In the south of Belize lies the Sarstoon Temash National Park, home to 42,000 acres of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest. It was established by the government in 1994, which was a surprise to the indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ and Mopan populations, whose ancestors had occupied the land since the early 1800s. Furthermore, in 2001, concessions were granted to energy company US Capital Energy to start exploring the park for oil – all without any consultation with the local communities.
The ensuing legal wrangling between the Maya people, the government and US Capital Energy, as well as indigenous rights organisations such as Cultural Survival, finally came to a close last month when the Caribbean Court of Justice (the highest court in Belize) confirmed that the Maya people have the right to ownership of the land. This follows a similar 2010 ruling, in which the Supreme Court of Belize declared the government could not grant concessions on Maya land.
The Belize government is now required to demarcate and register Maya village lands, to not allow any future interference to the Maya people, and to compensate them for the environmental damage already done.
The landmark verdict could have significant implications for indigenous communities engaged in similar legal struggles around the world. James Anaya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, said that the judgement ‘reinforces the international standard that indigenous peoples have collective property rights based on their own customary land tenure systems, even when they do not have formal title or other official recognition of those rights, and that states are bound to recognise and protect those rights.’
This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine