Protecting Rights of the Maya People: 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.

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 Q’eqchi’, 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 from 1200 BC.

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) protected by the National Protected Areas System of Belize. Over half of the population of Toledo are Indigenous Q’eqchi’ 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 recent years the Maya population has enjoyed some successes in their long struggle for better land rights, including legal victories against oil exploration within their customary territories (which was also a designated national park) and a ground-breaking case against the Belizean Government, launched in 2007, demanding better recognition and protection of their rights. After winning their case in the Belizean Supreme Court, the Maya communities finally saw their rights upheld by the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2015, with the judges recognizing traditional Mayan land rights as equal to western property ownership. In 2016 the Government of Belize set up a commission to represent the Government and facilitate implementation of the court’s decision.

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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