In Environment and Rights Issues in Belize

"The United Nations' largest-ever conference, billed as a historic opportunity to create a greener future, appears to be going up in smoke."

That was the sobering observation contained in an Associated Press story in The Japan Times of May 13 headlined "Fears of failure loom for largest-ever U.N. summit."

"With less than six weeks to go until the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), negotiations to produce a final statement have stalled amid squabbling," added that AP report on the gathering scheduled for June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Twenty years ago, Rio hosted the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. Also known as the Earth Summit, that great global gathering was expected to put environmental concerns front and center on the world's agenda, ensuring that sustainable development - meeting present human needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs - would become the gold standard for development worldwide.

So much for lofty hopes and good intentions.

Today, with human consumption running more than 1.5 times higher than Earth's carrying capacity, the sustainable-development paradigm looks increasingly idealistic: a good idea trampled by burgeoning population, unrestrained consumption - and myopic human avarice.

U.N. organizers claim Rio+20 is "an historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all." (

However, as is often the case with global-level gatherings, the yawning gap between lofty rhetoric and local implementation is daunting.

Two years ago, this column took up the thorny issue of indigenous people's land rights as they relate to the tug of war between resource extraction and environmental conservation in the Central American nation of Belize ("Of forests and floods"; August 2010).

Belize is blanketed with tropical forest ecosystems that are home to countless species of plants and animals. The forests also contain extensive timber and oil resources that the Belizean government - which is largely indifferent to the serious impacts on ecosystems and indigenous peoples - is eager to extract and sell.

Caught in this race for riches are the ancient Maya peoples who, by court decree, own and can inhabit the forests, which they depend on for survival.

Much of that 2010 column was researched and written by Breeze Alcorn, then a law student at Temple University Japan, who was working as my research assistant. Since 2010, Alcorn has finished law school and passed the bar exam in North Carolina, where he is now a lawyer.

Despite work demands, Alcorn remains committed to the plight of the Maya and the conservation of their forests and traditional lifestyle. Recently he sent me an update on the situation in Belize - a report that highlights both the necessity for sustainable development that balances the needs of nations and their indigenous peoples, and the role Japan can play.

Southern Belize is home to many Maya communities that have been there since long before the first colonial powers began to disturb their way of life in the early 1500s.

Today Belize is a poverty-stricken developing nation, and the indigenous Maya suffer from severe economic destitution and environmental degradation, much of this due to government policies.

There is also an important link between Japan and Belize. The Japan International Cooperation Agency Belize (JICA Belize) is working with the Belizean government to promote poverty reduction and environmental preservation, and while the JICA Belize mission is noble, the Maya communities in southern Belize are in need of, and asking for, direct capacity-building assistance.

As long as the government of Belize continues to engage in its widely reported human rights violations and unsound environmental practices at the expense of the Maya people, international support must engage and involve Maya leaders.

In recent years, the Belizean government has faced strong opposition from the leadership of the Maya concerning the granting of oil and timber concessions on traditional Maya lands, with the Maya challenging the government in court - and winning.

In fact, the government has lost several key domestic and international judicial decisions that affirm the Maya peoples' land-tenure rights. These decrees have expressly admonished Belizean officials for failing to demarcate and protect Maya territories, and for permitting and profiting from exploitation of Maya lands.

"We firmly advise international agencies that support the government of Belize, such as JICA, to review Belize's human rights and indigenous peoples policy compliance and call out the government on its failures," explains Pablo Mis, program coordinator of the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA).

"Furthermore, we strongly encourage international lending agencies, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, to consider indigenous Maya issues as critical criteria in determining whether to grant further support to the government of Belize," urges Mis.

Maya legal successes have gained global media attention, but the government continues to ignore the rule of law regarding Maya land rights. "At this stage, media and international scrutiny are more important than ever. The conditioning of aid and lending is also a particularly effective aspect of international scrutiny," says Moira Gracey, an attorney on the MLA's legal team.

Despite favorable rulings for the Maya from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2004, and the Supreme Court of Belize in 2007, the Belizean government continued to give unilateral grant concessions on Maya soil, arguing that the Supreme Court decision was only applicable to the two claimant villages represented in those cases.

MLA and others responded by bringing another suit against the government in the Supreme Court of Belize, this time joining representatives from about 30 Maya villages.

Two years later, in June 2010, the Supreme Court again held that under international law and the Belizean Constitution, the Maya communities have the right to exercise self-determination in deciding how to use their own land and resources.

The government of Belize has appealed this decision to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court with jurisdiction in Belize, and shows no willingness to abide by the 2010 judgment until the appeals process is exhausted - this despite a court-ordered injunction against government exploitation of Maya land.

As is often the case worldwide, nepotism plays a part in Belizean resource extraction. For instance, the government recently granted an exclusive contract to conduct oil exploration in the Maya Mountains to Paradise Energy Ltd. - a company formed in part by Kimano Barrow, a nephew of the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow.

This concession is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court's 2010 injunction that protects Maya territory, including 14 designated protected areas.

More recently, U.S. Capital Energy has been granted a new permit to begin oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash Park, a protected area partly within the territory of several Maya villages. Maya communities have petitioned the government, noting that there is a court-ordered injunction in place - but government officials have to date ignored their concerns.

"The [Maya's] legal team, on behalf of the communities, has also written to the United Nations updating that organization on the blatant disregard of the court injunction," said attorney Antoinette Moore, lead counsel for the Maya communities in both the 2007 and 2010 Supreme Court cases.

"Outside pressure from the government of Japan and others would absolutely assist in the efforts of the people here to retain their rights," Moore added.

Meanwhile, JICA Belize is working to facilitate capacity-building, organizing programs in computer literacy, environmental education, village development, music, math and science. But the task is far from easy.

"It is a constant struggle due to the lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads, inadequate housing, scarcity of electricity, and insufficient facilities and equipment," said Shunsuke Nakamura, a resident representative for JICA Belize.

Locals and volunteers participate as instructors in JICA Belize initiatives sanctioned by the government, but the Maya deserve more. Using this same integrated approach in Maya villages - with the support of the Maya leadership - would promote deeper communication and cooperation that could foster long-term development for the Maya of southern Belize.

Unless international agencies, such as JICA Belize, work directly with the Maya leadership to provide crucial capacity-building, these indigenous people will continue to face discrimination, exploitation and daunting development challenges.

Rio+20 is almost upon us. If we are serious about our commitment to environmentally sustainable development, isn't it also time to demand human-rights protection for those whose lives are being destroyed by governments greedy to feed the world's voracious appetite for ever more?

Many thanks to Breeze Alcorn for his research, writing, and commitment to human rights and sound environmental practices. Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University law faculty and is director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Japan Times