San Marcos and Emery Grove Villages in Toledo battle over traditional boundaries

The Mayas of Belize have always lived in harmony without borders among themselves but when the Mayas were granted ownership of their ancestral lands in June of last year not having defined borders of their communal land has been leading to numerous controversies since then. San Marcus and Emery Grove are neighboring villages in the south of the country and leaders of both community had a recent disagreement when a villager of San Marcus was caught cutting Rosewood in what Emery Grove villagers are saying is within their community.

Resident of Emery Grove

They took it out and carried it out to their Community Center. We then went and spoke to the Chairman and Alcalde and told them that they did something wrong. They should have consulted our village council. However, since they already took it out and it was in our community, we did not want any problem. So we said that we were going to give them half of the logs and keep half for our community, because we want to work together as a community should work together. However, the Alcalde said no. He said that he must have to consult his villagers. So he said for us to come back the following evening.

Plus news spoke with President of the Maya Leaders Alliance Gregorio Coy on the matter. In that interview Coy told us that the leaders of Emery Grove approached the Alcalde and Chairman of San Marcus with a strong armed attitude.

Gregorio Coy, President, Maya Leaders Alliance

In regards to the situation in San Marcus, I attend a meeting there with the community. We learnt that there were some people logging in their area showing that there was no village boundary. But again the Alcalde believes that he has the authority to confiscate Rosewood and he did a very good job; he confiscated the Rosewood, but apparently, the neighboring village leaders went and tried to take the Rosewood from the Alcalde. He took some people with him and we heard that it was police officers along with other villagers, but the Alcalde insisted saying that he cannot release it.

But according to the resident of Emery Grove the villagers of San Marcus did just the opposite of what Coy shortly expressed, forcing the Emery Grove Council to take the matter to the Forestry Department.

Resident of Emery Grove

So the Village Council drove to San Marcus the following evening. The Alcalde said "Wait five minutes; I will go call the Chairman." The Alclade went and got about a hundred and fifty guys that came out machetes to stop us sticks to lash us with when we came peacefully. We then went to the Forest Department; the Forest Department went with us to where they cut the log. The Forestry Department took a GPS reading at each spot where they cut the log. They then took both Village Councils representative to the Lands Department and the Lands Officer took a GPS, plotted the GPS reading on a map and showed us that where the guys from Emery Grove was cutting was not even half way off the Emery Grove Village boundary to the San Marcus.

But according to Coy the efforts of the Department were not reasonable as the Lands department are not aware of the Mayan Village Boundaries.

Gregorio Coy

According to the community of San Marcus, in that meeting, they said that they discussed the village boundary without going into the area to see exactly where this activity is occurring. They were being instructed by someone that the Rosewood should not be released to the neighboring villages, which is totally wrong. In the Mayan Villages, truly, if you ask the Lands Department where a village boundary is, they wouldn't tell you. Why? Because they are not living in the village. However, again our village boundary based on our traditional usage of our land, if our farm land goes from here to that foot hill, that's San Philippe land and we will respect that as the neighboring community Santa Ann. We don't have any pillars like pegs or straight lines; we do it traditionally, wherever your farm goes that's our village boundary. We do have village boundaries.

The two villages is separated by a road called San Marcus Farmers Road, which runs all the way to the river and this remains as an area of conflict between both communities. This is why members of the Emery Grove community are asking that defined borders be marked when it comes to the communal lands.

Resident of Emery Grove

Although our villages may be three to four miles away, they still draw the boundary together. San Marcus people have six miles of riverside, real riverside. They took off a mile and a half from us going up the top - we did not say anything. However we must realize that the Emery Grove parents and great grandparents worked that area, that the San Marcus people are now claiming. Keep in mind that San Marcus is ninety percent immigrants and the original Mayan Indians; ninety percent of the original Indians do not agree with the Maya Leaders Association with them owning what we call the communal land, because they will need in the future to hand down land to their kids. Most of the original Mayan Indians are working out of Toledo. When they come back to Toledo, the Guatemala Indians come and own their lands. You can interview all the Indians in Belmopan, San Pedro, Santa Rosa, anywhere you meet them and the original Mayan Indians in Toledo do not want to hear anything about reservation.

Coy says that the Mayans are in no way saying that they want all the land and that discussions need to be initiated which will lead towards the definition of community borders.

Gregorio Coy

We are not saying that we are claiming all of Toledo; we do respect other races and ethnicities. They still have the right, but again we should sit around the table with them and start to negotiate how best we can resolve these village boundaries. I know that it will not take a one-day meeting; it will have to take a lot of work. I have experienced in several villages, we meet this month and we meet next month, until we find ways of how to solve these boundaries. Again, it should apply to the other communities like Emery Grove. We are not saying that because San Marcus are Mayan people they should claim where they want. No, we are not saying that. They still have the right to say where they see their village boundary should be. Again the Mayan Leaders Alliance have no authority to say that this is where the boundary should be. It has to be from the two villages in question; it has to be from San Marcus and Emery Grove.

Coy maintains though that Emery Grove cannot claim the remainder of the Land.

Gregorio Coy

Those people in Emery Grove, they are living in their property. They have their own plots. They choose to have leased lands, so no one can stop them; they have the right to do that. However, the land that remains, they cannot claim it, because they had their own plots of land. So we believe that they have rights over their survey lands, but what about the rest? They can't claim that because they have no proof that the land is for them, because they already have their plot of land, not like San Marcus. San Marcus just works in those areas. Maybe some people in San Marcus have their plots of land, but not all the villages. Maybe it's the same thing in Emery Grove. These are the things that we look after as Mayan people, for the elder people already have land, but what about the younger people? So these are things that we will look after.

The resident of Emery Grove also maintains that while they have already given up land to the community of San Marcus, they will not stand back and let the land in question be given away; as they have children who want land within the community of Emery Grove.

Resident of Emery Grove

As it is right now, the Emery Grove only has about eight-hundred acres for its people and ninety-eight percent of that is owed. Comparing now with the average Mayan villages, some of them have all the way up fifteen thousand acres. The average Mayan community has eight-thousand acres and that's because they can go unlimited. We cannot expand, because the Mayan villages don't give us space. We have no space to expand to give ourselves farm lands or to have places for our kids for the future. So we are just playing cool, because the Government of Belize said that they will re-appeal the case. Hopefully with the new Chief Justice, we might stand a chance. However, if the Government appeals the case and they lose it, then we will not be meek and we won't sit down and it will be a hard thing for us to do.

You may also remember that in a previous Rosewood story; Deputy Chief Forest Officer stated that the Forestry Department is not aware as to where the communal lands start or stop and that there needs to be proper demarcation and until these boundaries are defined controversies concerning community bounders will continue to arise.