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Goals of the Commission for Maya Land Rights

On Tuesday, the Government of Belize announced the appointment of the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission. The Commission is being Chaired by former Minister Lisel Alamilla and its members include Noreen Fairweather, an independent consultant with knowledge of strategic and land management, policy development, tenure clarification, land title and registration systems. Attorney Randall Sheppard is also a commissioner and is currently working as Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Ministry. The commission’s formation is the result of a court order by the Caribbean Court of Justice. Today, expert consultant, Attorney Anthony Ross, spoke about the Commission’s objective.

ANTHONY ROSS: “I would really open a bracket and point out that the adversarial process is over. There was a lawsuit, there were claims, everything has been resolved and there is now a court order. The court order said this is what you must do. It is no longer “this is what we would like somebody to do.” and the defense is “no we do not want to do that, we want do something else.” that is gone. I would really hope that an atmosphere of cooperation rather than confrontation will prevail and I think that it’s going to be very important that everybody understands that there is little if anything in the court order that needs interpretation.”

For those who are a bit unclear about the court order, Attorney Ross offered his interpretation.

ANTHONY ROSS: “Paragraph number five reads “The constitution of Government over all lands in Belize is not affected by the order.” Now that is a declaration of the CCJ and it’s really a non negotiable declaration. You’ve got a constitution and it is the umbrella under which all of the other paragraphs must survive and then you move to paragraph number 1, which in my view should be given the second order of priority, which paraphrased and just identifying the obligations of government is quite clear. It is a declaratory paragraph, there is nothing for either side to do but just to recognize what it says and the effect of it is that Maya customary land tenure exists in the Maya villages in Toledo and gives rights to collective and individual property rights within the meanings of sections 3d and 17 of the Belize constitution. Paragraph number 4 is a directive from the CCJ to the government and it tells the government “that you shall cease and abstain from any acts whether by your agents or third parties acting with your leave, acquiescence or tolerance that might adversely affect the value, use or enjoyment of the lands that are used and occupied by the Mayan villages unless such acts are preceded by consultation with them in order to obtain the informed consent. Paragraph numbered 4 on the order, the government is given a directive, “You don’t do certain things that are going to adversely impact the rights of the Maya as set out in paragraph one of the order but that does not mean that everything must come to a standstill. What it means is that you must put things in place so that as an when there is a conflict, necessary encroachment upon the lands of the Maya if that has to happen you must have something in place to deal with it. Paragraph number 3 which in the sense says that in consultation with the Maya people or their representative the government is required to develop the legislative administrative and or other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism to identify and protect the property or the rights arising from Maya customary land tenure in accordance with Maya customary laws and land tenure practices. Paragraph #2 which says the government is required to adopt affirmative measures to identify and protect the rights of the claimants in that piece of litigation arising for Maya customary tenure in conformity with the constitutional protection of property and in conformity with the constitutional protection of property and nondiscrimination in sections 3,3d, 16 and 17 of the Belize Constitution. So that is the one that triggers why we are here today.”

Following today’s press briefing, the Commission intends to embark in a consultation phase with not only Mayas but every single ethnic group in the Toledo District.

ANTHONY ROSS: “We haven’t designed what our consultation process will be but I’m sure it is going to be very inclusive of all people who are interested in participating in this issue and all ethnic groups who are interested in it. This is going to have impacts nationally. So some part of the process has to involve listening to the views and opinions of the other groups.”

Madam Chair, Alamilla, shared that three hundred thousand dollars has been set aside to build the Commission’s support staff.

LISEL ALAMILLA: “So far the government of Belize has been doing behind the scenes work in getting organized. The government so far has allocated the $300,000 that it was ordered to set aside as really seed money to implement the consent order, that has already been assigned to the Attorney General’s Ministry and budget has been prepared. We have already started procuring all the equipment that will be needed to open a functional office. We are in the process of hiring staff to support the work of the commission. We have already identified an office and we should occupy that office within the next week or two so that we can advance the work. The next step is of course starting the dialogue with the Maya people of Toledo and that is the discussion we are having and how we as the commission will be moving forward.”

The office will be located in Punta Gorda. The Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcalde Association have expressed concern, citing that they were not notified or consulted about the commission. When asked about it, Alamilla answered quote, “It is a decision that the Government of Belize has full authority to make”, end of quote.