Commentary: The court ruling on the Maya land case in Belize will also impact Garifuna
By Wellington C. Ramos
Long before the Europeans came to the Caribbean, Americas and other parts of the world, people and nations were living in peace in their respective territories on this planet earth. History tells us that it was not only the Europeans that were roaming this planet committing atrocities against other people and nations in the beginning but several other nations as well.
However, when we examine the nature of the atrocities that were committed against people and nations before the new world order was established in 1945, they are guilty of the most genocide and violations of human rights. Many of these occurred during the colonization of the world, when they went to all the continents and established their brutal rule by force with no regard to the indigenous people and nations.
The establishment of the United Nations, World Court and other international institutions, gives people and nations the opportunity to seek redress and reparations for all the atrocities committed against their people and nation. Some of these indigenous people and nations have sought redress in national and international courts but have been denied justice.
The feeling by the governments of these countries is that, if they were to grant them redress, it would set a bad precedent for other indigenous people and nations to bring more cases against them. Many indigenous people and nations are extinct from this planet because of the atrocities committed against them by Europeans and their subsequent governments.
For those who still exist today, like the Mayas in Belize, Central America and the Garifuna people in St Vincent and the Grenadines, only God knows how they still exist. The Spanish and the British came to torture, kill, imprison and displace these people. A significant amount of their men, women and children were killed. Today, in the countries of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua atrocities and human rights violations are still occurring.
The governments of all countries in the world have the power to ignore or totally disregard the rulings from the national, regional and international courts. This has been happening in this case with the Mayas in Belize for years now. Another issue is the role of the political parties and the lawyers in this case. It appears to me as if when the UDP are in power the PUP lawyers aggressively go after the government and when the PUP are in control of the government the UDP lawyers do the same.
It was clear that both the UDP and the PUP were inclined not to grant the Mayas their customary land rights. This may have motivated the Mayas finally to take their case to the Caribbean Court of Justice for final resolution. All they were doing was playing politics to get the Mayan votes and keep them divided. The failure by both of these political parties to act based on the court rulings is enough evidence for anyone to come to this conclusion.
Both the UDP and the PUP are afraid that the Mayas will be given special rights to their land that other Belizeans do not have. The fact is that these indigenous people had these rights centuries before the British, Spanish and Belize government claimed Belize to establish their control.
This may have motivated the Mayas finally to make the right decision to take their case to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which is Belize’s highest court. It will be left to be seen if the UDP administration will now abide by the court ruling. If they do not, the Mayas will take Belize to the International Court of Justice for final resolution.
Belize cannot afford to have the Guatemalan claim and the Maya claim cases going before the world court because it will appear that these people are fighting for something that does not even belong to them. It is better to settle with the Mayas than to play hardball, because it will only get worse later on.
Now that the Mayas have won their case, it is time for the Garifuna people, organizations and the National Garifuna Council to bring their case to retrieve all the Garifuna Reserves that were granted to the Garifuna people by the British government when they landed in Belize. Even the Mennonites in Belize have rights to their lands and no Belizean can go to their communities and do as they please.
Over the years the governments of Belize have used eminent domain to take some of these lands for public use, village and town expansion without consulting the Garifuna people. The officers of the National Garifuna Council at the time went along with all of the government’s land grabs. Let us see if the new officers in this current organization will do the same thing.
If the National Garifuna Council (NGC) does not take advantage of this ruling, other Garifuna organizations in Belize and abroad will be forced to do something on behalf of their people to protect their lands. We who live in the southern parts of Belize cannot go anywhere else to control and claim land. The people in the north and west will never allow us to do that. The land availability in the north and west is becoming less due to population growth, village and town expansion, the cane farming and other industries.
When those lands are all used up, these people will be coming to the south to take or buy lands from our people who are desperate for money. We have some people among us who like to say that they will take our land because we are not doing anything with it. Yes, we have land but no machines or capital to do some constructive things with our lands.
The constant depriving us of capital by our governments to develop the land is a policy that works to the other people’s advantage to buy our land from us for little money. Then they label the people in the south as lazy and beggars. Even some of our own people, do not understand the Belize’s government policies towards the south and the impact it has on poverty in the southern part of Belize.
I now call on all Garifuna men and women in Belize and abroad to ask the National Garifuna Council of Belize to address the Garifuna Reserves in the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts. This issue has remained quiet for too long. Some of our people in Belize would like to address this issue but they are afraid of losing their jobs and other repercussions that will follow. To them I say have no fear because the spirits of our ancestors will be with you all throughout your struggles and they have never abandoned us.
The first thing we need is an inventory of all Garifuna lands in the south. The Lands Department has a map and we should get it now to see where the lands are and what their current status is. If any of those lands were sold to any individual or individuals without our written consent and approval, we will demand that the government of Belize revoke those titles. They will then be issued the same amount of land elsewhere. We know what to do about our problems and we are going to do what is needed to be done.
The Caribbean Court affirmed that these traditional land rights, belonging to 38 Maya villages in Belize’s Toledo District, constitute property as defined in the provisions of the Belize Constitution that generally protects property free from discrimination.
High Court Orders Belize to Recognize and Protect Maya Traditional Property and Rights
On April 19th the Caribbean Court of Justice announced its judgment affirming the 2013 holding of the Court of Appeal of Belize that the Maya indigenous people of southern Belize have rights to the lands they customarily have used and occupied for many generations.
In the judgment, the court affirmed that these traditional land rights, belonging to 38 Maya villages in Belize’s Toledo District, constitute property as defined in the provisions of the Belize Constitution that generally protects property free from discrimination.
The court's judgment, which was entered by consent of Maya parties in the case and the Government of Belize, will require the government to demarcate and officially register Maya communal lands, and protect them against incursions by outsiders. The Court accepted the government’s undertaking to adopt the necessary “legislative, administrative and/or other measures” to that end and, in the meantime, to refrain from and prevent acts that would adversely affect Maya land rights. The Court also ordered that, in 12 months, both the Maya communities and the Government present a report about implementation of the judgment.
"This judgment of the Caribbean Court of Justice sets an important precedent worldwide, building upon ever-greater recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples internationally," said Professor James Anaya who has been involved with the case since 1996 as the chief architect of the legal strategy. Anaya is an internationally known legal scholar and advocate and was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2008-2014.
Anaya explained that the judgment "reinforces the international standard that Indigenous Peoples have collective property rights based on their own customary land tenure systems, even when they do not have a formal title or other official recognition of those rights, and that states are bound to recognize and protect those rights."
He further noted that, “the case sets an important precedent for understanding that such traditional indigenous property rights are protected by the constitutions and laws across the world that generally protect property.”
Anaya also pointed out that the Caribbean Court of Justice decision followed a 2004 report issued by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) that found Belize in violation of its international human rights obligations for failing to recognize and protect Maya customary land tenure. Although the Government mostly ignored the IACHR findings, the same report helped bolster the Maya claim and was referred to in lower court decisions that were then affirmed by the Caribbean Court of Appeals.
For representatives of the Maya communities that have been fighting for their rights for decades, the recent court decision, which was consistent with the IACHR findings, was very good news.
"We have had to grovel before these courts for more than 30 years," said Alfonso Cal, the top traditional leader for the Mayan people.
"But now we are happy that the highest court has stood again with my people by putting Belize on the road towards the right side of history," Cal asserted.
Cristina Coc, a spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance said that the court's judgment provides Belize with another opportunity to rewrite its relationship with the first peoples of the country. She stated that the struggle of the Maya people was also for all of the marginalized people of Belize and the world.
"We're hoping that the courts in this country and elsewhere will do the same thing," Anaya added, noting also that many courts throughout the Americas are looking at precedents in dealing with indigenous rights to territory and resources.
"Belize is in a crossroads right now, and it has a chance to reverse the history of denial of rights to Mayan people," he said.
"And it is incumbent upon international agencies and donor countries that they support Belize as they move forward with judgments to recognize Mayan peoples rights," Anaya said.