By Aaron Humes
Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana, in a judgment issued Thursday morning, has ordered the Government of Belize and U.S. Capital Energy to enter “good faith negotiations” with the Maya communities of southern Toledo before continuing to prepare to drill for petroleum in the Sarstoon Temash National Park.
But Attorney for U.S. Capital Energy Michael Peyrefitte and local representative Alistair King say she did not explicitly order their work stopped, which to them suggests they can continue pending a review of the decision or a change in circumstances.
Madam Justice Arana issued two declarations. The first is that the decision of the Director of Geology and Petroleum Andre Cho and related government departments to grant a permit to build a seven-kilometre road into the drill site at the Park and allow activities relating to commercial oil drilling was “irrational, unreasonable and unlawful”.
Arana also declared that it was contrary to the legitimate expectation of the Maya communities under international law and previous litigation that stated they should be consulted before such activities commenced.
In the judgment, Justice Arana reaffirmed an unbroken line of affirmations of the rights of the Toledo Maya in the area stretching back to the initial ruling of then Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh.
Conteh’s ruling granted communal land rights to the communities of Santa Cruz and Conejo.
In a later judgment, he extended this to all 38 Maya communities. The decision was partially affirmed by the Court of Appeal and is presently awaiting final determination by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
But Justice Arana did not directly quash the permit granted to U.S. Capital Energy, which expires on April 30 of this year.
Maya hail “enlightened” decision
Speaking at a press conference called immediately following the ruling across town, attorney for claimants Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and the Maya leaders of Crique Sarco, Graham Creek, Midway and Conejo, Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, said Justice Arana’s decision was “enlightened” and built on the prior work of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal.
He noted that the judge ruled that the indigenous communities should not have to keep running to court for judicial enforcement of the rights they are guaranteed to under the Constitution and Laws of Belize.
It was the court’s view, he said, that the Government and U.S. Capital must “respect” the right of the Maya to give free, prior and informed consent to any decision affecting their lands, and it was the Government’s responsibility to establish a framework for so doing.
It leaves U.S. Capital with an interesting decision: should they go ahead and risk further wrath of the Court and the Maya as well as injunctive relief and possible penalties, or stop now and go through the process of consultation?
In Courtenay’s view, they have no choice. He warned that it is at their own peril if that is the course of action they are prepared to take, which in any event only lasts until April 30. But without proper consultation and negotiation, every action taken by U.S. Capital to further preparatory work for drilling for petroleum is a further violation of the Mayas’ rights, he stated.
SATIIM Executive Director Gregory Ch’oc affirmed that the Maya are prepared to work with all concerned, but said, “not here, not now, not this way,” referring to U.S. Capital’s approach to date.
Later, he said that the Maya’s “cosmo-vision” involves ensuring that all are afforded every opportunity for success and development. But he maintained that all the Maya ask for is for the law to be followed and for GOB to “change course” and adopt a more consultative approach.
The leaders of the four communities which are co-litigants of the case chimed in with expressions of support and vowed to keep the fight going forward and spoke of the “sacrifice and responsibility,” in the words of SATIIM Board Chairman Ligorio Cus, that lies on the Maya’s shoulders to reverse the continued disrespect from their opponents.
Company says it can continue work
Speaking immediately following the ruling, both U.S. Capital’s attorney, Michael Peyrefitte, and the company’s local representative, Alistair King, maintained that it would be necessary to read the judgment further before issuing formal comment.
But one thing that jumped out at them immediately is that without an explicit court order preventing it, their work can continue.
King said: “As far as I know we will continue drilling. I would have to be advised on that, but I don’t think that there is anything in there that says we have to stop work. So for right now, unless the lawyers tell me differently, we will just continue.”
King says the company’s foreign-based executives are waiting to hear of the judgment before determining their next course of action.
Peyrefitte said, “A judgment can say several things but it doesn’t necessarily have to speak to the issue that U.S. Capital has taken on.”
Asked about the possibility of appeal, he said it was too early to make a decision as yet and that if there is something appealable they then will consider their options.
Money claim “debunked”
Last week, following adjournment of the interim injunction application by SATIIM, Peyrefitte irked the Maya community by suggesting that they were after “money”, specifically a bigger share of the oil revenue than that to which they were formally entitled under the terms of the production sharing agreement (PSA) for U.S. Capital.
When Reporter asked him if his views had changed as a result of this week’s decision, he made it clear that they had not. “This decision goes hard against the Mayas; they want drilling!” he declared.
Eamon Courtenay’s hard-hitting reply described Peyrefitte’s remarks as “crude,” “rude,” “insulting” and “express(ing) neo-colonialist views,” and called on U.S. Capital to condemn the remarks and “reject the philosophy which (Peyrefitte) espoused.”
He added that the company should prove that they are “genuine investors” who “respect the people of the Toledo District.”
But Ch’oc noted that this was typical for Belize’s leaders.
He said that the Maya have tried to be humble and restrained in the process and stuck to the process of the rule of law, and their work also involves helping Belize’s leaders change their minds, liberate themselves from those views and work toward a country that collectively, peacefully and in harmony build a “true vision” of nationhood, and that as part of that process, the Maya will “take the moral high ground.”