Greg Ch’oc, director of the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM). “The Guatemala claim only adds additional burden on a people whose lives and future remain uncertain. Our decades-old internal struggle for rights to own the lands we have occupied and used remains a dream of hope.”

Choc refers to the recent Supreme Court victory the Mayas had, in which the court upheld their customary land rights. Ch’oc says that even though the Maya have been denied their inalienable rights (to land) and their rights as citizens, their loyalty to Belize remains.

“This should never be questioned by our Belizean brothers and sisters,” Ch’oc offered.

“In the Guatemala claim discussion, we have responded unequivocally when needed. However, the manner in which the government has set out this new process is really disappointing, to say the least,” Ch’oc added. “It is a status quo that I feel Belizeans rejected 9 months ago. The non-disclosure principles cannot be applied in this case of national importance to the Belizean people. The future of the Belizean people hangs in the balance.”

It should not be Cabinet and the Legislature, but the people of Belize who should be deciding issues as important as this one, he insists, also expressing a clear distrust of the ICJ process, because of Government’s refusal to make the compromis public before it is signed with Guatemala.

“Our government continues to handle this issue from a position of weakness and that of a coward. This is unacceptable,” Ch’oc asserts. “I am even terrified at the rationale [given by] the Prime Minister, [who] has seemed to pin the faith of the Belizean people, when it comes to the COMPROMIS, [on the assumption] that it will unravel in Guatemala. If this is an indication of the level of competence of our elected officials handling the matter, I am calling on the Belizean people to roll up their sleeves and become the defense of this, our homeland.”

Valentino Shal, chairman of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, says, “Most of the villages in the border region with Guatemala are Mayan, and they are fully aware of the benefits of having a clear border with Guatemala. In this way they can safeguard their interest and investments on their lands. Because of their location, I think they are the ones most affected by not having a demarcated border, as there are regular Guatemalan incursions into their territories. For some, the dispute with Guatemala may not be considered in regional or international political terms, but as an issue that affects their daily lives on a more socio-economic level.”

Shal says that the fact that we are dealing with a territorial dispute, and not a mere border dispute “changes the nature of the game entirely.”

“At the very least, we have much more to lose than Guatemala,” says Shal. “It is a challenge, however, that must be faced, as this dispute has significant effects on our growth and development as a country. There is evidence from the past experiences of other countries to support this thesis. We can probably revisit the Mayas’ perspective on this issue once the government’s educational campaign on the ICJ gets underway.”

Shal discussed with us two strands of Maya thinking – separatist versus integrationist.

The separatist view is summed up as follows: “…while Belize and Guatemala, and the British by historical extension, engage in a dispute over territory, the ‘real’ owners of the land are not even allowed a voice in the discourse. In this way, Mayas are treated as non-existent, which is basically the same attitude that the Europeans had when they came over and claimed the land for their Crown.

“For those Mayas who claim that they have an enduring right to this same territory, the fight is really between neo-colonialists (Belize and Guatemala) and indigenous people. This approach would question the very existence of Belize and Guatemala as states, and the extent of their territories.

“This view, however, is not part of the dominant discourse of the states and their territories. The accepted ‘narrative’ is that Belize owns a certain amount of territory and so does Guatemala, with no regard to indigenous claims. The imposition of new states is now what is seen as ‘fact.’”

The thinking of the integrationist, as explained by Shal, is as follows: “This view recognizes the historical claims of indigenous people, but also concedes that they are now part of new regimes/states. In other words, they prefer to belong to whichever state they find themselves in, whether Belize or Guatemala. This now forms part of their identity, in addition to being indigenous.

“For these Mayas, the dispute is just as the rest of the country sees it - a dispute between Belize and Guatemala. And now being Belizean, they support Belize in its stance against Guatemala’s claim. Their lives and realities are tightly wound with the states in which they live and take sides accordingly.”

Shal signals that while there are some Maya who may hold the separatist view, the integrationist view is the dominant view.

We have heard a lot about the battles between the British and the Spanish during the 1700’s, but little has been told to the Belizean public about the conflicts between the Maya and the Spanish, and between the Maya and the British, and the age-old disputes over territorial rights to a region they had occupied long before the Europeans.

Belizean archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology who has over 20 years of experience in Maya field archaeology, shares with Amandala his perspectives on the ICJ question in the context of Maya history.

“If I were a Mopan or Q’eqchi Maya from the Toledo District, and I was aware of some of the historical facts that I (Jaime Awe) know, I would treat the question of taking the present arbitration to the ICJ with some concern and anxiety,” says Dr. Awe.

The original inhabitants of Toledo were not the Maya who live there today. They were Manche-Chol (or Chol for short), whereas the present-day Maya are Mopan and Q’eqchi, Awe told us.

“The Manche-Chol Maya dominated the southern base of the Yucatan Peninsula and likely migrated into southern Belize from the Pasión River valley and Petexbatun regions of Guatemala. Following the decline of Maya civilization in the 10th -11th centuries A.D., southern Belize, like most of our country and the central Peten, was depopulated, and most of the inhabitants migrated to other regions of the Maya area, like the northern Yucatan peninsula and the western Highlands of Guatemala. Sometime around the 13th – 14th century, western Belize and the central Peten begin to see a reoccupation of the area by Itza Maya from the northern Yucatan,” Dr. Awe chronicles.

Then by the 16th century, Spanish missionaries tried to convert the Maya in this territory to Catholicism. They erected their churches, but the Maya revolted by burning the churches and killing several Spaniards, he added.

The Spanish took the Itza stronghold in Lake Peten in 1697, ejected many of the Itza settlements from Belize (such as Tipu - present day Negroman on the Macal River), and exiled them to a place near Flores, Peten, under conditions of slavery, said Dr. Awe.

But the Maya were adamant to break away from Spanish domination: “The Yucatec Maya of the eastern half of the Yucatan peninsula began a series of revolts in the middle of the 1800’s. Famously known as the Caste Wars, these revolts were originally very successful and had it not been for factionalism and the coming of the planting season, it is likely that they would have broken away from Mexico and established an independent Maya homeland in what today is the state of Quintana Roo,” Dr. Awe chronicles.

Mexico still fell under the control of the Spanish, and some of those Maya from Mexico consequently migrated to the area now known as Belize.

“In Belize we refer to these immigrants as the San Pedro Maya. They were related to the Icaiche and the Cruzob (all Yucatec) but were essentially from a different ‘tribe’. The San Pedro Maya established communities in the Yalbac Hills. Two of these communities were San Jose and Yalbac. Unfortunately for them, these lands were then owned by the Belize Estate and Produce Co., and following several skirmishes with the British, the people from these communities were also forcibly removed to other settlements. Those from San Jose were taken by barge down the New River and kept at Fort Cairns (Orange Walk) until the men could build homes at a new village which today we know as San Jose Nuevo or San Jose Palmar (located on the outskirts of Orange Walk Town). By the way, there are still about 5 people living in San Jose who were alive when all this happened.

“Around the same time that the conflicts between the San Pedro Maya and the British were starting in northern Belize, Mopan Maya from San Luis, Peten decide to leave Guatemala and move into southern Belize,” Awe recounts.

What caused the Maya to leave Guatemala?

“This move,” says Awe, “was prompted in the late 1800’s because the Guatemalan government was forcing the Mopan people into military service and because of severe taxation. To escape this type of oppression, a number of Mopan Maya decided to migrate to Belize.”

According to the archaeologist, the Maya first established Pueblo Viejo, and then moved to establish San Antonio in 1883. Because of disease and poor crop performance, the Maya returned to San Luis, Peten and stole their santo (saint) from the town and took it back with them to San Antonio.

“Fearing retaliation from the Peteneros, the San Antonio folk requested arms from the British so that they could defend their village,” Awe explains. “When the San Luis Maya arrived, they were captured by the San Antonio Maya and taken as prisoners to Punta Gorda. Today the santo is still ensconced in the church in San Antonio village. Other Mopan villages of note are Santa Cruz, Santa Elena and San Jose.”

According to Awe, Q’eqchi’ migration to southern Belize also began in the late 1800’s, but peaked during the early 1900’s.

“The traditional homeland of the Q’eqchi’ is the area around Coban in the Alta Vera Paz Department of Guatemala. Historical evidence strongly suggests that the first Q’eqchi’ migrants came to Belize as part of a labour force recruited by a German developer known as Bernard Cramer. The Cramers had established an estate on lands purchased from Young, Toledo and Company. The estate was located near the Sarstoon and Temash Rivers in Toledo, and the owners were hoping to pursue an enterprise not unlike those of other German coffee plantations in Alta Vera Paz. Due to a host of problems, the Cramers’ agricultural project failed and was abandoned around 1914. Following the abandonment of the farms by the Cramers, the Q’eqchi’ workers remained in Belize and established villages such as Dolores, Otoxha and Crique Sarco.”

The archaeologist also notes that during the 1900’s, many Q’eqchi began to migrate from the Vera Paz region, primarily because of land disputes and open persecutions by the Guatemalan government.

“This situation became even more tenuous in the 70’s and 80’s, during the Guatemalan revolution,” says Awe. “A result of these conflicts is that Q’eqchi Maya moved out in every direction, heading to northern Peten, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and, of course, Belize.”

Awe underscores that, “It is specifically because of their displacement, persecution and historical conflicts with the Guatemalan government that the Q’eqchi, in particular, must be concerned, apprehensive, and suspicious of the proposal to take our border dispute to the ICJ.

“Unlike in Guatemala, here in Belize they have enjoyed access to the courts and benefited from the democratic process. All this could be taken away (again) should their new homeland fall into Guatemalan control.”

Repeated incursions into Belize by Guatemalans who hunt, log, farm, and harvest xate palm illegally on this side of the border have largely been reported by Maya-led conservation organizations that operate in Toledo.

Greg Ch’oc of SATIIM reports that Guatemalans have recently bulldozed an area about 100 yards inside Belize, near Jalacte, Toledo, in what the OAS describes as the “adjacency zone” - where such activities are banned under OAS-brokered agreements between Belize and Guatemala.

According to Ch’oc, Maya leaders plan to meet within the next week or so to formalize their position.