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Maya leaders’ dispute with government returns to Caribbean Court of Justice

Posted: Friday, May 6, 2022. 1:53 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) panel on Thursday urged the bitterly feuding Government of Belize and the Maya Leaders Alliance, Toledo Alcaldes Association, and Maya village leaders to try for conciliation in the spirit of the 2015 Consent Order intended to recognize and lead toward Maya communal control of land and property among the population in the Toledo District.

Earlier this year, the Government submitted the Free Prior Informed Consent Protocol (FPIC) which is intended to govern interactions between the villages, their leaders, and Belmopan concerning the management and exploitation of natural resources.

But the MLA and TAA have accused the current administration of attempting to impose on the Maya, charging that it presented the document without obtaining proper buy-in from them as representatives of the communities and claimants in the case. They also complained that the words “consent” and “consultation” have been interchanged, which the Government through Commissioner of Indigenous Peoples Affairs Gregory Ch’oc has just as strongly denied.

The hearing provided an opportunity for robust discussion and agreement, if any. But according to lead attorney for the MLA and TAA Leslie Mendez, the Government’s intentions were seen from a mile away: “Once again, for us, and the experts agree – that it is not for the government to act as an arbiter of legitimacy among the communities as to who their representatives are. It is not for the government to decide who the winners and losers are among the communities. And we say that this is, in fact, what is happening.”

She continued that the Government’s expert, Dr Isabel Figueroa, assumes the legitimacy of organizations that had no role in the original case and leaves the door open to “completely unsettle the representation of the Maya people and, by extension, unsettle this particular process and upend this particular process.”

Countering for the Government was Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck who conceded that while not everything the other side was factually true, there was no point going over it, and the CCJ was not the forum for building trust and confidence between the parties. But as someone new to the process, he conceded that “… we need to get back to rebuilding the relationship and re-establishing, if possible, that trust and confidence in each other in pursuing the steps that need to be taken to achieve the objectives that we all agreed must be achieved.”

Professor Rosa Celorio identified five “warning signs” that could lead to trouble in implementation on the ground, including the representation of Maya and the connection between consultation and consent.

Dr Figueroa told Justice Winston Anderson that the name of the protocol is not regulated by international law and that one of their concerns was translating the document into language understandable in Kekchi or Mopan Maya as culturally appropriate. When he questioned whether there would be an obstacle to ensuring that the document speaks to consent, she responded that it was a political, not legal issue and that her role was to ensure that the document stood according to international law.

Lead judge Jacob Wit concluded that the Government needed to be careful not to ignore the MLA and TAA as chief parties in the judgment and that representation of the Maya people, while important, is not one for the court to decide and signaled that the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) could not be allowed to enter the proceedings at the stage as an intervener as the time for that had long since passed.

He also called on both parties to “…to lower the temperature, maybe and get back to a more practical working relationship between the parties because that relationship has to be maintained, whether some like it or not. We are here to see if there is compliance with the implementation of the consent order; that is what this is about.”

The Government is expected to meet with the Toledo Alcaldes Association within the next two weeks. A report will be submitted to the court, which will then decide whether or not there is a need for another urgent compliance hearing.


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