The Maya of Belize Take Back their Land Under a Gathering of Children of the Earth*
Press Release by the Maya Leaders Alliance
June 26th, 2014, Punta Gorda Town. One year after the decisive judgment of the Belize Court of Appeal that upheld Maya Customary Land Rights, Maya people of the 39 villages in southern Belize came together at Indian Creek village, Toledo. This was The Gathering of the Children of the Earth. This historic event led by the Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Maya Leaders Alliance is an affirmation of the Maya Peoples solidarity for creating a more dignified and just Belize!
During the gathering the Maya People took another monumental step towards creating a more dignified and just society. The Executive Council of the Toledo Alcaldes Association presented to the Maya People the endorsed document – Roxloq’oninlkileb’ aj Maya (Respecting the Maya People), the result of many years of dialogue and engagement. This document is the Consultation Framework for the Maya People of Southern Belize. The Consultation Framework establishes how the government of Belize, its agencies, and non-state entities should engage the Maya People on issues that affect them, including the use and enjoyment of their properties and resources. This framework is the collective effort of the Maya people which is built upon the understanding that the struggle of today is a struggle for our children and our children’s children.
While recent attempts have been made to divide us as a people, The Gathering brought us closer in solidarity. Our conviction of what is right for our People, our nation, and our planet has nothing radical about it. Justice cannot be radical. Justice cannot be ephemeral. Justice is unquestionable and undefeatable. When we stand for respect, dignity and equality we stand undefeated. No government, personal interest, or Private Corporation can defeat justice. The Gathering also reminded us that for more than 500 years we have come to realize that aside from our history, culture, resources and people, another prized possession is the dream for justice. This dream cannot be solely decided in the Courts. It cannot be erased off the history books. More importantly, it cannot be uprooted from our hearts.
In closing we congratulate the Tsilhqot’in First Nation People of Canada for another historic legal achievement at the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court granted title to lands used and occupied by this indigenous group. We are encouraged that courts around the world are affirming the rights of indigenous people to a respectful, equal, and dignified life.
With over 90 protected areas, Belize has earned a reputation for conservation. Its magnificent barrier reef, tropical rainforests, and ancient Maya temples make it a popular eco-tourism destination. But just how deep is its commitment to protecting its natural resources and Indigenous Peoples? Not deep enough to safeguard its second largest national park, and the Indigenous Maya and Garifuna peoples who live there, from oil drilling.
In Southern Belize, Sarstoon Temash National Park holds within its 42,000 acres the most pristine rainforest in the country. Recognized as a wetland of “international importance” by the Ramsar Convention, it is home to many endangered species, including the jaguar, manatee, neotropical river otter, and Hicatee turtle. Its primary forests have been attributed by National Geographic as remnants of the ancient Maya’s agroforestry systems, and today continue to be sustainably maintained by the Maya peoples of Southern Belize.
The Supreme Court of Belize ruled in 2007 and again in 2010 that the Maya who have ancestrally cared for these forests shall hold the legal titles to these lands. This court ruling, along with national and international laws, mandates that Indigenous peoples must give their free, prior and informed consent before any development project that may affect them. But that right has been trampled on again and again by the Texas-based oil company US Capital Energy, which received a concession from the Belize government to extract oil in Southern Belize beginning in 2001.
In further flagrant violation of the Maya land rights under national law, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recommendations by the Inter American Human Rights Commission, the government has now granted the oil company permits to move to the second phase of exploratory drilling in the park and on Indigenous territories. US Capital Energy has so far cut over 200 miles of seismic trails for oil exploration in the national park and on communities’ traditional lands, also causing forest fires destroying 400 acres, including the unique ecosystem of the sphagnum moss, the last of its kind in Central America.
The 21,000 Indigenous people in the region are fighting to defend their traditional lands, including the national treasure of the Sarstoon Temash National Park, against this short-sighted land grab. As Gregory Ch’oc of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management explains, “The government is counting on our regional isolation, our poverty, and our relative lack of power to continue marginalizing and discriminating against us and violating our rights. Therefore, we are urgently calling allies of the earth’s biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples to take a stand with us and support our struggle.”