A cease and desist order has been issued by the Forest Department to halt logging activities in the vicinity of Crique Sarco Village. Late this evening, Chief Forest Officer Wilbur Sabido wrote to Gary Seawell, one of two investors, informing him that all operations under a private license issued under his name must be placed on hold forthwith. This succeeds a flood of concerns from villagers and stakeholders with respect to the Consent Order issued by the Caribbean Court of Justice where communal land rights are concerned. The pair of investors was initially granted access to land within the environs of Crique Sarco after getting a few villagers to sign a petition. It was later found that those who signed onto to the handwritten document do not represent the majority of villagers. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
Crique Sarco is among thirty-nine villages in Toledo District whose land is owned communally under the Maya customary legal system. In 2007, The Supreme Court established Maya customary land rights as a form of property rights protected under the Constitution of Belize. This means that each village within the collective Maya territory has the right to decide who lives in the community, as well as how village lands are used. In Crique Sarco, private investors are seeking to access land for the purpose of logging, without consent from a majority of the villagers.
Jose Cuc, Chairperson, Crique Sarco Village
“A concession was given to Mr. Kiren Estephan and Gary Seawell of Belmopan and they are the ones that came into our land without the village council’s consent. I know the alcalde gave them the okay, but the alcalde alone cannot give the okay. We have to use the FPIC document which [is] the free, prior and informed consent of the community on a whole so that you can grant any concession or any whatsoever that you need to get.”
The constitutional rights of Maya communities require government officials to safeguard Maya lands from harm, as they would the property of all other Belizeans.
Andres Bo, Resident, Crique Sarco Village
“If you look at our trees, our trees are very minimal because we don’t have a lot of trees here. It’s only, I think, enough for our children who are growing and if their children can get some lumber in the forest they might do so. But if not, I don’t think they will be able to get anymore.”
And that is the primary concern for Andres Bo, a former alcalde of Crique Sarco. As it is, there are hardly enough trees within the environs of the community. Of the pair of investors, Gary Seawell is well-known.
“I don’t know much about him but we were talking with the community about this investor coming into the village and the community doesn’t agree, even if we don’t know what his background is but they don’t agree.”
In February 2010, Seawell was apprehended after being on the lam for three years, following a request by the U.S. government for his extradition. He was wanted for his alleged role in a drug trafficking operation that saw the transshipment of cocaine to the United States. In November 2016, the Court of Appeal ruled in Seawell’s favor and he was set free. His recent venture into logging, particularly in the indigenous community, is being met with objection. Jose Cuc, chairman of Crique Sarco, cites the portion of the CCJ’s Consent Order that speaks to land tenure.
“This undertaking includes but is not limited to abstain from a) issuing any lease or grant to lands or resources under the National Lands Act or any other act; b) registering any interest in land; c) issuing or renewing any unauthorized for resource exploitation, including concession, permits or contracts, authorized logging, prospecting or exploration, mining or similar activity under the Forest Act, the Mines and Minerals Act, the Petroleum Act or any other act.”
Despite that piece of law, a petition with fifty-eight signatures was used to obtain a concession. Residents are now seeking to rescind that decision.
“I don’t think the fifty-eight had the majority to say, “Yes, we want this investor.” But also the investor says, when the community says they don’t want it, those people that signed wanted to turn back and they said they will turn back.”