Campaign Update – Belize: Government Challenges Mayas’ Land Rights Ruling
For Belize’s Mayas, good news was immediately followed by bad. In late June, the Chief Justice ruled that the Mayas of all 33 villages in the Toledo district have customary land tenure rights dating back to their residence in pre-colonial times. The ruling specified that the claimants’ rights to customary land tenure “were not extinguished by formal distribution of leases and titles by colonial settlers or any such law or act” and that they have the right “to seek redress in the courts for any breach.”
According to news reports, the Chief Justice declared that the government is obligated to adopt and protect the Constitutional rights of the claimants. He ordered the government, in consultation with the Mayas, to devise legislative and administrative measures to create a mechanism to protect land tenure practices. In the interim, the Chief Justice ordered the government to cease and abstain from any action that goes against land tenure practices, and to refrain from issuing leases to lands or resources, including concessions for logging, mining or oil explorations, unless these are done in consultation with the Maya communities. Maya and Garifuna communities in Toledo district have protested concessions for oil development in their territories, and Global Response supported their protests with letter-writing campaigns.
Now the bad news: the Belize government responded to the ruling by saying it would immediately appeal the decision. The government has never conceded that Mayas have customary land tenure rights, in spite of a 2007 Belize court ruling in favor of the Mayas and a similar ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court.
Greg Cho’c, executive director of the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), called the Chief Justice’s ruling “a quantum leap for justice in this country, a quantum leap for Belize on a whole.” He continued, “I hope that we can move towards the kind of reconciliation that the Chief Justice spoke about. We want to develop. We want to contribute, and I believe the government wants to ensure that every Belizean has the opportunity to contribute to their own development.”