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Jun 13, 2008

Mayans pursue customary land rights in Supreme Court … again

Story PictureDisputes over land are often complex and filled with emotion and a new case file laid before the Chief Justice of Belize today is no different. But as News Five’s Janelle Chanona reports, this claim has the power to force the Government of Belize to finally make its legal position clear on the indigenous rights of the Mayans of southern Belize.

Antoinette Moore, Attorney, Golden Stream
“Along with my clients, I am extremely disappointed in how the government has performed thus far with respect to the Maya people’s rights.”

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
That was the reaction of Human Rights Attorney Antoinette Moore this morning as she filed for an emergency injunction in the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Natural Resources and Toledo rice farmer Francis Johnston on behalf of the Maya of Golden Stream Village. According to Moore, the villagers are seeking constitutional redress for alleged violations to their rights to property, equality and life caused by the destruction of the cocoa and corn by Johnston’s bulldozer between April and June. The Mayans assert that the fifty acres in question is village property under customary land tenure.

Francis Johnston, Lease Holder, Golden Stream
“I don’t see where they could have right in that. I feel like I have all my right to protect what belongs to me and stand firm.”

But according to Francis Johnston, for more than two decades, he has been paying the lease on the land and was the first to farm the parcel.

Francis Johnston
“That even before they have came and established themselves in Golden Stream. Now they come afterward and invaded the area just like a bunch of wee wee ants would go and invade an orchard and just take away whatsoever they feel like whenever they feel like; planted pegs in the place in the night, planted cocoa in the night and all of these things. I would never do that to one of my fellow citizens of Belize. I would never do that to you. That is not right, that would be hurting my conscience.”

Wilfred Elrington, Attorney General
“In my view this is an attempt on the part of the claimants to try to bring pressure on the Government. If you look at what they were asking, the government is supposed to do nothing in relation to that village until they get a determination from the court.”

Today’s legal dispute is the first to revive the issue of customary land tenure rights since the October eighteenth decision by the Chief Justice which upheld constitutional protection of lands surrounding the Toledo Villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz. Following the verdict, on March twenty-seventh, the Government of Belize issued a memorandum asserting those rights for all thirty-eight villages in the Toledo district. But a subsequent M.O.U. in April rescinded that blanket coverage and limited the order only to Conejo and Santa Cruz. And according to Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, until the court says otherwise, those are the orders that will stand.

Wilfred Elrington
“Our position is very clear, until we get a legal decision in relation to this village, it is not our view that the decision given by the Chief Justice in relation to Santa Cruz and Conejo is binding on that village. We think that the village must first go to have judicial pronouncement as to its status. If in fact at the end of the day the Chief Justice makes the same ruling with respect to Santa Cruz and Conejo then we will also try to abide by it. But we are not going to apply that ruling in a broad way over all the Indian villages in Toledo because there’s a criterion for them to be able to have the status which they are claiming and that has got to be established before the court.”

Moore has until June thirtieth to file papers on the substantive issue and today she made it clear she will be relying heavily on the C.J.’s October decision.

Antoinette Moore
“As a matter of law in this country now, customary land tenure has been recognised through that judgment and the rights, the constitutional rights of the Maya people as a whole were recognised and affirmed. And the government has an obligation based on that case as well as international law and other common law, they have an obligation to make sure that the Maya people’s rights are protected or recognised with legal documents. It’s like a failure to understand that their rights are grounded in indigenous right, that their rights are distinctive from other people’s rights by virtue of the fact that they were the first people here.”

Cristina Coc, Maya Rights Activist
“I’m really appalled at the position that clearly the Government representative has taken. At the same time I’m still very pleased that the Chief Justice has continued to reiterate that in fact this is an issue of Maya customary land rights. It’s not an isolated issue of an individual; it goes to demonstrate even further, the lack of recognition and respect for our rights as a people.”

For Cristina Coc and the Mayan leaders from the south, today’s development has highlighted the need to have the rights of all thirty-eight Mayan villages in Toledo to be accepted by the court.

Cristina Coc
“The Mayan people have never acted violently. We have been the most patient people to wait and to abide by the law as good Belizeans and say look, we want to be recognised, want to be respected and we will do it in the most peaceful way. The Maya people have very limited resources, both human and financial and we believe that the issue concerns all thirty-eight Mayan communities and therefore, we are in fact leaning towards bringing a class suit. It’s hard to predict what’s gonna happen in the immediate future but if I were to look ahead I would say that that is exactly where I would be headed.”

Today Chief Justice Conteh declared that this case raises “grave issues” about land rights and accepted commitments from rice farmer Francis Johnston that the bulldozing will stop and that the Ministry of Natural Resources will not issue or transfer any leases in Golden Stream until he makes a decision in the case. Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

No date for the start of the substantive case has been set.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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