This morning final arguments were heard in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) for the case of the Maya Leaders Alliance and 23 village leaders and co-leaders of the Toledo District representing 38 Maya villages against the Government of Belize. As we reported on Monday, following a case management conference, the Government conceded that Maya settlers have full rights to communal tenure for village lands in and among the 38 Maya villages in Toledo, as previously ruled by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. CCJ President Sir Dennis Byron formally read the consent order agreed to by both parties, in which the Court of Appeal judgment by majority issued two years ago is upheld insofar as to the existence of Maya communal land rights and collective and individual tenure as defined by the Constitution. The Government gives several undertakings to work with the Maya to find the means to implement the decision and not to take actions that may undermine the use and enjoyment of their lands without prior and informed consent, including issuing any licenses, permits, concessions, and leases and other instruments or renewing same. However, the constitutionality of Government’s authority over all lands in Belize remains unchanged. The court will ask for a report from both parties on implementation of the order by next April 30, 2016. Senior Counsel Denys Barrow, representing the Government, said that it was time for the impasse to end.
“All of us who are here right now who own Belize. I lay the point that they Maya are not entitled to damages for the privation of their rights, for the oppression which they have suffered any more than the Africans, they other Indian persons, East Indians, Garifuna, Mestizo, everybody. So everybody has a claim against the colonial system, which we inherited upon independence. It is now at the stage where, these claims have been brought forward and government is in a position and it has magnificently done – to say, you know what? Let us give the Maya their wise and put their system of land ownership on a legal statutory legislative footing. So this is what government has agreed to do. Government should not be made to pay, you and I should not be made to pay any damages to the Maya for the wrongs they have suffered through the years.”
We will have the full response from the Maya people and their attorneys, Senior Counsel Antoinette Moore and Monica Coc-Magnusson later on. But a senior Maya leader gave her view at court during a break in arguments. Froyla Tzalam is the executive director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) which has taken a lead role in fighting for the rights of all Maya. She says the judgment represents vindication.
“We have been vindicated. If you listen to a lot of the arguments as SATIM has done previously with Greg as spokes person and leading the legal charge, it’s a vindication. We’re very happy with the results. I’m sure if Greg was here he would be saying the same thing, it’s what has been argued all along. It’s an affirmation of our rights and because of that, if we are the owners of our land, we must be party to anything that happens to our property.”
There is one outstanding issue to be settled and that is the matter of damages sought by the village of Golden Stream in northern Toledo for the specific incident that precipitated this case, the 2008 destruction of $61,000 worth of crops on farmland disputed by Alfonso Cal and the late Francis Johnston from nearby Big Falls. The Court closely questioned Moore on why there was no direct challenge to Johnston’s claim on the property, represented by a lease that could not be produced in court when Johnston was an interested party in the case at Supreme Court. Barrow says GOB will not pay for Johnston’s actions.
Denys Barrow – Attorney for GOB
“Position of the government is that in relation to Golden Stream, a claim should have been brought against the man who they say did the damage and question whether the land belonged to that man or to the Maya village needed to have been determined in the course of court proceedings properly brought. So government says, not a penny for that. We did not do anything, we are not even sure if that land was owned by Mr. Johnson as he claimed or owned by Mr. Cal and they claim. So that is something government should not pay for.
But the villages are claiming a total of $250,000 in special or pecuniary damages for actions by the Government that undermined their possession of village lands including repeated granting of leases, oil and logging concessions and other decisions, including a walking back of a 2008 directive to not proceed with any action on alleged Maya territory. Tzalam told us why this is important to them.
Froyla Tzalam – Executive Director of SATIIM
“It speaks to the larger historical question… the whole point of where do you start with reparations. I believe that Mrs. Moore made it very clear that she was not asking for reparations however, her bigger argument was that the government had issued out leases even though it recognized Mayan land tenor in two villages and because it ignored its own recognition to a large extent, there should be some kind of damages to the communities. That is wat the lawyers are arguing about over the case… to what extent and how does that work out in reality. I can’t really come up with an answer to that. I do believe that there should be some moral, but how do you add a financial value to moral. If you look at the historical redress as being done under this current dual system of ownership that we have. It is really a question that I have trouble putting a dollar value to, but certainly there should be some kind of compensation.”
The decision on this part of the case has been reserved. Both supporters and opponents were out in numbers at Battlefield Park, the latter holding signs asking for their individual land titles and otherwise putting down the participants in favour of communal property.