Maya Land Rights appeal hearing begins
The battle over land rights in Toledo, initiated by the Kekchi and Mopan Maya, claiming indigenous and ancestral rights over 38 villages in the district, entered a new round today, Thursday, March 17, as three justices of the Court of Appeal—Justice Manuel Sosa (President), Justice Brian Alleyne and Justice Dennis Morrison—began hearing the government’s challenge of a decision last June by former Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh.
On June 28, 2010, Dr. Conteh had ruled that customary land rights exist in the Toledo District. Conteh went on to rule that the claimants in the case, the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association, along with a group of Maya leaders, were entitled to assert those customary land rights in the district.
Conteh furthermore restrained the government from treating the lands in question as crown lands—a decision that the Maya say has consequences for logging and petroleum concessions in the district.
This 2010 decision was a sequel to his October 18, 2007 decision, affirming similar Maya customary land rights in two Toledo villages: Conejo and Santa Cruz.
At the time of the 2010 decision, attorney for the government, Senior Counsel Lois Young, had said, “It’s a judgment that’s so huge that it has to be tested in an appellate court.” On August 2, 2010, Government filed a formal notice of appeal.
Today, Young told the Court of Appeal that Conteh had erred on several points in the ruling. She said that the government is appealing against the Chief Justice’s findings indicating that the Maya claimants are indigenous to Belize and, therefore, are entitled to rights to the lands in Toledo.
She said the government is also appealing the prohibitions and mandatory orders Conteh had made in favor of the Maya.
Young clarified that there is no dispute that native land title exists, conceptually, but certain requirements to ground the title were not met in this case by the Toledo Maya.
More specifically, she told the court that the government’s side had presented expert witness from Belizean archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology, to indicate that it was the Manche Chol, distinct from the Kekchi and Mopan Maya, who had inhabited the lands now known as Toledo in 1540, the era of Spanish conquest.
The Maya of Belize today, Awe had said, were living in Guatemala and Mexico until fairly recently—the 1800s.
Young told the Court of Appeal that Awe had also explained in the Supreme Court trial that the people now known as the Maya—a name given to them by the Europeans—were never a united nation and never had a unified homeland.
The method of self-identification, she told the court, is their language. In their court affidavits, Young said, the claimants begin by saying which language they speak.
Also addressed in court was expert testimony provided by American anthropologist Richard Wilk. Justice Sosa noted that Wilk had pointed to mixed marriages between the Maya such as the Chol, and the ancestors of those living in Belize today.
Young told the court that it had been documented that the original home of the Kekchi Maya is Alta Verapaz in Guatemala and the Mopan Maya’s original home was the Yucatan Mexico before they migrated to Peten in Guatemala.
She reiterated to the court the government’s stance—that it was the Manche Chol who had been occupying Southern Belize at the time of the Spanish conquest and the present-day Maya cannot just claim biological descent or an ancestral connection: “It is not sufficient to merely claim to be Maya,” she told the court.
The former Chief Justice erred in finding that they are descendants of or have a connection with the Manche Chol, Young submitted in court, indicating that the claim from the Maya is believed to be that they are descendants by intermarriage.
Young also pointed out to the court that the area of land which the Maya are claiming has not exactly been identified. Toledo covers just over a million acres, she noted.
“The [former] Chief Justice did not consider that the claim lacks site specificity,” said Young.
She also pointed to a petition, as well as evidence provided by other Maya of Toledo, that not all of them want to continue a system of customary land tenure. Young said that where people discontinue customary practices, those rights attached with them can be lost.
If the intention is to continue the old way of living, then it means you cannot sell or lease land, she noted, since the land, if deemed property by indigenous rights, belongs to everyone.
Justice Dennis Morrison raised the point that since the era of Spanish conquest and the 1800’s, there may have been a shift in thinking and awareness of these rights.
Young said the issue with communal ownership is that the nature of use cannot change over the period of time in question.
Before today’s hearing began, Young objected to a late cross-appeal filed by Senior Counsel Antoinette Moore, who represents the Maya in the suit.
The filing, Young said, was due by August 16, 2010, but Moore had filed two days late and did not ask the court’s permission to accept a late filing, nor did she file an affidavit explaining the lateness.
After hearing Moore’s defense, that she had actually sent the documents via plane from Dangriga, where she is based, on August 16, but the person who was to have delivered it to the registry that same day did so two days late, President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Manuel Sosa, announced that the court would wave the deadline and in the interest of justice, allow the cross-appeal from the Maya.
That cross appeal raises the question of an award for damages under the Belize Constitution—a matter that was not then elaborated by the parties.
Senior Counsel Moore is expected to present her arguments for the Maya on Friday, March 18.
The hearing is slated to continue into Monday, March 21, 2011.