One week ago today the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) accepted a consent order from the Government of Belize and Maya leaders representing 38 Maya villages in the Toledo District which settled a large part of the case brought by the latter concerning the granting of communal land rights to traditional village lands. The Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association regard it as a major victory but there are concerns from opponents about being excluded in the rush to secure land in the southernmost district. Today Prime Minister Dean Barrow made his first public comments on the issue and indicated that the Government does not recognize communal land title – at least, not as the claimants have put it.
“That consent order does not find or establish that the Maya have indigenous title. As I understand it, indigenous title is a term that carries a particular meaning in international law and practice. In effect, if the Maya had indigenous title, that would mean they would be entitled to communal land ownership. The consent order does not establish that. What Government conceded was that the bases for the property rights that the Mayans, and when I say Mayans I mean the claimants because not all Mayans agree with those that brought the claim. The claimants, what we conceded was that their claim, their entitlement – we can see there is an entitlement to property rights, is on the bases of human rights,. They hare human rights in domestic and international law.”
The Government intends to put the issue in the hands of Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development Senator Lisel Alamilla, a Toledo native and former head of the Yaaxche Conservation Trust. Maya had previously protested her being assigned a portfolio for indigenous affairs under that Ministry, but the Prime Minister expressed his confidence in her leading the Secretariat that will develop a national consultation strategy. He discusses what that Secretariat will be doing.
“We’ll set up a secretariat to plan and help to superintend the next steps forward in this large scale national consultation process that will be required before we can ever think about reaching an end result that will determine once for all – exactly what is the nature of the rights that various Maya individuals, various Maya villages have. We absolute foresee that this process will throw up different options for different communities. There is no doubt in our mind that there is a strong sentiment in the Toledo district, on the part of some Mayans for individual title as oppose to communal title.”
The Prime Minister said that under no circumstances will he entertain any talk of the Maya or anyone else illegally excluding other Belizeans from living in the villages, which will be demarcated for the first time. The CCJ is to rule separately on the issue of damages for the destruction of crops on farmland in Golden Stream in 2008 and a quantum of moral damages for the Government’s previous actions with regard to the Maya, both of which the Government resists.