Court of Appeal affirms Maya land rights

The Belize Court of Appeal has upheld the former Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh’s Supreme Court ruling of October 2007 on the Toledo Maya land rights, on two of the five grounds of appeal that the government had challenged.

The President of the Court of Appeal Hon. Justice Manuel Sosa held the minority view in the 198-page decision, and said on Thursday that the Court was unable to achieve unanimity in its decision on civil appeal #27 of 2010.

The Appeal Court dismissed Grounds 1 and 2 of the government’s appeal. In effect, the Appeal Justices affirmed Conteh’s decision that the Maya people of the Toledo District have land tenure rights over the lands they occupy.

The court ruled that grounds 3, 4, and 5 of the Government’s appeal should succeed, and set aside a cross appeal which the Mayans had filed.

The Mayans’ attorney, Antoinette Moore, S.C., told reporters she has to absorb what the decision means fully. “I have no idea of the reasoning behind the decision, only what the decision is,” she said.

Moore said the essential part the government lost is that the Mayan people have rights to land tenure. “Obviously we are very pleased about that outcome,” Moore said.

What comes after in acknowledging those land rights is the practical. Moore added,  Conteh had ordered that the government implement some form of titling process to document the land ownership.

The Maya people have no system to document ownership of land, and the court ruled that the government has no obligation to set up such a system, Moore pointed out.

While the court affirms the Mayans’ land rights, it is also saying the government does not have a duty to protect those land rights.

Moore said that she has filed an application for contempt, which is to be heard on Monday, with respect to this very judgment.

The appeal is  in  respect to the government not obeying the court order, when it signed Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) with U.S. Capital Energy, without consulting the Mayas, on whose lands the oil drilling is to take place under.

As to the dismissal of their cross-appeal, Moore said they had sought damages in respect to what happened at  Golden Stream, so when the government appealed, they also appealed against that claim for damages. Gregory Cho’c, Executive Director of SATIIM, described the ruling as a bitter/sweet victory. He added that the Mayas are planning to fight this case all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

As Sosa read the last paragraph of his own judgment, he declared: “I acknowledge with deep regret the very long delay in the giving of judgment in the present appeal, and I humbly apologize for so much of it as I am responsible for. The only explanation I can give is the enormous pressure of work under which this court is called upon to function, as the volume and complexity of appeals continues to increase.”

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