By Aaron Humes
The Government of Belize agreed this week that the Maya people of the Toledo District have a historic claim to their traditional village land, ending two decades of dissension in a consent order endorsed by the Caribbean Court of Justice.
However GOB continues to say that it will not accept responsibility for damage claims for losses due to years of privation, logging and other concessions to exploit their land without their knowledge and approval.
At the beginning of its special session in Belize on Monday, the two sides presented a consent order endorsed by the full panel of the Court, led by President, Sir Dennis Byron.
Government counsel, Denys Barrow said the decision essentially reaffirms the recognition of the rights of the Maya as human beings to their ancestral claim. Yet he compared them to “squatters’ rights” as exercised elsewhere in the country – in a turn of phrase that rankled some.
The Court of Appealjudgment affirms communal rights for the Maya, following two Supreme Court judgments issued in 2007 for two villages and in 2010 which included all Mayan villages
The Government has agreed to develop, in consultation with the Mayans, the necessary administrative and legal steps to protect those land rights, including land ownership rights at the Lands Department, and any other agreed upon terms between the Mayan communities and the Government.
GOB has also agreed to consult with the Mayan people on procedures that outsiders must follow when exploiting resources inside Mayan territory.
The Government cannot grant concessions and permits for resource exploitation – such as logging permits and oil exploration concessions, and land titles – without first consulting with the Villages who own that land.
The CCJ retains the jurisdiction to supervise the Government in carrying out its commitments, and has asked for a report from both parties about the progress of that implementation by next April 30, 2016.
“We’re very happy with the results …it’s what has been argued all along. It’s an affirmation of our rights and because of that, if we are the owners of our land, we must be party to anything that happens to our property,” Froyla Tzalam , Executive Director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), told reporters at court.
The attorney presiding over the umbrella organizations and village leaders, Senior Counsel Antoinette Moore, paid tribute to the courage, persistence and humility of the Maya in their long journey during a press conference held after arguments in court were completed on Wednesday.
She said: “You had courage, and it’s a quite, humble, strong courage, and I’ve have learned from that.
“I’ve learned from your patience. Even sitting here waiting for us to come upstairs, patience over years and years and years of going to meetings, coming to court, travelling from Toledo to Belize City. I’ve learned from your patience, I’ve grown from watching how you, as a people have operated.”
Wednesday’s session addressed the question of whether the Maya are entitled to special damages for an incident in the village of Golden Stream, Toledo, in 2008. In that incident, $61,000 worth of crops on farmland disputed by Alfonso Cal and the late Francis Johnston from nearby Big Falls were bulldozed.
The Court questioned Moore on why there was no direct challenge to Johnston’s claim on the property. She replied that Johnston was but one example of disrespect by Government of Maya rights in the villages.
Attorney Raymond Barrow disagreed, saying that Government was not to blame for Johnson’s behaviour and would pay “not a penny” in those damages.
Maya villages claim a total of $250,000 in special or pecuniary damages for actions by the Government .
They also are asking for a larger, undetermined quantum for “moral damages” which they say were caused by the Government’s actions over the years – allowing villagers to be forced off their land, deprived of access to important resources, and being ignored by successive Governments in their negotiations on the issue.
Barrow, in reply argued that the rest of Belize should not have to pay the Maya for damages which were, in his view, caused by “the colonial system” which oppressed the Mayas’ and others.