Nearly two thirds of Belize, which is located on the northeast coast of Central America, is covered by forests, home to a multitude of bird, animal and plant species, some found nowhere else on Earth. Sharing a strategic location between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west, Belize is a former British colony and the only English-speaking country in Central America, although Spanish, Q’eqchi’, Mopan and Yucatec Maya, Garifuna and Creole are also all widely spoken.

Budget: US$1,860,000

Ongoing projects: 1

Photo by Tony Rath

Indigenous Peoples in Belize, who make up roughly 12% of the population, have a rich history, tracing their lineage from the advanced ancient Mayan civilization, which spanned much of Central America and lasted 2000 years from 1200 BC. In the southern district of Belize, Toledo, ancient Mayan cities were built by the Manche Chol Maya people. They remained largely unconquered by the Spanish and British in the early colonial era, but were eventually 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 Qeqchi’ – resettled in the largely uninhabited forests of Toledo from their exile in Guatemala. Since Belizean independence in 1981, these Mayan 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. 

In 1999, Maya organisations and leaders created the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), to defend their collective rights to their territories. Since then, the MLA has enjoyed considerable success, including legal victories against the decision to allow oil exploration within a national park, which also made up part of the Maya’s customary territories. This process led to the establishment of a framework to guide the consultation process between economic actors, government and local communities, giving the Maya a voice they had previously lacked.

The MLA’s most significant victory however, alongside the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), was in a 2007 Supreme Court case against the Government over violation of land rights. Finding in favour of the Mayan peoples, the court ordered the authorities to clearly define, delimit and demarcate the territory of the Maya; protect these rights, and halt disruptive incursions on Maya lands without consent. The failure of the Government to fully implement its commitments forced the MLA/TTA back to court, and in 2010 the Supreme Court once more upheld Maya customary land rights. This time the state appealed, taking the case to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

After several years of legal wrangling, and in a historic victory for the Maya and indigenous people worldwide, the CCJ in April 2015 affirmed Maya rights to their lands and resources based on continuous occupation and use of those lands.  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. In 2016, the Belizean Government set up a Land Rights Commission to facilitate the enactment of the CCJ’s decision. Following this unprecedented victory, the MLA was an Equator Prize Winner in 2015.

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 in implementing the CCJ’s decision.

For a timeline of land and forest rights in Belize, click here.

To find out about the work of Tenure Facility’s partners in Belize, see below.


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