Belize, where the indigenous Maya Peoples comprise over 10 percent of the total population (~30,000 people) amongst a diverse ethnic population, is unique due to its highly forested territories, which form an important part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Besides preserving important biodiversity, this is one of the most relevant forested regions that can help mitigate the effects of the global climate crisis. Southern Belize in particular remains under the customary stewardship of the Maya people, who in their very identity as aj ral ch’och “children of the Earth”, demonstrate their reciprocal connection to the land, to each other and other beings with whom they share the land.
Belize is located on the northeast coast of Central America. The country has a strategic location with its official land borders, with Mexico to the north and Guatemala on the western and southern border. A former British colony, Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America. The capital city is Belmopan and has a population of 395,900 (Belize Statistical Unit Extrapolation (2018)). The country has a surface area of 22,965 sq. km. The most common languages in Belize are English, Spanish, Q’eqchi’, Mopan and Yucatec Maya, Garifuna and Creole. In the past, the majority of the population was English is the official national language with majority of the population adopting a type of broken English or Creole but recently the country has related more and more to their Spanish-speaking neighbours. Spanish-speaking Latinos and mestizos constitute about 53 percent of the population (2010 census), notwithstanding, the country is still finding its unique place as a bilingual nation in the midst of their central American neighbours.
Indigenous Peoples in Belize have a rich history with direct descent from the great ancient Mayan civilisation. In the southern district of Belize, Toledo, the ancient Mayan cities were built by a people called the Manche Chol Maya. They remained largely unconquered by the Spanish and British in the early colonial era until eventually they were forced out into the highlands of Guatemala.
In the late 19th century, two distinct groups of Indigenous Peoples descended from the Manche Chol Maya; the Mopan and Q’eqchi’, returned to the largely uninhabited forests of Toledo from their exile in Guatemala. Since Belize achieved independence in 1981, the Maya peoples have fought for legal recognition of their rights to these lands, but their claim of indigeneity has been contested; a matter complicated by their years in exile.
The region is now home to an estimated population of 21,000 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya people occupying 41 Maya villages in the Toledo District.
Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), founded in 1999, is a coalition of Maya organisations and leaders collectively working to promote the long-term well-being of the Maya people through defending their collective rights to their territories. MLA was an Equator Prize Winner in 2015, after a groundbreaking victory in the international Caribbean Court of Justice in Belize (CCJ), which created a precedent for Indigenous Peoples all over the world.
The MLA, along with Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) had already won legal recognition, in the Supreme Court of Belize in 2007, for the requirement that the government implement the 2004 report from The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which recognized Maya communities’ collective rights to their traditional lands in Toledo. This Case is known as the Cal Vs. AG of Belize, in which two model communities brought a claim before the Supreme Court of Belize for violations to their land rights. The Supreme court ruled in favour of the Maya people and ordered the Government of Belize to clearly define, delimit and demarcate the territory of the Maya people; provide the necessary mechanisms to protect these rights, and cease and desist from any other incursions on Maya lands that might affect their use and enjoyment of those lands without their free prior informed consent.
The government did not appeal the 2007 court ruling, largely because this was an election year in Belize and it realised that a new government would inherit this decision. However, the next government quickly responded to the decision of the court by only accepting a limited interpretation of the decision and maintaining that only the two villages of Santa Cruz and Conejo (claimants) had affirmed rights to their traditional lands. Instead of a blanket agreement for all Maya villages, the government insisted that each Maya village had to seek redress in a similar fashion before land rights could be accepted. Burdened with costly lawsuits and continued incursions on their lands the MLA/TAA made the hard decision to return to court in 2008 to file a class suit on behalf of the remaining villages. In June 2010 the supreme court of Belize once more affirmed that Maya customary rights to land and resources exist. Since the Government of Belize still did not accept this ruling they moved to appeal this decision before the Belize Court of Appeals and later before the Caribbean Court of Justice. Even while these decisions were being made the government of Belize continue to allow oil company, US Capital, to operate within the protected area of Sarstoon-Temash National Park, the shared land of four Q’eqchi Maya villages and one Garifuna Village which caused numerous problems for the Maya there who had not been properly consulted beforehand.
Following the precedent-setting Supreme Court Ruling of 2007, and the Maya land rights cases of 2010, SATIIM, along with four indigenous communities, launched a legal claim in 2013, against US Capital. On the 3rd of April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that it had been unlawful for the government to grant US Capital permission to commence oil drilling and road building in the National Park. However, the main ground on which this case was won was the government’s failure to mandate proper EIAs be done. Soon after, this condition was met and the permits were reissued. with wells being dug and explored for oil. Following this, the TAA/ MLA worked closely with the 41 Maya villages of Southern Belize to develop the Maya Consultation Framework, which was established as a key governance tool, ensuring a minimum level of engagement with Maya peoples and their territory prior to commencement of any commercial activities on their lands.
This Framework has been used as the minimum standard for engagement on all and any activity that would threaten the use and enjoyment of Maya village lands.
In a historic victory of the Maya, on 22nd April 2015, by consent of all parties, the CCJ affirmed Maya peoples rights to their lands and resources based on continuous occupation and use of those lands. The CCJ decision was a historic moment for the Maya people of Belize and a model for Indigenous People regionally.
The greatest victory for Indigenous Peoples in Belize was achieved in 2015 with the aforementioned ruling in the CCJ. It was the first land rights victory for Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean region in a democratic court, and it recognized traditional Maya land rights as equal to Western forms of property ownership. The following year, the government founded the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission (TMLRC), to represent the Government of Belize and to facilitate the implementation of the Consent Order of the CCJ and protect the land rights of the 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya communities in Toledo.
The Tenure Facility project “Securing and Protecting Tenure Rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize” is designed to assist the Maya peoples and the Government of Belize to implement joint actions to give effect to the 2015 Consent Order of the CCJ.
To learn more about Tenure Facility initiatives in Belize, see the project portfolios below, and visit the Belize Timeline.