The consent order that was issued by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on April 22, 2015, finally laid to rest more than two decades of struggle by the Mayas of Belize against successive PUP and UDP government administrations for recognition and respect of their customary land rights.
For the removal of doubt, customary land tenure refers to land that is owned and managed by indigenous peoples according to their own traditional customs. Not only are their communal and individual properties administered by certain community derived norms. In accordance with their culture, they also collectively have relations to and derive benefits from their forests, wildlife, traditional plants and rivers to sustain their way of life.
Communal land tenure has been practiced by indigenous peoples in every continent, including Africa, long before the European colonizers sought to impose private land tenure as the only legitimate system. Currently in Belize, the Garinagu maintain communal title to 960 acres of land called the St. Vincent Block west of Punta Gorda. The Mennonites in Belize have their communal land tenure system with thousands of acres.
Even after Belize’s independence, however, the Government of Belize continued its attempt to impose the colonial private title system upon the Mayas. What the Mayas had been asking for was nothing special or different than for government to respect their right to practice their own customs and traditions, including their right to maintain their distinct social and cultural institutions, as they have been doing for centuries to this day.
Quite simply, what the Mayas have been persistently saying is: “This is how we have lived in rural Toledo District as has been as part of our culture for centuries. Our communal values have been the way we relate to our land including the trees, forest, rivers, wildlife and resources. This is our way of life, our right. Please respect it.”
That is why it is called rights; it is something that people already inherently have. A right is not something to be trampled upon or taken by anyone; instead it must be protected and respected.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Mayas were not demanding that the government grant them special rights. They were fighting to protect the rights that they already have but which the government (also a victim and perpetrator of colonial mentality), its agents and related parties had been seeking to muscle away.
Such rights are protected in sections 3, 3(d), 16 and 17 of the Belize Constitution and also in Article 26 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” and that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.” Such rights were unequivocally affirmed by the Inter American Commission of Human Rights.
By consent of the Government of Belize and the Maya Leaders Alliance, the CCJ affirmed the judgement of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal that “Maya customary land tenure exists in the Maya villages in the Toledo District and gives rise to collective and individual property rights within the meaning of sections 3(d) and 17 of the Belize Constitution.”
The CCJ ordered that “Government, in consultation with the Maya people or their representatives, develop the legislative, administrative and/or other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism to identify and protect the property and other rights arising from Maya customary land tenure, in accordance with Maya customary laws and land tenure practices.”
The CCJ also accepted Government’s undertaking to “cease and abstain from any acts, whether by the agents of the government itself or third parties acting with its leave, acquiescence or tolerance, that might adversely affect the value, use or enjoyment of the lands that are used and occupied by the Maya villages, unless such acts are preceded by consultation with them in order to obtain their informed consent, and are in conformity with their hereby recognized property rights and the safeguards of the Belize Constitution.” This includes abstention from issuing leases or grants to land, and from “issuing or renewing any authorizations for resource exploitation”.
The impressive victory of the Mayas at Belize’s highest court is a result of their relentless struggle against daunting odds – including their meager resources as compared to those of the government and large timber and oil prospecting companies, persistent opposition to their human rights by both political party administrations, sacrificial leadership work, intimidation and occasional death threats, divide and conquer bully tactics by politicians and their agents to tear communities apart, political strategies to set other ethnic groups against the Mayas, and the sheer longevity of decades of their struggle. Through court cases after cases, meetings after meetings, betrayals, misconceptions, and moments of personal discouragement, they had to remain firmly fixed at pursuing their goal of protecting their right to own, use, develop and control lands in their communities in accordance with their cultural traditions.
Ironically, when the government through the Ministry of Natural Resources granted at least 17 concessions to a Malaysian company totalling near 500,000 acres for logging in the mostly Maya lands in the Toledo District, no other ethnic council objected. The granting of concessions covering near 750,000 acres of land including Maya lands in lowland portion of the Toledo District for oil exploration which would automatically be converted to oil extraction – also met no objection by other ethnic councils. The granting of huge blocks of private land in the Toledo District to politically connected persons, the blatant illegal harvesting of millions of dollars of rosewood from within Maya lands by political cronies were also met with silent compliance by other cultural councils.
Amidst all these violations, the other cultural councils not only objected to the Mayas seeking to protect their rights to the lands that they have long occupied. These councils also entered their objections against the Mayas in court affidavits to support the very colonially oriented State whose aim was to trample the internationally recognized indigenous, cultural and constitutional rights of their fellow Belizeans. Throughout all these hurdles, at any point that the Mayas would have given up or lost hope, they would have lost. They didn’t.
The success of the Mayas from their decades of struggle provides valuable lessons for all Belizeans. For one, the strength of their indigenous communal leadership and governing institutions (like the alcalde system and Maya Leadership Alliance) were very important for maintaining support for one another and to sustain the pursuit of their vision. Through their established leadership system they were able to access international resources and support for the protection of their rights.
Through successive PUP and UDP administrations, the Maya leadership was also able to keep politics in its place in order to avoid the compromising attachment to one political party or another, as has been the weakness of few other councils. Such detachment and their internal cohesion were important for the leadership to keep focused and ensure that their investments of time, energies, and other resources are not held hostage to divisive party politics.
The collective ownership of the struggle by the Maya leadership united them to a common cause as well as to their community, traditions and culture. Because they lived their customary land rights as part of their culture, the ideas they brought forward were not an external imposition. They owned their vision and acted to achieve it. Despite hardships and meagre resources, the leaders maintained a cohesive sense of purpose. Given that their rights were not respected by the government, as it ought to have been, they knew that it was they themselves who have to assert the protection of their rights.
The Maya’s belief that they can change their situation was also very critical. When people believe that nothing can be changed, or that someone else “out there” or “up there” should do the work to change their situation, they will never organize or act to make things happen, even if they have resources at their disposal. However, when people believe that it is up to them to change their situation, they will act accordingly.
In the case of the Mayas, ever since the days of their former leaders Diego Bol, Julian Cho and others in the late 1980 and 1990s, they believed that they must act together and that no one else will do so on their behalf. They knew that their situation can be different; that it was up to them to change these situations; that they must follow and sustain a series of actions to get things done, including seeking the support necessary to attain their goals.
The secret weapon in the struggles of people is leadership. It is the absence of leadership, or the presence of dysfunctional, sleepwalking leadership that collapses a society. On the other hand, firm, visionary, passionate, persuasive and transformative leadership that is deeply committed and connected to the people and their cause was the secret weapon that was seen through Julian Cho, Cristina Coc, Greg Choc, Pablo Mis, members of the Maya Leaders Alliance, the alcaldes and others. They were able to keep focused and united to a cause, to make personal sacrifices through challenging times and persist through the years to ensure victory. Even while there was hardly any support for Cristina, in particular, from the women’s empowerment, women’s month and women-in-politics people, her leadership as a woman among her people remains unmatched.
As Belizeans savour the victory of the Mayas as a victory for all, especially marginalized Belizeans, we must all strive to continue to understand the forces that detract people from supporting one another to fulfil their rights and dignity. Belizeans cannot allow these forces to destroy the rights of all to a better life. The road ahead will be one of reconciliation among all parties and for emerging leadership to be nurtured. Yes indeed, power to the people.
Originally published in the Amandala.