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The world is watching, are we?

Published: 
Monday, November 6, 2017

Last week, behind its glass façade, the CCJ was the site for a historic battle not yet won. These are hard words to write given that a judgment was already handed down ordering the Belizean state to return ancestral land to the Maya people. So, if the battle was won, why still fight in court?

Put yourself in the footsteps of the Maya as you follow this story. In 2015, the CCJ affirmed the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities, in the Toledo District of southern Belize, to lands that they have historically used and occupied.

Up to last week, those lands were not returned, meaning those Maya land rights remain unprotected, forcing the Maya people to return to the CCJ to press the Belizean government to abide by the ruling.

Maya community organizations also appealed to the courts to protect their lands from multiple concessions given by the government of Belize to oil, logging, grazing and agricultural interests. These incursions occurred without the Maya people’s free, prior and informed consent, and without any redress. Not only has the Belizean government not returned Maya village lands, it continues to destroy and parcel out leases for land not legally, historically or morally its own.

Meanwhile, the government of Belize was ordered to develop a mechanism to recognise Maya land rights claims in consultation with the Maya people. A Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission was established, but no elected or designated representative of any Maya community or body in Belize has ever sat on the Commission. It is run by state officials who are not sensitive to customary protocols of engagement, good faith or international law. The Maya must meet the Commission on its terms. Imagine a paper judgment which has not guaranteed justice, but been met with delay and denial.

The $300,000 Belizean dollars which the CCJ directed the government of Belize to invest in achieving compliance is being spent, on a range of costs including rent, vehicles, consultations, administration and salaries, without any compliance achieved. Recognising insult added to injury, last week, the court mandated 50 per cent go directly to the Maya people.

They don’t have resources to keep going to the Supreme Court, and neither should the Belizean people be putting their resources to defending state violation. Maya organisations want the courts to impose sanctions and fines against the state, and have also have called for a tribunal with teeth to resolve these issues out of court. Imagine, three years ago, this is a battle they thought they won.

Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance, and a long fighter in this struggle, said to me, “This case is being watched by Indigenous communities all over who are using this case to leverage their own land claims, and it was highlighted in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. This is happening in our midst in Port-of-Spain. The world is watching, are we?

Carrying the burden, costs and tears of this with them, Maya communities continue to organise, demarcate their traditional boundaries, and envision sustainable alternatives which put ancestral reverence for nature at the heart of a Maya economy. Cristina’s heart was heavy, but her words committed: “Maya people have to remain resilient in face of these challenges, uphold our wellbeing, be a self-sustaining people, resist these violations, and protect our lands, territories, culture and identity”.

Their struggle may seem far from yours, but injustice is something with which we can all identify. The Belizean government seeks to replace Maya victory with defeat. The injustice of a battle already won, yet still having to be fought, reflects on us all from the CCJ’s glassy front on Henry Street.