Securing and protecting tenure rights of the Maya People of Southern Belize

Belize is a significant country in the fight for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean region and Central America. It is notable for its 61% forest cover, of which 43 per cent is special primary growth forest, high in biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classes more than a quarter of Belize as protected under categories I-V.

Ongoing

From: 01/01/2020

To: 31/12/2021

Budget: $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.

Belize is roughly two-thirds forested, of which almost 45% is primary growth forest: pristine and especially biodiverse. The country’s forests are an important component of the national economy, with mahogany, pine, rosewood and cedar contributing to the international timber trade. However nobody depends on the forests more than the indigenous Maya peoples who live among them.

The Q’eqchi’, Yucatec and Mopan comprise 12% of Belize’s population and are descended from the ancient Maya peoples whose civilisation spanned much of Central America for almost two millennia.

Toledo, the southern district of Belize, is home to the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya, who make up more than half of the local populace. Large tracts of forest lands here include the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and the undisturbed tropical rainforest of the Columbia River Forest Reserve, safeguarded by the country’s National Protected Areas System.

Much of Toledo’s indigenous population spent years in exile escaping colonial oppression. The return to their homelands has been threatened by insecure land tenure, along with a long saga of extractive exploitation: logging, oil prospecting, unsustainable development and private land sales, being prime examples.

In recent years, they have enjoyed significant successes in their struggle for strengthened land rights. Among them, legal victories against oil exploration within customary Maya territories (which were also designated as a national park), as well as a ground-breaking case against the Belizean government, launched in 2007, demanding better recognition and protection of land rights. The case was victorious in the supreme court and upheld in 2015 by the Caribbean Court of Justice: the judges recognised traditional Mayan land rights as equal to western property ownership. The following year, the government established a commission to facilitate implementation of the ruling.

To read a brief overview of Belize, click here.

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

Photo by Tony Rath

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