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Apr 26, 2007

Maya pursue land and park cases

Story PictureToday a small contingent of Mayan community leaders gathered in the courtroom of Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh to witness the first official proceeding related to their legal claim for demarcation of village lands. Residents of Conejo and Santa Cruz filed suit in the Supreme Court earlier this month, asserting that the Government of Belize has failed to protect traditional Maya land rights and related resources based on “longstanding use and occupancy.” The lawsuit is based on a decision of the O.A.S. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as a ten point agreement signed between Maya leaders and the Government in October 2000. While today’s court session dealt with case management, that is things like the cut-off date for submissions and affidavits, activist Greg Ch’oc used the opportunity to reassert that this trial is about getting justice for his people.

Greg Ch’oc, Maya Rights Activist
“We supposed to have a government that represents the interests of its citizens and for the last eight years we have been trying to find a political solution to the land tenure and security in Toledo. It has created a cloud of uncertainty on the lives of thousands of people, particularly the Maya people. Unfortunately, we have not made any progress towards that. We have signed an agreement that captures the rhetoric but denies the intent and we, together with the community, felt that we have to bring it before the court. And based on what has occurred in Commonwealth countries around the world and based on the norms that have emerged at the international level where the respect for the rights of indigenous people has been affirmed both by the U.N. and other international bodies, certainly I think if Belize should to take a position of challenging those norms, I think it will send a signal to the international community that Belize intends to continue to violate the rights of its people. We have put our confidence and the certainty of our future in the hands of the court and I am hoping that we will emerge victorious.”

Attorney Antoinette Moore is representing the Mayan villages with advice from U.S. law professor James Anaya of the University of Arizona. The Government of Belize is being defended by Nicola Cho of the Attorney General’s Ministry. The substantive trial is scheduled to begin on the eighteenth of June.

In related news, word out of the Toledo district tonight is that the Government is considering the issuance of a permit for a Guatemalan company to gather petroleum data from the Sarstoon Temash National Park. According to the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, the proposal by Compania Petrolera de Atlantico seeks permission to lay geophones, the instruments used to record seismic waves beneath the ground, which would require the cutting of several trails through the park. But Ch’oc says while preparing his position on the permit, the Department of the Environment informed him that a recent change in regulations means that such activity would not require an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Greg Ch’oc
“They are quoting the new regulations that have been changed, where the schedule one development activities have been—for example seismic testing, has been moved to schedule two. This move, the discretion to the Department of the Environment to determine whether an EIA is required for any activity that is under schedule two.”

“Definitely it’s an act of bad faith. I have—what has happened is we initially had appealed the decision of the court and it was based on a discussion that I had with the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and many members of Cabinet, that there was a political solution to the issues that have been raised by SATIIM. They gave me their word and subsequently I spoke to my attorneys and the communities and our board and we agreed to move beyond rhetoric to show that we really want a solution to the issues that have been raised, both by the court and the issues that were raised outside the court. We agreed to withdraw the appeal and in hindsight maybe we should not have because the decisions that have been—or the activities and the actions of government so far has lead me to believe that they are acting in bad faith.”

According to Ch’oc, Compania Petrolera de Atlantico is currently conducting seismic testing on the Guatemalan side of the Sarstoon River. In the letter from the Forest Department, the proposal is being considered to ensure that “any cross border deposit is not exploited without [Belizean] input, benefit or otherwise.” Ch’oc says following the recent change in regulations, SATIIM is now considering their options as well as initiating meetings with its board, community partners, and legal team. The permission only allows the company to run four geophone lines a maximum of one point five kilometres into Belizean territory and the results of the testing–on both sides of the border–must be turned over to Belize’s Geology and Petroleum Department. Under the terms of the agreement, day to day monitoring of the operation in the park would be done by SATIIM.

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