Belize’s Maya and Indigenous Groups: Protecting the Environment

Belizes Maya and Indigenous Groups 

Working together to Protect the Environment

Belize-Sarstoon-National-Park

One of the cool things about this job is that we’re always being sent news about Belize from around the world.

Here’s something we just received via the Earth Island Journal out of Berkeley, California. In the lead article of the latest quarterly, published 27 October 2014, headlined, “Indigenous Communities Challenge Big Oil in Belize” reporter Sandra Cuffe writes about efforts by local Maya, Garifuna and other groups to stop US Capital Energy from conducting oil exploration and drilling in Belize’s otherwise pristine Sarstoon Temash National Park.

And it’s not just the drilling – the oil company’s roads have opened the park to further damage and  incursions by foreign poachers illegally hunting and taking other resources.

A quote early on in the article caught our attention:

“’ I mean, (the Belizean government is) going to tell me you cant go and cut the leaves you want to make a thatched roof without their permission, you cant go and fish, and you cant do farming there but its okay for a company to come and put a big rig in there?says Tricia Mariano, president of the local Barranco branch of the National Garifuna Council, a group that works to preserve and strengthen the culture of the Garifuna people. ‘Its contradictoryshe says, laughing.

Hmmm…

We continued on and did a bit more digging to try to get a picture of what’s going on around the Sarstoon, another one of those beautiful vast protected areas that makes Belize stand out in the world as a beacon for environmental sustainability.

First, some background.

The Sarstoon Temash National Park was created by the Belize government back in 1994, and although disturbed by the lack of consultation with the community and indigenous groups, (most of whom said they first heard about it in the media after it was a done deal) locals supported the concept – in theory.

Concerned with this lack of consultation, the impact the park would have on ancestral land rights and other issues, a group of representatives from the various ethnic and cultural groups got together in 1997, and formed The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, or SATIIM, as a non-profit NGO representing five villages located around the park.

In 2003, the government of Belize signed an agreement with SATIIM giving them the right to co-manage the park with Belize’s Forest Department. This seemed like a good solution for both the government and the local groups.

Bear in mind that over 38% of Belize’s land area is under some form of protection, and the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Conservation Division, which oversees those areas but is understandably understaffed and under-resourced to adequately manage such a vast resource, routinely seeks out local partners to help out.

And for SATIIM, the arrangement gave thema better understanding of the land boundaries and more effectiveness in working for indigenous land rights. So far, so good.

Today the park is an almost 42,000 acre haven for flora and fauna fed by pure waterways and supporting a rich biodiversity.  It is also coveted by various large corporations as a potential source of profits, especially since high grade oil had been discovered in Belize a few decades ago.

Enter US Capital Energy, which is attempting to extract oil both in and outside of the park, once again raising charges of a lack of consultation as well as what is seen as the government’s double standards when it comes to environmental protection.

Since SATIIM was founded, members have been challenging oil permits and exploration activities on their traditional lands through the courts while working to create a model for local indigenous conservation within the park.

These local management efforts were initially supported through the co-management agreement between SATIIM and the Belizean government, until the government  terminated the agreement in July 2013.

However, community rangers continue to monitor the area. “We’ve declared that we have a right to manage and patrol this region because these are our ancestral lands. So what we have done is that aside from our rangers — community rangers — we have also deployed traditional leaders to participate in these patrols,” former SATIIM executive director Gregory Ch’oc, said earlier this year.

SATIIM had conducted a community mapping exercise, marking out the sections of the park used for the gathering of medicinal plants, ceremonies and other activities in different colours. They also have a map showing US Capital Energy’s miles of roads cutting through the national park and community lands.

These company roads, built to conduct exploration in the area, have made the park much more accessible to poachers and illegal loggers.

“There’s a lot of logging and there’s a lot of hunting, especially by people from across the border, on the Guatemalan side,”  head SATIIM park ranger Anasario Cal said, explaining that the roads make it easier for poachers to go into the park in search of wild game such as peccaries, armadillos and deer as well as other resources.

“It made it a lot easier for them.” Cal said.

Local groups including SATIIM, the Toledo Alcaldes Association, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, and the Maya Leaders Alliance are now all working to assert indigenous ownership over ancestral Maya lands, with the most recent battle having begun in 2006,when the Supreme Court of Belize quashed US Capital Energy’s seismic testing permit.

In October 2007, the Supreme Court delivered an historic ruling, affirming that the Maya communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz hold customary title to their land. The Court ordered the government to respect and demarcate their territory in a ruling based, in part, on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was ratified by the UN General Assembly only five weeks before.

Even though the Belize Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 2010, finding that all Maya communities in Toledo District hold customary collective rights over the land and resources, the Belize government continued to approve US Capital Energy activities within the region without consultation or the consent of the local Maya communities.

In 2013, SATIIM filed another lawsuit against the government and US Capital Energy, and in April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the permits granted to the oil company for oil drilling and road construction were unreasonable and unlawful. The Court, however, did not render the permits void.

Not only that –  although the permits were set to expire at the end of that April, US Capital Energy announced that they would proceed with the drilling anyway, and the government waived the permits’ expiration date.

The Maya communities of Toledo organised public protests in the months following the ruling.  Prime Minister Dean Barrow has reportedly said that while he is open to speaking with community leaders about oil exploration within the park, he refuses to sit down with SATIIM.

Why won’t the government negotiate with SATIIM? Maya villages such as Conejo, Crique Sarco, Midway and Graham Creek have protested what they see as a “divide and conquer” strategy by US Capital Energy. Regardless, they say they all remain firm in their resistance to the oil development.

“The communities are forest-dependent people. We don’t want our lives, our communities, to be shattered as a result of the exploitation,” Mr Ch’oc said.

This isn’t the first time Belizean environmental groups have worked together to keep multinational corporations from degrading or putting Belize’s precious and fragile environment at risk. Groups won a challenge against offshore oil concessions in the Belize Great Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest and considered by some to now be the world’s longest living  barrier reef. After widespread opposition and a public referendum, the Belize Supreme Court ruled all offshore oil contracts null and void last year due to the lack of adequate environmental impact assessments.

So yes, people power does work…

But unfortunately not yet in the Sarstoon. Even with such unified indigenous opposition, US Capital Energy reportedly began drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park last month.

SATIIM and the local communities haven’t given up, and with the eyes of the world increasingly focussed on what a valuable, and increasingly rare, asset Belize’s pristine rain forests are to the health of the planet and the enjoyment of the increasing number of people coming to visit, we can only hope that they’ll receive more global support of the kind that helped save the Belize Great Barrier reef from destruction.

So we’ll end as we began, with the quote from the National Garifuna Council’s Tricia Mariano.

“…you can’t go and cut the leaves you want to make a thatched roof without their permission, you can’t go and fish, and you can’t do farming there — but it’s okay for a company to come and put a big rig in there?” It’s contradictory.”

We think it’s more than just contradictory – it’s shameful. And hopefully, with local and international support, fair consideration by the courts, and action by the government, it will be history.

Stay tuned…

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