A step closer for Maya Communal Land Rights Print E-mail
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Thursday, 02 November 2017 00:00

After 2 successive hearings before the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the Government of Belize, the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and the Toledo Alcalde’s Association (TAA), have reached a common ground on how the ongoing implementation of Maya Communal Land Rights will move forward. There were five points of disagreement between the two sides, and with the intervention of the judges, that has been reduced now to only one.

Although these Mayan Leaders continue to complain bitterly that the Government is dragging its foot on making communal land rights a real system of land ownership, the Government appointed Commission has been diligently doing its part to make sure that the launch of this new land rights system has minimal negative consequences for Southern Belize.

They have holding their consultations with all the groups and communities which could be affected by this system of land ownership that is new to Belize. As readers are aware, the Government appointed this Maya Land Rights Commission to carry out the initial stages of the implementation of communal land rights. That involved holding consultations with the Maya on how this system is to work. Perhaps choosing to ignore the intricate complexities, the spokespersons for the Maya leaders have been quick to criticize the pace of the work, which requires a careful approach.

In court, however, they confined their complaints against the Government and the Commission to 5 key areas. In the hearing before the CCJ, which was held on Monday, October 31, 2017, the two parties brought these issues before the judges, so that they could act as mediators. The first big dispute was over the use of the $300,000 fund that the Government was ordered to set aside, as part of the first step for the implementation. The MLA and the TAA were complaining that they did not feel they were being properly funded to attend consultation sessions that the Maya Land Rights Commission was supposed to be holding. In fact, in the hearings, they were pressing the CCJ judges to order the Government to use the funds only to cover the costs of consulting the Mayan claimants.

After all, the Mayas are not the only ones that will be affected by the actual implementation of the April 2015 judgment from the CCJ, which affirms that the Mayas of Southern Belize have communal land rights. The Government, in its wisdom, agreed to the consent order acknowledging that the Maya people have communal land rights. But those rights should not be allowed to infringe on the other non-Mayan Belizeans living in the Toledo District. Those other residents could become displaced, or they could experience other negative consequences when the Government institutes communal land rights for the 39 Mayan communities of the south. There are also Mayan Belizeans who would prefer individual land ownership over communal land ownership. So, they, the District Association of Village Councils, and NGO’s who manage protected areas in Toledo have also been among the other groups that the Commission has been consulting, separate from the Mayan claimants who want communal land ownership.

So, the CCJ judges were reluctant to order the Commission to stop covering the costs of consultation with those other stakeholders, who are not the claimants. As a compromise, the Maya Land Rights Commission agreed that they will bear the costs of accommodating a 21-member steering committee that has been appointed by the Maya leaders to engage in meaningful consultations on behalf of those who want communal land rights. Those consultations could take place on a monthly basis, or more frequently, if necessary, or less frequently, if there is no need for that many meetings. The commission, as it has been doing, affirmed its commitment before the CCJ judges to ensure that the quality of consultations with this steering committee will be meaningful.

Another point of dispute was results based, and the Mayan claimants complained that after two and a half years of waiting, no measurable progress was made. In response, the Chairman of the Land Rights Commission, Lisel Alamilla, committed before the CCJ, that the final draft of a 3-year working plan will be produced by January 31, 2018, to show what are the best ideas that have been produced from their months of consultations all over the Toledo District.

A 6-month land rights policy will make up part of the 3-year working plan. The actual demarcation of Maya Communal lands, or in other words, the identification of the lands where communal land rights exist, will be the first item on the agenda, after the 3-year working plan is finalized. That will be done by the technical staff at the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Another point of disagreement is the system that will be in place to resolve any trespass into Maya communal lands. They have complained in the lawsuits before the final appeal case of 2015, that there were Government- issued logging permits, and other activities which were Government-sanctioned, for which the approval of the Maya people was never sought.

So, to resolve matters like those, the Mayan claimants were pushing for the establishment of a special tribunal that would take on these types of cases. The Government attorney, Acting Solicitor General, Nigel Hawke, explained to the judges of the CCJ that the Government was not comfortable with that model of addressing the issue. Instead, two separate dispute resolution frameworks were drafted for the court to consider if any of them would be adequate. Those will be provided to the court for their review.

And the final, and possibly the most significant area of dispute was the Mayan Claimants’ insistence that they should have a representative that sits on the Government Appointed Maya Land Rights Commission. Chairman Lisel Alamilla informed the Court that the Government was not of the view that they should sit on the Commission, and that it did not diminish the Government’s commitment, or transparency in trying to move this process forward. Outside of court, the Mayan leaders harshly criticized that as the Government somehow sidelining the Mayan people as the country tries to chart a course to communal land ownership.

In response, Chairman Alamilla told the press, “I don’t see why the insistence that for the process to be inclusive and transparent, it requires them to sit on the Commission. At this moment. That is not the opinion of the Government of Belize.”

The final draft of the 3-year working plan will be completed by January 31, 2018, and 2 weeks later, the two sides will return before the CCJ on February 19, 2017.