The fight for tenure in pristine Mesoamerican rainforests
Securing and Protecting Tenure Rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize
The fight for tenure in pristine Mesoamerican rainforests
Securing and Protecting Tenure Rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize

tony rath photo of maya woman with cacao

Belize is a significant country in the fight for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean region and Central America. It its notable for its high forest cover (61.1percent), which consists of 1,393,000 ha. of forest according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. 43 percent is special primary growth forest, rather than recent grow-back, which makes it healthier and more biodiverse. The forests are home to some 877 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The diverse natural environments in Belize also support over 2894 species of vascular plants, of which 5.2% are endemic. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classes 28.6% of Belize as protected under categories I-V.

The rich forests are an important part of the national economy, which depends in part on timber such as mahogany, pine, cedar, and rosewood. However, no-one depends on the forests more than the indigenous Maya peoples, who constitute ~12% of the population and whose livelihood is forest based. The three Maya Peoples in Belize today are the Qeqchi’, Yucatec and Mopan. They all descend from the Ancient Maya, who built an advanced civilisation which spanned much of Central America and lasted about 2000 years between c. 1200 BC – 800 AD.

The southern district of Belize, Toledo, is home to the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya stewards of vast forests which include the 41,000 protected acres of Sarstoon-Temash National Park and 148,357 acres of undisturbed tropical rainforest of the Columbia River Forest Reserve (CRFR) (Meerman & Matola, 2004) protected by the National Protected Areas System of Belize. Over half of the population of Toledo are Indigenous Qeqchi’ and Mopan who have fought a hard legal battle for recognition of their traditional land rights. The ancient Maya cities in this region were built by their ancestors but many of the indigenous Maya of Toledo spent some years in exile in Guatemala to escape colonial oppression between the 18th and 19th century. Their return to their homelands has been threatened by insecure land tenure and a long history of extractive exploitation, including logging, oil prospecting, unsustainable development and private land sales.

In April 1995, A Belizean registered logging company called Atlantic Industries, Ltd. (AI) was granted license to log in the CRFR by the Minister of Natural Resources (Wainwright, 2008). Around that same time, a new group was created by the Alcaldes of Toledo to study the legal status of the of the Indian Reservation. The Indian Reservation Committee was led by chairman Julian Armando Cho. Cho happened to be a villager of San Jose village, one of the first areas that the AI began logging. In line with his task as chair, Cho organised a series of meetings in the Maya villages to discuss land rights, and raise awareness of the risks faced by Maya communities. This resulted in organised protests from the Maya communities as further information was uncovered, including a sketch map from the Forest Department which revealed that just one of AI concessions covered more than 100,000 acres. (Wainwright, 2008) Cho used the controversy with the CRFR as a prime example of the need for Mayas to struggle to win and secure collective land tenure. This was the origin of the New Maya movement of the mid ‘90s which led to two important events. The first included mapping most of the Maya lands in Southern Belize through the Maya Altlas Project. The second was the launching of the first lawsuit seeking redress for infringement on their lands from the government of Belize (GoB). This case asserted the rights of the estimated 21,000 Q’eqchi’ and Mopan people to continuing to use the land for subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, maintaining their livelihood and culture. They also sought control of the extractive industries’ impact on their lives, and the natural environment. This became one of the most controversial and precedent-setting cases in recent Belizean history.

Despite these legal victories, the traditional land rights of the Q’eqchi and Mopan people were not respected, and US Capital was given the go ahead by GoB in 2009 to conduct seismic testing for oil on Maya lands and the Sarstoon Temash National Park, which was at the time managed by The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and four Q’eqchi’ communities. In a landmark victory in 2015, the Caribbean Court of Justice in Belize (CCJ), reaffirmed the land rights of the 41 Qeqchi’ and Mopan Indigenous communities of Toledo and affirmed that traditional Maya land use practices and community territories constitute legitimate property rights equal to Western forms of property ownership.

For the full story of land and forest rights in Belize go to the Timeline.

The methodology is inclusive of women,

involving their voices in the struggle for tenure

41 indigenous communities

in Sarstoon-Temash National Park and the Columbia River Forest Reserve (CRFR)

The Maya peoples have an historic and legally recognised claim to the land

supported by thousands of years of heritage

Q’eqchi’ and Mopan have fought a long hard battle

to secure tenure for their ancestral forests in Toledo

The ‘Securing and Protecting Tenure Rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize’ project is designed to assist the Maya people and the GoB to implement joint actions to give effect to the 2015 Consent Order of the CCJ.

The project will be implemented by Julian Cho Society (JCS) in collaboration with Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), the organisations that have led the most recent legal cases before the CCJ. It seeks to secure and define the land rights and legal structures for the  41 Maya communities in high-biodiversity forest in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This project will support the efforts of the GoB and Maya people to work together to reach the objectives of the Tenure Facility by implementing tenure reform measures mandated by the CCJ.

“Ayi’ xin yo’laa ut ayi tin kamk - From this land we sprouted and to this land we will return” — Maya folk saying

The overall goal is to secure, guarantee, and enhance land tenure and associated rights for the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan of southern Belize in accordance with the CCJ Consent Order agreed between the GoB and the Maya people. These include the following:

  1. Demarcating and titling the estimated 1 million acres of Maya lands and forests collectively owned by 41 communities in southern Belize.
  2. Developing legislation to guarantee Maya property and associated rights, including vesting and registration of communal titles.
  3. Build the capacity of rights-holders (Maya people) and responsible parties (in particular, GoB) to ensure the proper implementation of these objectives, and work with communities to build effective and sustainable institutions to manage community properties in the future.

Success in meeting the project objectives will be measured according to the following criteria:

  • Fulfilment of affirmative measures mandated by the CCJ Consent Order.
  • Recognition of secure tenure rights in the 41 communities.
  • Codification of customary laws and practices of land management.

Actions

  • Regularise land rights and secure delimitation, demarcation and titling through legal codification of the CCJ Consent Order.
  • The Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission (TMLRC) will coordinate with the GoB Lands and Surveys Department to make an inventory of third-party interests that may affect Maya lands following a previously concluded MOU.
  • A licensed surveyor, in collaboration with the Maya mappers and village authorities, will verify the technical accuracy of the  Village Delimitation Maps, converting the Village Delimitation Maps into legal Survey Plans  in accord with extant laws and procedures in Belize.
  • Provide technical support for the drafting of a bill on Maya land rights which addresses the legal and institutional aspects of indigenous land governance. It will also be a public document submitted for enactment for legislative approval.
  • Capacity building and institutional strengthening with specific training, conducted by experts in the field, combined with consultations on the proposed legislation and the Maya FPIC Protocol which is in the final stages of development and training on indigenous rights will also be conducted with NGOs.

 

Expected Results

Component 1

  • Awareness and Consultation Team (ACT) established, trained and active in the communities.
  • Community consent for auto-delimitation achieved in 41 communities.
  • Mapping Team (MT) established, trained, equipped, and active in the communities.
  • Field inventory of third-party land claims inside the Maya territory.
  • consensus on boundary agreements negotiated and consented to between Maya communities, non-Maya communities and third parties.
  • Final village maps including demarcation on the ground and verification by government.
  • Communities vested with legal titles to their collective lands.

Component 2 Results

  • Maya Land Tenure Policies approved by the 41 Maya communities.
  • New law is consulted/consented to, approved and enacted.

Component 3 Results

  • Rights-holders more effectively participate in the activities outlined under Specific Objectives 1 and 2.
  • JCS with human and institutional capacity to ensure the effective financial management/reporting/monitoring and evaluation of the entire project.
  • GoB more aware of Maya land tenure rights and has stronger technical knowledge to support effective implementation of Specific Objectives 1 and 2.
  • Traditional governance system of the Maya Q’eqchi’ and Mopan strengthened.

Impact

The project will directly benefit the 41 indigenous Maya communities in Southern Belize, comprising approximately 21,000 people, and there will also be indirect benefits to the Toledo district as a whole and 2 other Maya communities in Belize. It will strengthen the traditional governance system of the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan, helping them adapt to a constantly changing natural and economic environment, maintaining the strength of rural communities. The project will help foster a future for “peaceful, hardworking and self-determining people, rooted in (their) culture, and open to the world and new technologies, living in community and collectively stewarding the wellbeing of (their) people and lands.”

Ongoing


From 01 January 2020
To 31 December 2021

Budget
US$1,860,000

Proponents

Julian Cho Society (JCS)

Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA)

Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA)

Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission (TMLRC)

University of Colorado Law School

Beneficiaries

41 Maya indigenous communities in southern Belize, comprising approximately 21,000 persons, and the Government of Belize.

tony rath photo of maya woman with cacao

Belize is a significant country in the fight for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean region and Central America. It its notable for its high forest cover (61.1percent), which consists of 1,393,000 ha. of forest according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. 43 percent is special primary growth forest, rather than recent grow-back, which makes it healthier and more biodiverse. The forests are home to some 877 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The diverse natural environments in Belize also support over 2894 species of vascular plants, of which 5.2% are endemic. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classes 28.6% of Belize as protected under categories I-V.

The rich forests are an important part of the national economy, which depends in part on timber such as mahogany, pine, cedar, and rosewood. However, no-one depends on the forests more than the indigenous Maya peoples, who constitute ~12% of the population and whose livelihood is forest based. The three Maya Peoples in Belize today are the Qeqchi’, Yucatec and Mopan. They all descend from the Ancient Maya, who built an advanced civilisation which spanned much of Central America and lasted about 2000 years between c. 1200 BC – 800 AD.

The southern district of Belize, Toledo, is home to the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya stewards of vast forests which include the 41,000 protected acres of Sarstoon-Temash National Park and 148,357 acres of undisturbed tropical rainforest of the Columbia River Forest Reserve (CRFR) (Meerman & Matola, 2004) protected by the National Protected Areas System of Belize. Over half of the population of Toledo are Indigenous Qeqchi’ and Mopan who have fought a hard legal battle for recognition of their traditional land rights. The ancient Maya cities in this region were built by their ancestors but many of the indigenous Maya of Toledo spent some years in exile in Guatemala to escape colonial oppression between the 18th and 19th century. Their return to their homelands has been threatened by insecure land tenure and a long history of extractive exploitation, including logging, oil prospecting, unsustainable development and private land sales.

In April 1995, A Belizean registered logging company called Atlantic Industries, Ltd. (AI) was granted license to log in the CRFR by the Minister of Natural Resources (Wainwright, 2008). Around that same time, a new group was created by the Alcaldes of Toledo to study the legal status of the of the Indian Reservation. The Indian Reservation Committee was led by chairman Julian Armando Cho. Cho happened to be a villager of San Jose village, one of the first areas that the AI began logging. In line with his task as chair, Cho organised a series of meetings in the Maya villages to discuss land rights, and raise awareness of the risks faced by Maya communities. This resulted in organised protests from the Maya communities as further information was uncovered, including a sketch map from the Forest Department which revealed that just one of AI concessions covered more than 100,000 acres. (Wainwright, 2008) Cho used the controversy with the CRFR as a prime example of the need for Mayas to struggle to win and secure collective land tenure. This was the origin of the New Maya movement of the mid ‘90s which led to two important events. The first included mapping most of the Maya lands in Southern Belize through the Maya Altlas Project. The second was the launching of the first lawsuit seeking redress for infringement on their lands from the government of Belize (GoB). This case asserted the rights of the estimated 21,000 Q’eqchi’ and Mopan people to continuing to use the land for subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, maintaining their livelihood and culture. They also sought control of the extractive industries’ impact on their lives, and the natural environment. This became one of the most controversial and precedent-setting cases in recent Belizean history.

Despite these legal victories, the traditional land rights of the Q’eqchi and Mopan people were not respected, and US Capital was given the go ahead by GoB in 2009 to conduct seismic testing for oil on Maya lands and the Sarstoon Temash National Park, which was at the time managed by The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and four Q’eqchi’ communities. In a landmark victory in 2015, the Caribbean Court of Justice in Belize (CCJ), reaffirmed the land rights of the 41 Qeqchi’ and Mopan Indigenous communities of Toledo and affirmed that traditional Maya land use practices and community territories constitute legitimate property rights equal to Western forms of property ownership.

For the full story of land and forest rights in Belize go to the Timeline.

The ‘Securing and Protecting Tenure Rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize’ project is designed to assist the Maya people and the GoB to implement joint actions to give effect to the 2015 Consent Order of the CCJ.

The project will be implemented by Julian Cho Society (JCS) in collaboration with Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), the organisations that have led the most recent legal cases before the CCJ. It seeks to secure and define the land rights and legal structures for the  41 Maya communities in high-biodiversity forest in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This project will support the efforts of the GoB and Maya people to work together to reach the objectives of the Tenure Facility by implementing tenure reform measures mandated by the CCJ.

“Ayi’ xin yo’laa ut ayi tin kamk - From this land we sprouted and to this land we will return” — Maya folk saying

The overall goal is to secure, guarantee, and enhance land tenure and associated rights for the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan of southern Belize in accordance with the CCJ Consent Order agreed between the GoB and the Maya people. These include the following:

  1. Demarcating and titling the estimated 1 million acres of Maya lands and forests collectively owned by 41 communities in southern Belize.
  2. Developing legislation to guarantee Maya property and associated rights, including vesting and registration of communal titles.
  3. Build the capacity of rights-holders (Maya people) and responsible parties (in particular, GoB) to ensure the proper implementation of these objectives, and work with communities to build effective and sustainable institutions to manage community properties in the future.

Success in meeting the project objectives will be measured according to the following criteria:

  • Fulfilment of affirmative measures mandated by the CCJ Consent Order.
  • Recognition of secure tenure rights in the 41 communities.
  • Codification of customary laws and practices of land management.

Actions

  • Regularise land rights and secure delimitation, demarcation and titling through legal codification of the CCJ Consent Order.
  • The Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission (TMLRC) will coordinate with the GoB Lands and Surveys Department to make an inventory of third-party interests that may affect Maya lands following a previously concluded MOU.
  • A licensed surveyor, in collaboration with the Maya mappers and village authorities, will verify the technical accuracy of the  Village Delimitation Maps, converting the Village Delimitation Maps into legal Survey Plans  in accord with extant laws and procedures in Belize.
  • Provide technical support for the drafting of a bill on Maya land rights which addresses the legal and institutional aspects of indigenous land governance. It will also be a public document submitted for enactment for legislative approval.
  • Capacity building and institutional strengthening with specific training, conducted by experts in the field, combined with consultations on the proposed legislation and the Maya FPIC Protocol which is in the final stages of development and training on indigenous rights will also be conducted with NGOs.

 

Expected Results

Component 1

  • Awareness and Consultation Team (ACT) established, trained and active in the communities.
  • Community consent for auto-delimitation achieved in 41 communities.
  • Mapping Team (MT) established, trained, equipped, and active in the communities.
  • Field inventory of third-party land claims inside the Maya territory.
  • consensus on boundary agreements negotiated and consented to between Maya communities, non-Maya communities and third parties.
  • Final village maps including demarcation on the ground and verification by government.
  • Communities vested with legal titles to their collective lands.

Component 2 Results

  • Maya Land Tenure Policies approved by the 41 Maya communities.
  • New law is consulted/consented to, approved and enacted.

Component 3 Results

  • Rights-holders more effectively participate in the activities outlined under Specific Objectives 1 and 2.
  • JCS with human and institutional capacity to ensure the effective financial management/reporting/monitoring and evaluation of the entire project.
  • GoB more aware of Maya land tenure rights and has stronger technical knowledge to support effective implementation of Specific Objectives 1 and 2.
  • Traditional governance system of the Maya Q’eqchi’ and Mopan strengthened.

Impact

The project will directly benefit the 41 indigenous Maya communities in Southern Belize, comprising approximately 21,000 people, and there will also be indirect benefits to the Toledo district as a whole and 2 other Maya communities in Belize. It will strengthen the traditional governance system of the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan, helping them adapt to a constantly changing natural and economic environment, maintaining the strength of rural communities. The project will help foster a future for “peaceful, hardworking and self-determining people, rooted in (their) culture, and open to the world and new technologies, living in community and collectively stewarding the wellbeing of (their) people and lands.”

Ongoing


From 01 January 2020
To 31 December 2021

Budget
US$1,860,000

Proponents

Julian Cho Society (JCS)

Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA)

Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA)

Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission (TMLRC)

University of Colorado Law School

Beneficiaries

41 Maya indigenous communities in southern Belize, comprising approximately 21,000 persons, and the Government of Belize.