They won a major victory in the Caribbean Court of Justice earlier this year when the Government conceded that they have special customary rights over the land in and surrounding their villages in the Toledo District. But while GOB has consented to help the Maya define and enforce those rights through a special commission, every attempt by the Maya Leaders’ Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) to dialogue with Government since April’s ruling has been ignored, even while Prime Minister Dean Barrow has been insisting that not all Maya are on board with the concept of customary rights. Meanwhile, according to the Maya, there have been continued violations of their rights on the ground in Toledo, most notably the incident between Maya villagers of Santa Cruz and a black Belizean, Rupert Myles, who has a common-law relationship with a Maya woman from that village, where Myles bulldozed part of the Maya ruin of Uxbenka in order to establish a pathway to his house in the village and was physically detained. We will have an update on that case later, but first to today’s return by the MLA and TAA to the CCJ to ask for more clarification on certain matters. We spoke to Pablo Mis, program coordinator for the Maya Alliance, this afternoon in Belize City.
Pablo Mis, Program Coordinator, Maya Alliance: We made an application to the court to the CCJ to clarify several things for us. The government you will know has been publicly stating that the rights are not defined, we’ll have o do National consultations. So we came back to the court because they retained jurisdiction over this matter to ask for clarifications. There were 3 things that we were looking for. 1, is for a declaration that the government, by its current actions has violated the consent order of April 2015. We were also asking the court for clarification on the nature of the rights for the Mayan community whether particularly where it has to do with who can and cannot reside within Mayan Communities. And the 3rd thing is that we’re asking them to clarify the issue of the fund that was set aside for implementation. Now the attorney of the government made an intervention to say that the government is intent on implementing and that because there was recent election and a recent swearing in of the cabinet they have not been able to do anything. The judges felt that there were serious concerns on the part of the Mayan people and that the Mayan people cannot be left to wait. And for that reason the judges felt that they give the government another chance, another opportunity, to engage with the Maya people in good faith. The decided not to deal with the 3 issues that we brought before the court, but instead ordered that the government report back to them, on January 21st with concrete actions that they would have taken in consultation with the Maya people on the grounds.
So now that the Government has another chance, will they deliver? Mis told us that when the United Democratic Party (UDP) first took office in 2008 they similarly blamed elections for not enforcing then-Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh’s ruling in the first Maya Land Rights case which involved Santa Cruz and Conejo. So while they are disappointed about having to come back to court again, the Maya are ready to talk, according to Mis, who outlined the work they have done in preparation for this historic moment.
Pablo Mis, Program Coordinator, Maya Alliance: We are of course very disappointed that we have to be coming back to court. We’re also sure that the general population of Belize is not happy that we have to be coming back to court, because it means that thousands and perhaps millions tax payer’s dollars will be wasted again just to come again, back and forth trying to clarify some of these issues. For us it would be much more helpful if the government was to engage with us in good faith. For instance we drafted the alcalde’s bill in 2011, it took us 6 years but that outlines really the Maya Customary law. It is there for the government to use, we have presented it to the ministry of local governance in 2011, and to date it hasn’t gone any further. We also developed the Maya consultation framework which we presented to the Hon. Prime Minister. So I think that there are great work that the Mayan people have already started that would contribute to a quick take off of any dialogue or any good faith implementation between the government and the Mayan people.
Pablo Mis, Program Coordinator, Maya Alliance: Of course the government has made those public statements, that is the reason why we came back to court. We of course are not happy that the government maintains that position which we feel is unnecessary at this point because the culture of the Maya people is not an Anansi Story. You go down south and you see that what we’re talking about is real, it is present day existence. So to say that it is not defined, that we don’t know what customary practice, what customary law is an excuse position that we do not easily accept as a people. And this is one of the reasons why we came back to court. And I think that the court saw merits in that and that’s why they ordered that practical advancement be made by 21st January when the report is due.
As for whether the issue had any part to play in the results of the recent general elections, where both Toledo District constituencies went decisively to the People’s United Party, particularly Toledo West, as did Stann Creek West more narrowly, Mis told us he has no way to be sure but points out that the Maya people are conscious of national issues as much as their own.
The case comes back to court on January 21, 2016, ahead of an April 2016 deadline for a full report on progress in implementing the full decision. The MLA and TAA were represented by Monica Coc-Magnusson while Deputy Solicitor General Nigel Hawke represented the Government of Belize.