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Tensions simmer in South as communal land rights issue returns to center stage

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2023. 8:28 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: The current issues between the villages of Laguna and Yemeri Grove in the Toledo District encapsulate the growing pains encountered since the 2015 institution of a consent order by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) recognizing communal land title in the 38 Maya villages of the district.

This week, Minister for Indigenous People’s Affairs Dolores Balderamos-Garcia reiterated that a “modus vivendi” must be reached between the rights of the Maya and those of surrounding villages as well as commercial and environmental interests.

She also repeated that customary land tenure “doesn’t mean a sort of full extensive ownership to the total exclusion of everybody else. It is now a matter of our government being able to balance competing interest and private land with the communal land tenure of the Maya people.” So while the Maya are not “claiming everything,” their rights should be respected – and so should those of others.

The remarks follow a press conference called by Laguna village residents last week in which they voiced their fears of losing land they consider theirs from the entrance to the village along the San Antonio Road, which one elder said would be distributed through the village meeting and subsequently demarcated. The village is not known for violence or conflict but has recently been getting an unhealthy dose of both because it is trying to safeguard the birthright of its residents so that they do not have to go cap-in-hand to anyone.

But, the chairman of neighboring Yemeri Grove, Harold Usher, begs to differ, saying that Laguna is actually taking away land from his people. He and his counterpart Sebastian Itch are calling on Government to properly implement the consent order and institute a process for resolving these disputes.

Itch also referred to an earlier press conference in which Laguna was rapped for being “expansionist,” which he calls “misleading and untrue” and unhelpful, leading to threats against villagers.

At that press conference, the Minister cited a report submitted by the Ministry of Natural Resources following a flare-up between residents of both communities two weeks before. That report found illegal survey and occupation on disputed lands and that the Maya do not have “carte blanche” in surveying and distributing land; that can only be done at the sanction and under the authority of the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Greg Ch’oc, Commissioner of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, referred to the dispute resolution mechanism established by the CCJ and said his office has and continues to meet with both parties. Toledo West representative Oscar Requeña also reiterated the importance of working together.

But the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) which represents its traditional governance system was aggrieved and walked out of a scheduled but postponed meeting, claiming repeated mischaracterization of Maya aspirations to protect their rights and insisting that the Consent Order affirms the definition of Maya land rights as exclusively according to Maya custom to hold and determine, and they feel that the Government appears set on trying to take it away.

No date has been set for a status meeting with the CCJ; the last such hearing was in November, before the latest round of fireworks on the issue.


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