The Government of Belize has refused a request from several Toledo village Alcades to postpone a consultation on an Environmental Impact Assessment prepared and submitted by U.S. Capital Energy to explore for oil in an area that encompasses their villages.
The Department of the Environment invited them to the consultation scheduled for October 25, but the alcaldes want to reschcedule to November 22 or later.
Their rationale, as explained in their letter to Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria on October 12, is that they need to properly understand the EIA, a 300-page document that is written entirely in English, which is not the Alcaldes’ first language. The report is also at a level of English that even the English speakers in their communities would have difficulty understanding.
One of the alcaldes emphasized how alphabetically challenged he is by English, by signing the letter with a fingerprint! So the first priority is to have the EIA translated into Q’eqchi Maya, so that all the people of the affected communities may better understand the proposal.
The Alcaldes also informed Alegria that they had no prior knowledge that this EIA study was being carried out for an undertaking, which will affect their lives and their lands
For these Indian communities land is all important to them because the Q’eqchis live off the land. The land is their life, and they want to fully understand the proposed developments that would affect the future of their children.
The date set for the consultation is also smack in the middle of the Q’eqchi’s planting season, and they found it inconvenient and unconscionable to expect them to take a working day away from the planting of the food crops on which they depend, to discuss an EIA.
Normally their communities would meet in the evenings or a weekend when most of the villagers are free. They already foresee a challenge to their effective participation, if the consultations are set for a date that is out of synch with their traditional meeting times.
The letter was signed by Juan Choc and Luis Choj, the Chairman and Alcalde of Crique Sarco; Eufemio and Enrique Makin, the Alcalde and Chairman of Conejo Village; Rolando and Jose Paau – the Alcalde and Chairman of Midway Village; and Barranco Village Chairman John Rodrigues.
They say the government should respect the rights of the Toledo Maya to have proper consultations before giving its free, prior and informed consent to any development that will use natural resources which have traditionally belonged to the Mayan people of the Toledo district.
The Alcaldes’ letter reminds Alegria that Belize has adopted the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people, which says:
“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water, or other resources.”
They further reminded Alegria of the 2007 Supreme Court judgment handed down by former Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh, which established that “the Maya villages have a right to free, prior and informed consent to any activities that might affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of the land and resources that they traditionally occupy or use.”