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The Environment’ in the Constitution of Belize: Towards Greater Protection

Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2023. 8:54 am CST.

By Dylan Vernon, (TIME COME #2, 17 October 2023): As one of the citizens who signed the Oceana Belize petition, I welcome the passage of the Bill by the House of Representatives on 13 October 2023 to amend the Referendum Act. When passed by the Senate, the amendment will ensure that Belizeans are consulted by referendum before any move to change or repeal the moratorium placed on offshore oil and natural gas exploration and petroleum operations. Recalling that the original referendum petition called for a constitutional amendment to require a referendum for changing the offshore moratorium, it is a good time to start a national discussion on environmental rights in the Belize Constitution.

A Sudden Appearance

First of all, let us examine how the term “protect the environment” made it into the Preamble of the Independence Constitution of Belize and understand its significance. In February 1981, the term “protect the environment” was totally absent from the government’s White Paper on the Proposed Terms for the Constitution for an Independent Belize. Yet, there it was in the Preamble of our Constitution on 21 September 1981 – giving Belize claim, at that time, to being only the second state in the Commonwealth Caribbean (Guyana being the first in 1980) to have a constitutional reference to the environment.

Between the seven months in 1981 when the White Paper resolution was adopted by the National Assembly on 3 February and when the Independence Constitution Act was passed on 2 September, there could have been four reasonable origins of this reference to the environment: (1) the public consultations on the White Paper, (2) the debates in the House or Senate, (3) the London Constitutional Conference in April 1981 or (4) during the later process of drafting the final Constitution. Which is it? Although it may not seem the obvious choice, if you guessed ‘public consultations’ you are right.

From One of the People

Pressed for time due to a very late start and to the People’s United Party (PUP) government’s urgent deadline for independence by the end of the 1981, the Joint Select Committee (JSC) of the National Assembly crammed nine public consultations on the White Paper into a rushed two-week period between 16 February and 2 March that year. It was in the second public session held in Belize City on 17 February 1981 that the ‘environment moment’ transpired.

In the chair on that Tuesday morning was the Honourable Senator C.L.B Rogers, who co-chaired the JSC with the Honourable Representative V.H Courtenay. The third person to seek the floor was an older man with salt and pepper hair. He announced that he was appearing in his capacity as a citizen and made the following appeal:

One of the main concerns people all over the world have now is the environment. It is not an issue that has appeared in constitutions either – because it has never been of concern as it is today…and… perhaps our country can make some new ground here. Perhaps it can be the first Constitution that makes such a provision. But I am suggesting that at page 2 of the Constitution [White Paper] in Section (e)…the addition of a…phrase of requiring policies of state which protect the environment.

That man was Alexander Stoddard Frankson (seen in image), and his proposed amendment would be one of the very few that made it from the minds of the ‘people’ to the Independence Constitution. Frankson, 68 years of age in 1981, was born in Jamaica in 1913 and came to then British Honduras in 1937 for what was intended to be a short stint as an educator. He never left. One of his first jobs as a school inspector took him all over the country and exposed him to Belize’s rugged natural beauty. On these trips, he also got to meet Belizean Joyce Rogers, with whom he married and had three children. Frankson progressed steadily up the ranks of the colonial civil service, including to District Commissioner (Toledo) in 1957 and, after studies at Howard University, to Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice) in 1965, before he retired in 1969.

Some Political Football

A curious aside is that one of Frankson’s promotions in March 1953 became politicized as the PUP and the National Party (NP) vied for relevance in the nascent nationalist movement of the 1950s. In what became known as ‘The Frankson Affair’, elements of the PUP accused the colonial civil service of ‘hiring’ non-British Hondurans over locals. While it appears that the PUP (and the General Workers Union) just saw an opening to attack the British establishment, the NP accused them of stirring up racial prejudice. The incident blew over quickly, but I would imagine that, caught in the middle, Frankson, a black man who had already been in Belize for over 15 years, must have been both irritated and amused.

When Frankson appeared in front of the JSC on 17 February 1981, he did so as a Belizean citizen.  After retirement, he served as Director of the Peace Corps in Belize and later founded Rancho de las Lomas – a farm and eco-park on the Hummingbird Highway. He also wrote a book of poetry, From the River Bottom, published in 2004, and then a memoir, A Caribbean Identity: Memoirs of Colonial Service, published in 2008. I can only speculate that over time Alexander Stoddard Frankson had developed a strong appreciation of the importance of protecting the natural resources of his adopted country.

 The House Accepts

The ‘Frankson amendment’ on the environment was one of the few amendments from the public consultations on the White Paper that the JSC accepted in its Report to the National Assembly. This Report was passed without change by the House of Representatives session of 27 March 1981. In just a little over two weeks after that House meeting, and amid a state of emergency called to quell public protest over the Heads of Agreement, a Belizean delegation was heading to London, Report in hand, to ‘negotiate’ Belize’s Independence Constitution.

Staying home in the midst of civil strife, Premier George Price appointed Deputy Premier C.L.B Rogers to lead the Belize delegation consisting of V.H. Courtenay, F.H. Hunter, L.S. Sylvestre and D.L McKoy. The London Conference, held from 6 to 14 April 1981, was boycotted by the Opposition, the United Democratic Party – which had also boycotted the JSC.

London Concurs

It was in the Fifth Plenary session of the Belize Constitutional Conference on 8 April 1981 at Marlborough House in London, that the Preamble was on the agenda. The three amendments to the Preamble as stated in the Report of the Joint Select Committee, including the ‘Frankson amendment’ on the environment, attracted very little debate. The British side accepted them, and the Belize side, with V.H Courtenay in the lead that morning, agreed to have the British “draftsmen use their judgement” of where best to place them in the Preamble of the draft Constitution.

The Report of the Belize Constitutional Conference (April 1981) and the first draft of the Independence Constitution prepared by the British in June of that year both contained language in the draft Preamble exactly as Frankson had proposed. Importantly, it was also in the Independence Act passed by the National Assembly three weeks before Independence Day. Today, forty-two years later, it remains identical in Preamble (e) of the Constitution of Belize:

Whereas the people of Belize-(e)     require policies of state which…protect the environment….NOW, THEREFORE, the following provisions shall have effect in the Constitution of Belize:…

Time Come to Build on Frankson!

Belize owes Alexander Stoddard Frankson a Victoria Peak of gratitude. His cutting-edge 1981 contribution on the environment to our Preamble provided a solid foundation stone to build on. As the People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) gears up to commence the critical consultation phase of its mandate to engage the people in the (second) post-independence review the Constitution, the time is now to build on Frankson. The time is now to make progressive changes to give his amendment life and stronger enforceable ‘effect’ beyond the Preamble.

I propose that not only should the ‘Frankson amendment’ for the protection of the environment be strengthened in any revised Preamble, but that separate provision also be made for the fundamental human right to a healthy environment for the people of Belize. The exact scope, wording and placement should be debated. In doing so, Belize would join the majority of countries in the world. (The issue of whether constitutional rights should be given to the environment itself is a debate for another time).

My core argument is this: It is true that Belize has a sound body of environmental laws and policies. Yet, these will always need improvement and better enforcement, and, given Belize’s environmental challenges, new laws and policies will certainly be needed. It has been proven in other countries that enshrining environmental rights can provide supreme law backing to environmental protection and also contribute to prevent legislative rollbacks.

Importantly, there is sound evidence that most Belizeans believe in sustainable development and have high aspirations for the protection and restoration of our abundant natural environment. These values and aspirations of the people will be better achieved and be more durable when we entrench sharp enforceable substantive provisions in our Constitution that provide clearer directions to both policy makers and to judges.

Let us do this in the spirit of Frankson’s 1981 appeal “to make new ground” – and give our people and environment more tools to better survive the next 42 years and beyond. Time come!

 

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