Posts Tagged ‘Belize’


International human rights organizations Cultural Survival and Rainforest Foundation US stand behind Maya Leaders as they Peacefully Protect their Lands. 

Joint Statement by Cultural Survival, the Rainforest Foundation and First Peoples Worldwide

Maya leaders of Southern Belize were arrested on Wednesday in a gross violation of their rights.  On the early morning of June 24th, traditional leaders of the Maya people of Southern Belize were violently awoken in their homes by police on the charges of unlawful imprisionment.  The charges were brought against 12 people, including the Village Chairman, and the Second Alcalde, elected by their communities according to traditional practices. Also arrested was Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) spokesperson, Cristina Coc, a peaceful and well-respected advisor to the traditional leaders and mother of two.

At an arraignment that afternoon, bail was initially set at $8000 each. When one of the attorneys for the Maya defendants explained that this was beyond the means of Maya farmers, the Magistrate increased the amount to $10,000.  According to local attorneys, bail for this level of offences is usually between $1000-$3000. Bail was posted by other Maya villagers from various communities and all were released. The group warrant was never presented to the attorneys or their clients. The case has been adjourned until July 28, 2015.​

The charges were filed by Mr. Rupert Myles, after he was handcuffed by local Maya police at a village meeting during which Mr. Myles became agitated and threatened to wield a firearm. The conflict arose because Mr. Myles has been illegally constructing a house on the grounds of an ancient sacred site of the Maya People, the Uxbenka temple.   The laws of Belize prohibit building on or damaging any archeological site.

The Maya people have legal customary ownership of Santa Cruz, where Uxbenka is located, as per a recent court decision at the Caribbean Court of Justice, which recognizes the property rights of the Maya people in accordance with their customary land tenure system. Maya customary law, which forms part of the law of Belize, requires that people apply for residence in the village. Mr. Myles at no point applied for residency.

The Maya authorities had previously alerted the Punta Gorda Police, the Belize Defense Force and the Belize Institute of Archeology about the situation, but Mr. Myles continued construction, causing irreparable damage to the sacred site by bulldozing a road to the structure.  Last month in May 2015, a letter was sent to the Belize Institute of Archaeology (NICH) from the Director of the Uxebnka Archaeological Project, in which he expressed his concern that Mr. Myles had: “bulldozed into the archaeological platform (…). He has also built new buildings, and has burned vegetation to the very edge of the steel plaza, further endangering the ruin. The bulldozing activity has irreparably damaged the platform.”

The Maya leaders dispute the claim that they discriminated against Mr. Myles, and emphasize that Mr. Myles was detained, but not arrested by the village police because he had agreed in writing to remove the structure and his belongings within 14 days. He was not physically harmed.

The issue has gained national attention in Belize due to remarks of the Prime Minister, Dean Barrow. On Wednesday, on national television, Barrow, admonished the Maya people saying the treatment of Myles was “outrageous” and “absolutely intolerable”.  Yet when asked by the media about the illegal destruction of the sacred site by Myles, Barrows said he was unaware.

The Maya people’s right to defend their sacred sites is backed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 11.1 states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to protect past manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites. Article 11.2 requires states to provide redress with respect to their cultural property taken without their Free, Prior and Informed consent or in violation of their laws traditions, or customs. 

Additionally, the Maya leaders are the right to maintain their own systems of justice. Article 34 of the Declaration states that Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their institutional structures and their distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs, in accordance with international human rights standards.

Rightfully, the Maya leaders stand by their actions.  “The Maya villagers will continue to defend these cultural heritage sites that are important to all Belizeans. The Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Maya Leaders Alliance are extremely concerned with this escalating situation,” explained the MLA in a press release.  In response to the Prime Minister’s comments, they shared, “We consider unfortunate and premature any statement condemning the Maya people without the full understanding of the Uxbenka case. We also express our concern regarding any attempt to undermine the [Caribbean Court of Justice] order or to harass our leaders. The Toledo Alcaldes Association has and will continue to request a meeting with the Government to avoid further violations of Maya people’s rights and has inform the international human rights bodies that monitor the situation of the Maya people in Belize. Like all Belizeans we are are concerned with the protection of Maya sacred sites and are committed to continue to build a society free from racial discrimination.”

Cultural Survival, Rainforest Foundation and First Peoples Worldwide call on Prime Minister Dean Barrows to apologize for his harmful words against the Maya people, and for all charges against them to be dropped, in accordance with national and international laws. caracol_temple_belize_dennis_jarvis




Maya People of Southern Belize Endorse Consultation Framework for FPIC

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Brief History

In 2011 the Toledo Alcaldes Association endorsed the final draft of the Alcaldes Bill which was presented to the Ministry of Local Government of Belize. At the time, the said Ministry tasked a panel to revise local government policies for city councils, town councils and village councils. The Alcaldes Jurisdiction Bill was presented to the panel for consideration. The Alcaldes Bill was the result of 6 years of engaged dialogue and documentation of Maya customary governance system.

In 2012 the Toledo Alcaldes Association developed and endorsed an initial Consultation Framework which was shared with relevant Ministries of the Government of Belize. The Consultation Framework was informed by the process and outcome of the Alcaldes Bill. The purpose of the initial framework was to advice the Government of Belize, its agencies, and non‐ state entities on how to pursue initiatives on Maya customary lands that affect its use, benefit, and enjoyment by the Maya People.

The present document was born from the 2012 Consultation Framework. It grew through a series of working sessions and dialogue between Maya People, Alcaldes, the Maya Leaders Alliance, and their Counsel. We join our minds, hearts and spirits to present the 2014 Consultation Framework.



Bearing in mind that the indigenous Maya Q’eqchi and Mopan peoples, comprising 38 Maya villages, traditionally own, occupy and use lands, territories and resources in the Toledo district of southern Belize in accordance with customary practices and ways of life,

Bearing in mind also the unique relationship and traditional attachment between the Maya people and their lands, territories and environment,

Recognizing that the Maya people have a customary system of village governance, representation, consultation, and decision‐making,

Recognizing also that the village Alcaldes are the traditional representatives of each Maya village, and are elected in accordance with Maya customary practices,

Emphasizing that according with Maya customary practices, decision‐making authority does not rest unilaterally in the elected Alcaldes, but rather vests in the village collectively,

Emphasizing also that each Mayan village customarily makes decisions at village meetings, and that the village meeting is the fundamental authority and primary decision‐making body of the village, whereas the Alcalde is only the appointed representative of the will of the villagers as expressed through village meetings,

Acknowledging that, the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), composed of the elected Alcaldes, is the central authority and representative body of the Maya people as a whole and is also the arbiter and defender of Mayan customary law and practices,

Acknowledging also that, in order to fulfill the mandate given by the Maya people, the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) provides technical, legal and other strategic support to the TAA,

Recalling that the judgments of the Supreme Court of Belize of October 18, 2007 and June 28, 2010 affirm that the Maya people own the lands, territories and resources that they have traditionally used and occupied in accordance with Maya customary law; and that no actions that affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of Maya property may be undertaken on those lands without the informed consent, on an ongoing basis, of the affected village or villages,

Recalling also that the judgment of the Court of Appeal of Belize of July 25, 2013 reaffirms the entitlement of the Maya people to lands, territories, and resources in Southern Belize which they customarily occupy and use,

Recalling further that the Inter‐American Commission on Human Rights, in 2004, recognized the rights of the Maya people to their lands, territories and resources, and prohibited the government of Belize or any third party from interfering with the territories of the Maya people in the absence of their consent,

Considering that Belize is a member of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, it is thus bound by its international obligations to recognize and protect the human rights of the indigenous Maya people,

Considering further that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man require that the Maya indigenous peoples be consulted in good faith through their own representatives or institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them or their territory.

Now therefore it is resolved by the Maya people as follows:

Section I


1. The present framework represents the resolution of the Maya people in the southern Toledo district of Belize, and is intended to serve as the consultation protocol to be followed by any Belizean government, its agencies and other non‐state or private entities, whenever a policy initiative, legislative proposal, administrative measure, development, economic project, or any other action that may affect the lands, territories or well‐being of the Maya people is being considered.

  1. It is the objective of this framework that all processes of consultation with the Maya people be culturally appropriate, timely, meaningful, in good faith and meet international normative standards, particularly the requirement of free, prior, and informed consent.
  2. Where the interest of the Maya people may be affected by any proposed action or activity, consultation must begin at the planning stage and continue throughout the life cycle of the proposed action or activity.
  3. Government representatives and non‐state actors must respect Maya customary rules, including deliberative communication methods, when engaging Maya villages for any activity that will impact Maya territory. This includes, but is not limited to, seeking permission to enter village lands for the purpose of resource use or extraction, or to gain access to cultural sites. Preliminary information related to any of the foregoing must be provided at the earliest time possible.
  1. Maya people reserve the right not to accept any policy initiative, legislative proposal, administrative measure, development, economic project or other action that contravenes this consultation framework.

    Section II


  2. Prior to taking any action that could affect the well‐being of the Maya people; the government of Belize, its agencies or non‐state entities must inform the Executive Committee of the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA). The Executive Committee convenes an Alcaldes assembly with the Alcaldes from all of the Maya villages.
  1. If the action of government or a non‐state entity may only affect a particular Maya village, initial contact can be made through the Alcalde of that village. The Alcalde is empowered to convene a village meeting to pass on the information. The Alcalde will inform the TAA and the village Chairman.
  2. Initial contact in itself does not, in any manner, constitute consultation. It is only meant to inform the Maya people of an impending action likely to affect them and to seek their permission to formally engage in the process of meaningful consultation. Provision of information is a prerequisite to consultation, but is not in and of itself consultation.
  3. All correspondence made to the TAA President or individual Alcaldes in appropriate cases, with respect to the initial request to consult, must be expressed in writing in the language directed by the TAA.
  4. In order for the TAA to fully comprehend the purpose of the contact, the initial communication should include the following: a full description of the action or project being proposed, including its scope, timelines and duration; reports of environmental, social and cultural impacts; clear analysis of the risks and benefits to the affected Maya villages; a description of proponents of the action or project; and identification of the contact person who will liaise with the TAA.
  5. After receipt of the request to consult, the TAA shall inform the proponent if the request is accepted and, together with the proponent, develop a mutually acceptable consultation schedule.

12. The Maya participants in the consultation process shall be reimbursed for their reasonable costs arising from the logistics of facilitating the decision to formally engage with the proponent in a consultation process.

Section III


  1. Any notice of meetings relating to the request to consult, consultations, negotiations, or other material events, must be given at least 21 calendar days in advance. Longer notice periods are preferable, especially for major developments or initiatives. This is to allow the TAA or the Alcaldes time to plan for the meeting, manage the logistics of attendance, and seek their own independent technical or legal assistance where necessary.

    Section IV


  2. Preliminary meetings or consultations must be held at the community center or where not available at a public place where transparency can be guaranteed and attendance and participation by members of the community is not inhibited by reason of the location of the venue.
  3. The TAA may exercise its discretion to hold meetings, consultations, or negotiations at any other venue, as long as the interests of the Maya people are not in any way jeopardized by doing so.page7image12008

Section V


  1. The entire consultation process must be in accordance with Maya customary practices, respect Maya traditional methods of decision‐making, and must be guided by the principle of free prior and informed consent.
  2. To ensure effective and informed participation in the consultation and negotiation process, the Maya people shall have an unqualified right to seek independent technical assistance and retain legal counsel of their choice. They shall have the right to have such freely chosen technical and legal advisers participate throughout the entire process of consultation or negotiation.
  3. The proponent shall bear the costs incurred by the TAA for seeking independent technical assistance, legal advice or any other reasonable expenses necessary to facilitate an effective consultation process.

19. Prior to the commencement of consultation or negotiation, the proponent must communicate to the TAA in writing the particulars of any official or representative designated to consult or negotiate with the Maya people, as well as indicate the nature of the official’s or representative’s authority to make decisions on behalf of the proponent.

20. The process of consultation and negotiation shall be transparent, fair and free from intimidation or coercion. All oral parts of the consultation shall be translated into the Maya language or languages of the participants, and core informational documents should either be translated into the appropriate Maya language(s) or additional time shall be provided during the consultation process for them to be interpreted aloud. During the consultation, or until the Maya people give their consent, the proponent must not take any action or engage in any activity that affects the value, use or enjoyment of the lands, territories, natural resources or well‐being of the Maya people. Breaching this protocol may result in the TAA’s disengagement from further consultation or negotiation.

Section VI

“Se komonil”


  1. The entire consultation and negotiation process must incorporate sufficient time to accommodate Maya traditional decision‐making practices.
  2. The TAA or Alcaldes, in appropriate cases, shall not be expected to make a decision at the end of a consultation or negotiation meeting unless the outcome of such deliberations has gone through a village meeting, “se komonil”.

24. Decisions made on behalf of the Maya people shall be taken at the village meeting convened by the Alcalde in accordance with the following procedures:

(i) The quorum for a village meeting to make decisions is one half of the villagers in the district who are sixteen years of age or over. A village meeting may convene with fewer participants than the quorum, but no decisions can be made unless the quorum is met.

(ii) All decisions taken at a village meeting shall be arrived at by a majority of the villagers who are present and voting.

(iii) Villagers who are below the age of sixteen shall not be able to vote at village meetings.

(iv) Notwithstanding subsections (i) and (ii), any decision to alienate lands held by customary title shall require the affirmative vote of at least three quarters of all villagers in the district sixteen years of age or over.

  1. Where an action is likely to affect the interest and well‐being of the Maya people as a whole, the General Assembly of the TAA is the bona fide authority for decision making. The individual Alcaldes will register their vote on an issue based on the directive of the village meeting on that specific issue. Following deliberations, the TAA executive body will record the decision of the assembly in writing and communicate it to the proponent.
  2. Where an action is likely to affect the interest or well‐being of a particular Maya village, decisions are made through the procedure set out in paragraph 24, at a village meeting convened by the village Alcalde. The collective decision of the village will be recorded in writing. The Alcalde will inform the TAA of the outcome before communicating with the proponent so that the TAA may: respond to inquiries about the project from other villagers or third parties; inform the affected village of anything that may affect the proposal, including the rights of other villages; or advise other villages that may be affected by the project.
  3. The right of the Maya people to make decisions in accordance with traditional decision making systems shall include the right to either grant or withhold consent, or otherwise withdraw their participation in the process of consultation or negotiation if it is determined that the process lacks good faith.
  4. Informed consent, where given by the Maya people, shall be indicated in writing by a signed agreement between the TAA or the particular village, and the proponent, stating clearly all the conditions upon which the consent is based.

    Section VII


  5. To ensure that a proposed action does not deny the Maya people of their livelihood, traditional way of life,and customary practices, a detailed study and transparent analysis of the environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts that a proposed action may have on affected Maya people must be conducted by an independent and technically competent professional.
  1. The environmental, social, cultural, and economic impact (ESCEI) assessments should be integrated into a single detailed document, written in plain language in order to facilitate adequate understanding of the entire process by the Maya people.
  2. The ESCEI assessments are to be presented in the language(s) understood by the affected Maya people.
  3. The ESCEI assessments themselves should be prepared in consultation with, and with the effective participation of the Maya people.
  4. The proponent shall be responsible for the technical and legal expenses, and other logistical costs incurred by the Maya people to ensure their effective participation at all stages of assessing the environmental, socio‐economic and, cultural impacts of a proposed action or activity on their villages.
  5. The consultation process must sufficiently address, amongst other things, effective measures necessary to mitigate any adverse impacts on the environmental, socio‐ economic, and cultural life of the affected Maya people, as well as determine the fair compensation for any damages that may result, including how payments of such damages will be made.
  6. Where relocation or resettlement becomes absolutely necessary as part of a mitigation measure, the ESCEI assessment report must also include a clear Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) and Livelihood Restoration Plan (LRP) of the affected villages.
  7. Maya people must be consulted with regard to any process for drawing up a RAP or LRP. A proposed RAP or LRP must indicate:page11image14800
  1. Timelines for implementation of the plan; and
  2. A written declaration signed by the proponent or by an entity designated by the proponent, accepting full responsibility for the cost of implementing the RAP or LRP; and
  3. Determination of adequate compensation or replacement rates (whichever is greater), for damages resulting in the loss of livelihood, cultural and spiritual practices, traditional environmental attachments, crops and game, infrastructure, and social ways of life.

37. The ESCEI assessments shall include a plan for the establishment of an ESCEI management or monitoring team, which shall include Mayan representatives or any other proxy independently appointed by the Maya people.

Section VIII


  1. Maya people have the right to lands, territories and resources which they traditionally own, occupy and otherwise use, and shall be entitled to participate in the fair and equitable benefit sharing of such lands, territories and resources.
  2. Where a proposed action involves, whether directly or by implication, any economic exploitation of Mayan lands, territories or resources, the consultation and negotiation process shall incorporate provision for the participation of the Maya people in the benefits derived from such ventures.
  3. Proposals for benefit sharing plans should respect the Maya norm of economic equity and the collective stake villagers have in village resources. While provision may be made for particular hardships experienced by individual villagers or families as a result of the project, the general principle of all benefit sharing proposals should be collective or egalitarian distribution, including where benefits take the form of employment. No benefit sharing proposal may provide for any benefits accruing to village leaders (Alcaldes, Chairmen or council) by virtue of their office.
  1. Any benefit sharing provision shall include a transparent mechanism for determining the benefits due, the recipients (some benefits may accrue to individuals, others to villages collectively) as well as the schedule for such disbursement.

    Section IX


  2. The consultation and negotiation process regarding a proposed action shall not be taken as conclusive until all the concerns of the Maya people have been resolved, and an agreement with the proponent, based on mutually agreed terms, has been signed or the TAA or village has agreed to allow certain activities while consultation and negotiation on other or subsequent activities continues. In such cases, consent to such initial activities does not imply or give rise to expectations of consent to subsequent or other activities for which consent is still pending.
  3. Under no circumstances shall it be presumed that the Maya people have given their informed consent with regard to any proposed action affecting their land, territories and resources, unless;
    1. The procedure for issuing such consent has been subjected to traditional Maya decision making processes;
    2. The consent is expressed in a written agreement signed by the proponent and TAA or Village Alcalde, in appropriate cases, stating clearly all the conditions



US Capital Energy Ignores Belize’s Supreme Court

In April 2014, Belize’s Supreme Court ruled that the issuance of permits for oil drilling in Sarstoon-Temash National Park was irrational, unreasonable, and a breach of the UNDeclaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The lawsuit was filed by the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, along with four Mayan communities, to stop US Capital Energy from drilling on their territories. US Capital Energy is refusing to comply with the ruling. According to a company attorney, “the permits and licenses that were granted to US Capital are legitimate, even though they were not granted with any consent of the Mayan people. So, if they are good then US Capital, in my view, is allowed by this judgment to continue their work.”

This response is shortsighted, especially given that the company’s drilling permits expire at the end of this month. If the company pursues an extension of the permits, it will probably face sustained resistance from Mayan communities, bolstered by the legal authority of the Supreme Court. By openly eschewing both the court’s legitimacy and Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, the company could be creating insurmountable hurdles to profitable resource extraction in Belize.

Sources: Channel 5 Belize


Indigenous Music With a Message

Photo: Sarstoon Temash National Park

First Peoples Worldwide recently received a wonderful Spring gift from one of our grantees in Belize, the Sarstoon-Temash Insitute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM). This original song about SATIIM’s work, written and recorded in collaboration with Belizean musician Denroy Garcia, puts the struggle and optimism of Indigenous Peoples in Belize to powerful, danceable music.

Click here to listen to the song: SATIIM’s Fight Is Also Our Fight

Here’s what SATIIM’s executive director, Gregory Ch’oc, had to say about the song:

SATIIM and the indigenous communities in southern Belize have been engaged in tense political and legal advocacy against oil drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park and Maya Ancestral lands. I made this song as part of our campaign to sensitize the larger Belizean public to SATIIM and the indigenous peoples fight/struggles in southern Belize. I want for the Belizean public to recognize that the struggles of SATIIM and the indigenous people is the struggle of every Belizean. The song is written in a mix of English and Creole. Creole is a dialect spoken by Afro-Caribbean Belizeans which is commonly spoken in Belize. I [have tried] to translate the lyrics into English. It has a brukdown/Punta Rock music beat. The song was written Denroy Garcia with my input. Denroy Garcia is a Garifuna artist who has released many albums. He is the singer. This song will be used at public events, radio shows, and press conferences, etc.

Here are the lyrics:

SATIIM’s Fight Is Also Our Fight

Fighting for the rights and dignity of our people, that is SATIIM Mantra,
That is why we are on fire,
With the help of all the people, we will prosper in the Nation
Sustainable development we need for our future generation

It is SATIIM that we support, and that we do not hide.
B’cas through our farming and our land is how we survive
SATIIM’s fight is also our fight
I want you to understand
That is why I am proud to be a Belizean

It is SATIIM that we support, and that we do not hide
B’cas through our farming and our land is how we survive
SATIIM’s fight is also our fight
I want you to understand
That is why I am proud to be a Belizean

People will mislead you about the work that SATIIM does
As Bob Marley said, they will slander you
Who the cap fit let them wear it
You can look around your village; you will see a lot of it

It is SATIIM that we support, and that we do not hide
B’cas through our farming and our land is how we survive
SATIIM’s fight is also our fight
I want you to understand
That is why I am proud to be a Belizean

It is SATIIM that we support, and that we do not hide
B’cas through our farming and our land is how we survive
SATIIM’s fight is also our fight
I want you to understand
That is why I am proud to be a Belizean

Yes, All of us are with SATIIM (translation from Q’eqchi’—a Maya language)
It is SATIIM that we support, and that we do not hide
B’cas through our Farming and our land is how we survive

Songwriters: Denroy Garcia and Gregory Ch’oc
Singer: Denroy Garcia

Read more about the situation in southern Belize in our recent blog post.


Belize Supreme Court Rules In Favor of Indigenous Rights—Again

For the third time, Belize’s Supreme Court has affirmed the rights of Indigenous Mayan communities to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) before extractive operations are undertaken in their territory. Unfortunately, the government of Belize continues to ignore and actively subvert the authority of its own courts.

On April 3rd, Justice Michelle Arana ruled in favor of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and five Mayan villages bordering the Sarstoon-Temash National Park in southern Belize. The group had sued the country’s Attorney General for allowing a US-based oil company—US Capital Energy—to explore and drill for oil within the park without properly consulting the community. SATIIM successfully co-managed the national park with the Belizean government until last year, when the Forestry Department forbade the organization from participating in management of the park or even entering it.
In the meantime, the government issued US Capital a license to explore a large area of southern Belize, including the national park, despite two Supreme Court decisions in 2007 and 2010 that validated the customary land rights of Mayan villages in the area and their concurrent rights to be involved in decisions about how their land should be used. In the words of Justice Arana, who presided over the most recent case, the previous Supreme Court decisions “recognized that the Maya have rights to lands in Southern Belize based on the Maya People’s traditional use and occupation of those lands.”

The Mayans have struggled for years to engage in proper consultation about the development of natural resources on their land. A court injunction in 2006 halted oil exploration until US Capital could produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIA) for its seismic testing operations, but work began again after the company submitted an EIA without consulting the communities. The company has consistently failed to meaningfully engage with the communities; rather it has made perfunctory efforts to inform the Mayan people of plans that have already been made, and has purportedly attempted to bribe tribal leaders into supporting the company’s ongoing operations.

Only days before this most recent court decision, US Capital’s attorney, Michael Peyrefitte, said in an interview that “the only time this matter [US Capital oil activities] was brought to court was when there was an issue as to what cut the Mayan leadership would get from this.” He went on to further belittle the Mayan people’s struggle to retain control of their ancestral land by saying “their only issue with this case is their cut of the pie.”

These statements reflect just how out of touch with reality the company is. Not only has US Capital—and the Belizean government—ignored the rights of Indigenous Belizean citizens, they have assumed completely the worldview that money is the only thing worth fighting for. The Mayan people are struggling to preserve the ancient land their people have protected for thousands of years. What’s more, they are trying to avoid the encroachment of exploitative industry on their culture and society. This is why they have focused lawsuits on demanding open and equal consultation, and not monetary compensation, as the true test of positive development.

In her decision, Justice Arana cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (to which Belize is a signatory), explicitly defining the right to free, prior and informed consent as a fundamental tenet of traditional land tenure.

“This decision was handed down… adding to an unbroken chain of affirmation of Maya customary rights to traditional territories,” Pablo Mis, of the Maya Leaders Alliance, wrote in an email. “Most notable… is the declaration of Belize’s obligation under international law to protect the Indigenous Peoples, especially when granting extractive concessions on Maya lands where FPIC must be secured prior to any granting/approval.”

Problematically, while Justice Arana’s decision reaffirmed the rights to FPIC for the Mayan people, it fell short of invalidating US Capital’s existing license to explore and exploit oil reserves in Sarstoon-Temash National Park. The license was supposed to expire at the end of April, but on April 23rd the government decided to waive the expiration date, even as it vowed to consult the Mayan communities as to whether the license should be renewed after it expires. US Capital claims to be planning to begin drilling in mid-May. In the meantime, the communities have asked the court to issue an injunction to stop the government from allowing the oil company to continue. Justice Arana is on sick leave, however, and a hearing date has not been set.

With these new developments, Indigenous organizations in the area anticipate that their fight is far from over, and have asked for support as they face another round of aggressive campaigning and subversion from the government and the oil company.
Members of the Mayan community in southern Belize have often reiterated that they are not anti-development, but that they must reserve the right to make development decisions that are best for the environment and for their community. In a statement responding to the court ruling, The Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA)—both partners of SATIIM—wrote the following:

“The MLA and TAA reiterate that we would prefer to resolve these issues through dialogue with our government on the premise that our land rights exist, and invite the Attorney General, the Minister of Natural Resources, the Ministry of Forestry and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of the Environment to end the need for further litigation; to come to the table with the Maya people and work out how to regularize our rights, which can no longer be denied. We want to get to work demarcating and registering our lands, so that both the Maya and Belize as a whole can focus on the more important work of improving the lives of all Belizeans with sustainable development that preserves the environment on which we all depend.”

Sources: Amandala, News 5 Belize, Cultural Survival


Cultural Survival Participates in the First Central American Indigenous Youth Conference


Reposted from Cultural Survival

On the final weekend of September, 2013 our Community Radio Program team worked with ally organizations ADECCAP, Africa 70, and Tumul K’in Centre for Learning to organize the First International Central American Youth Conference in Sonsonate, El Salvador. The conference was aimed at improving integration and participation for Indigenous Central American Youth, through the use of community radio, as well as other forms of communication and expression. It was the first of its kind, and included the participation of close to 80 youth from Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador. From the Cultural Survival network, 10 youth participants from 5 community radios around Guatemala attended the event.

After a long day of travelling (two days for the Belizean and El Estorian participants), we arrived in Sonsonate to an extremely warm welcome from the El Salvadorian youth. We learned how they traditionally greet one another, with an embrace where the hearts of both people touch, and started off the event with around 80 hugs per person.

The next morning, the two-day event began with a Mayan Ceremony, to remind all the participants of their shared history, and to start to erase the arbitrary borders and difference that have been created for the participants from the different countries. Both days of the encounter were filled from the early morning to the late night Intercultural Nights, where youth from each country shared their talents, traditional dances, songs, and stories.

During the packed two-days, the youth participated in a number of events and activities. There was a forum that covered topics such as the importance of community radio and Indigenous community organizing, where youth representatives from each country were elected to question the presenters on each of their topics. The youth participated in group work that included theme-based dialogue followed by group presentations. We visited Izalco, an Indigenous community that experienced the largest massacre in El Salvadorian history. Youth from Radio Sensunat, the local community radio station conducted live radio interviews with participants from all countries, discussing the event and possible ways of following up. Finally, a youth theatre group from El Salvador performed two socially conscious plays for the participants, which were received with praise and, in many cases, tears from the youth from the other countries.

One of the most common reactions to the event was that the youth were inspired from their fellow youth. A Belizean participant made a statement about how the social consciousness and determination of her El Salvadorian and Guatemalan counterparts had inspired her to want to become more involved in her community. New friendships were made, and some very determined youth even started their own Central American Youth group, where they will stay in contact and make plans of their own, outside of the network that our organizations are creating. The positive energy and enthusiasm of this event is fueling our planning for the next youth exchange that we are organizing for this November, here in Guatemala. Stay tuned for news and updates on the next event.

(Photo from Cultural Survival: Youth participants at the conference)


Indigenous Peoples in Belize Demand FPIC, File Lawsuit Against Government, US Capital Energy


by Britnae Purdy

On July 24, Andres Bol, an Indigneous resident of Crique Carco village, Belize, stood in front of a room of 115 Mayan villagers, and delivered the following message:

“I want to be clear here that we have never said that we do not want development – we want development, but we recognize that it will not occur if we do no not alter and change the equation and how the benefit and the resources of our land is going to be distributed. We don’t want the company to say, ‘yes, you’re going to get a bridge and benefits’ – we want agreements and contracts between ourselves and the community so that we can hold [the company] accountable. Words are too cheap and easy to say and we have learned from experiences in the past that it doesn’t mean anything in the end.”

In doing so, Bol summed up in one paragraph the extreme importance of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) and the need for Indigenous people to understand and actively participate in development programs concerning their communities.

Bol was participating in a press conference explaining why the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, along with four Mayan villages, are filing a lawsuit against the government of Belize and US Capital Energy, a Texas-based oil company.  Despite two previous court rulings in 2007 and 2010 giving Maya communities customary title to the lands they traditionally use and occupy, in accordance with their ancestral land tenure system as well as Belize’s ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Belize government has issued permits to US Capital Energy for oil exploration in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. The company has already cut over 200 miles of seismic trail for oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park and traditional Maya territories, resulting in forest fires that have destroyed 400 acres of forest to date, as well as cut an access road four miles long and forty feet wide going into the forest.

These early court rulings were wins for Indigenous Peoples rights, but recently Belize , along with US Capital Energy, have been backsliding on their commitments to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), an international standard requiring the full consultation and inclusion of Indigenous communities in development projects proposed by corporations, governments, and NGOs. US Capital Energy did hold a community meeting to spread information regarding the proposed oil drilling, but the meeting was flawed on many levels. The building in which the meeting was held was too small to accommodate the majority of community members who traveled to attend, technical information about the project was not accurately translated into the Indigenous language, and spokespeople from the community were forcibly silenced when they tried to voice opposition to the plan. Afterwards, SATIIM and other local organizations consulted a team of human rights and environmental lawyers and moved forward with a lawsuit against the company and the government.

As Eamon Courtney, attorney for the claimants says, “There are two judgments of the Supreme Court of Belize which state specifically that the owners of that land are the Maya Indigenous Peoples under communal title. So the government, I believe, will have to rationalize their legal position and who has the final say in the terms of the exploitation, exploration, and development of that land. Suffice it to say that at this stage, it is our view that the Indigenous People who have had the ownership and control of this land for centuries are the persons who need to be consulted and whose permission and approval need to be got.”

“I mean, it is an oxymoron for you to have a national park and at the same time tell someone that they can go and drill for oil on it,” he added.

In a further violation of justice, the Forestry Department of Belize has formally terminated its working relationship with SATIIM as it relates to the management of the national park. SATIIM has had an official co-management agreement with the Forestry Department, and though the written agreement expired in 2009, they have since been managing the park based on a verbal agreement with Prime Minister Dean Burrow. Following SATIIM’s lawsuit, the government has officially banned the organization from entering the park.

As Greg Ch’oc, executive director of SATIIM, explains, “In accordance with this decision, SATIIM is being informed that it is no longer authorized to assess access to the national park and that it is to refrain from undertaking any negotiation or related business associated with the park and the usual park management. I want to make clear here the wishes of the communities that the park is Indigenous land. As a people, we have sacrificed – we have been denied access to the very land that we own. We have recognized and we have always recognized the importance of safeguarding and protecting our natural resources. And I want to tell the Forestry Department and the government of Belize that SATIIM will continue to manage and protect the national park, because it is in our interest and in the interest of the Belizean people.”

This case clearly demonstrates the importance of clearly defining and respecting FPIC – US Capital Energy must provide accurate, understandable information to the community, and the Belize government should not be able to disregard previous court rulings outlining the rights of the Maya in regards to the national park. FPIC should be within the interest of corporations themselves – this pending lawsuit and the protests that will result from the eviction of SATIIM from the national park will likely delay the project and bring negative attention to the US Capital Energy.

The case also highlights the fact that Indigenous communities need to clearly define their development goals and contracts with outside organizations. As Bol stated, it’s not that Indigenous communities are not interested in development; rather, they are not interested in the exploitation, eviction, poverty, and cultural destruction that all too often result from development projects implemented by companies and governments that disregard the role of Indigenous Peoples in controlling decisions on their traditional lands. As Juan Ico, another community meeting participants from Midway Village, stated, “They’re saying that the villages in the Sarstoon area are developing, but how can we develop if we are not even involved? Can we really develop with part-time employment in the company? We are not asleep anymore – we want to benefit and that is the bottom line. US Capital is among us but we do not see any benefit – we want to ensure that when we give our consent that there is concrete action and benefit derived from the exploitation of our resources.

(Photo from


Belize Government Ignores Maya Land Rights, Grants Oil Permits to US Company

belize forest

by Britnae Purdy

The Belize government has issued permits to US Capital Energy and is allowing the company to proceed with oil development activities on Maya land, despite the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and even Belize’s own Supreme Court have given support to the legal and political claims of Maya communities to inhabit 500,000 acres of their traditional rainforest territory.

In 2007 the Belize Supreme Court ruled that the Maya villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz have customary title to the lands they traditionally use and occupy, in accordance with their ancestral land tenure system. A similar court ruling in 2010 expanded this right to all Maya villages in southern Belize. Despite the fact that these rulings were never appealed and therefore remain in full effect, the Belize government has issued permits for oil development on these lands, and in doing so is “denying the Maya peoples’ rights to our lands, and is disregarding the authority of the courts and the fundamental tenants of democracy such as security of property and the rule of law.” According to Cultural Survival, US Capital Energy, a Texas-based company, has already cut over 200 miles of seismic trail for oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park and traditional Maya territories, resulting in forest fires that have destroyed 400 acres of forest to date. It has also been alleged that Capital Energy has attempted to bribe Maya alcaldes, traditional leaders similar to mayors, to support the project.

Approximately 28,000 Maya live in 28 different communities across southern Belize, speaking Q’eqchi and Mopan. The Maya Leaders Alliance, a First Peoples grantee, is currently undertaking a project to promote the traditional Maya alcalde governance system. The alcalde system is made up of community representatives that convey community wishes. Traditionally, alcaldes are appointed for life and the position is considered an obligation; people do not campaign to be alcalde. However, over the past couple of decades, the Belize government has undermined the system, forcing them to hold elections every two years and redefining the governing power that alcaldes may hold. The Maya Leaders Alliance is using a First Peoples grant to enhance the leadership of 76 Maya alcaldes, transport them to Belize City to oversee and demonstrate at relevant court cases and legal hearings, and print educational material in easy-to-understand English and Indigenous languages.

It is clear with this recent violation of the Maya’s land titles and right to free, prior, and informed consent that a strengthening of traditional governance and political capacity is needed more than ever. The Maya Leaders Alliance, along with the Toldeo Alcaldes Association, is monitoring the situation and taking the violation to court. Maya leaders are calling on the government to “reconsider its persistent refusal to recognize the Maya peoples as Indigenous Peoples and our corresponding rights to the lands upon which we live, farm, and depend on for our survival.” The full press release from Maya Leaders Alliance may be found below.



July 4th , 2013                                   CONTACT:    Cristina Coc  Tel: 637-5611/662-1663

Press Release – For Immediate Release


Punta Gorda, Toledo District, The Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association are once again turning to the courts to hold the government of Belize to its responsibilities and to find the government in contempt of orders issued by the Supreme Court in the Maya Land Rights cases of 2007 and 2010.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Maya villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz have customary tile to the lands they traditionally use and occupy in accordance with their ancestral land tenure system. In 2010 the Court delivered a similar declaration with respect to all of the Maya villages of southern Belize.  In both cases, the Supreme Court issued injunctions prohibiting government or third party interference with Maya lands until title is documented and registered. The 2007 injunction was never appealed and the 2010 injunction remains in full effect during the appeals process.

In blatant violation of the court’s orders, the government of Belize has issued permits to US Capital Energy Belize and is allowing the company to proceed with oil development activities on Maya lands.  In doing so, the government is denying the Maya people’s rights to our lands, and is disregarding the authority of the courts and the fundamental tenants of democracy such as security of property and the rule of law.

The Maya people seek protection from the courts because we must. As Chief Justice Conteh wisely advised in his 2010 judgement, “it is in the interest of all Belizeansthat the process of reconciliation be engaged as soon as possible, so that an honourable settlement with the Maya people can be achieved.”

We urge the government to reconsider its persistent refusal to recognize the Maya peoples as indigenous peoples and our corresponding rights to the lands upon which we live, farm, and depend for our survival. The legal validity of our customary land rights was upheld twice by the Supreme Court and before that by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2004. Numerous United Nations treaty bodies, special procedures and mechanisms have urged the government of Belize to comply with its human rights obligations to recognize and protect Maya land rights.

Just this year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have called on Belize to recognize Maya land rights and desist from issuing resource extraction concessions.  These recommendations come on the heels of similar pronouncements from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the U.N. Human Rights Council in its Universal Periodic Review of Belize.[1]

We urge the Attorney General, the Minister of Natural Resources and the Ministers whose portfolios are affected by the land rights issue to sit down at the table with the Maya people to develop a framework that will benefit both the Maya and the government alike.  Demarcation and titling of our lands and our landholding system is necessary so that both the Maya and Belize as a whole can move forward with the vitally important work of improving the lives of all Belizeans through sustainable development that preserves the environment on which we all depend.


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(Photo: Luis Louro,


Grantee Highlight: Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management

by Nick Pelosi

In 1994, the Belizean government established Sarstoon-Temash National Park (STNP) on territory belonging to Indigenous Mayan and Garifuna communities.  The park encompasses 13 different ecosystems spanning 16.5 hectares (41,898 acres), and is home to hundreds of species, including jaguars, ocelots, crocodiles, and manatees.  Because of their ancestral claims to the territory and vast knowledge of environmental protection, the surrounding Indigenous communities united to stake a claim in the park’s management.  In 1999, the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) was established to co-manage the park with the Belizean Forestry Department.

SATIIM’s mission is “to safeguard the ecological integrity of the Sarstoon-Temash region and employ its resources in an environmentally sound manner for the economic, social, cultural, and spiritual well-being of its Indigenous Peoples.”  The organization’s Board of Directors is comprised of representatives elected from each of the Indigenous communities surrounding the park, as well as representatives from other grassroots Indigenous organizations, such as the Q’eqchi Council of Belize, the Toledo Alcalde Association, and the National Garifuna Council.  SATIIM later expanded their scope to include community development and human rights in the Sarstoon-Temash region.  In 2009, the organization was recognized by the World Bank Development Marketplace for their implementation of community-based forest management initiatives in two Q’eqchi communities.

Although STNP is a federally recognized national park, the Belizean government has repeatedly made concessions to companies looking to extract the area’s rich abundance of natural resources.  Much of SATIIM’s work has involved protecting the park from the encroachment of oil, mining, and logging companies.  In 2006, SATIIM secured a temporary injunction against US Capital Energy’s seismic testing in the park from the Belizean Supreme Court, because the company had not produced an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).  However, once the company produced an EIA (without input from SATIIM or any of the affected communities), the Belizean government granted US Capital Energy permission to continue drilling for oil.

Although the company held a community meeting to discuss the project’s EIA, the meeting consisted of a two-hour presentation by the company on decisions that had already been made.  When SATIIM’s Executive Director Gregory Ch’oc attempted to speak for the communities, he was forcibly silenced by police personnel.  In addition, the meeting was held in a building too small to accommodate the majority of the community members who came to attend, and technical information about the project was not accurately translated into Indigenous languages.

After carrying out their own community consultations and finding widespread local opposition to the US Capital Energy, SATIIM launched a campaign to challenge the legality of the company’s plans.  The EIA was produced internally and permission for the project was granted without obtaining the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of affected communities, thus violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Belize is a signatory.  In November 2012, First Peoples Worldwide supported SATIIM’s efforts to protect their ancestral lands with a grant to cover the costs of coalition-building.  The organization has since acquired a high-powered team of environmental and human rights lawyers, and will challenge the Belizean government to uphold its treaty obligations in court.

SATIIM works with Q’eqchi villagers to develop community-based forest management initiatives (Source: World Bank Development Marketplace)


Grantee Spotlight: The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management

The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) received First Peoples’ largest grant of $20,000 in 2007. SATIIM is located in Belize and works with Maya and Garifuna communities surrounding the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP). These Indigenous communities co-manage the Park with the government of Belize. When these proactive co-management agreements were made with the Forestry Department, 75 community residents were trained in research skills and participated in the teams led by national and international experts to document for the first time the biodiversity, hydrology, geology, and soils, as well as the socio-economic context of the park.

Community residents, particularly the elders in the Q’eqchi Maya and Garifuna communities, also participated actively in two studies which documented Indigenous traditional knowledge about the park and its natural resources. Community participation in park management has also led to the creation of a ground-breaking management plan for the STNP, hailed by the national government as the most comprehensive in Belize, which includes environmental education and development of livelihood alternatives as two key strategies to relieve some of the pressure on the natural resources in and around the STNP.

The Keepers of the Earth Fund grant helped provide the resources to teach community members how to help manage the park. The education program included both informal and formal education strategies that allow for Western and traditional ecological knowledge cross-fertilization to occur. This deliberate focus strengthened the integration of Indigenous knowledge in park management and reinforced Indigenous cosmovision and the relationship to their natural resources. Indigenous elders and youth have been very involved with SATIIM, and through the Keepers of the Earth grant, SATIIM was able to foster a second generation of community leaders and park managers with a strong knowledge base. SATIIM was also able to bridge the gaps between traditional and Western knowledge among the Indigenous communities in order to enhance their collective participation in the sustainable management of their land.

SATIIM’s resource center in Conejo, Southern Belize. (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)