San Pedro Columbia Village Rejects Mayan Land Rights Policy

San Pedro Columbia Village Rejects Mayan Land Rights Policy

In recent weeks, we’ve seen numerous Mayan communities from southern Belize clamor for communal land rights, but over the weekend, one of the largest southern villages rejected the idea. On Saturday, the government held consultations in San Pedro Columbia Village, in the Toledo District, to educate residents on its Draft Mayan Land Rights Policy. However, residents seemed to have been more interested in finding a way out of something they say might do more bad than good. Vejea Alvarez traveled south and has the report.

Villager: “How far are we going in terms of development ? My people have to understand that. So it’s best that communal land is not the way to go, it’s not the answer for this community.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News: That was the resounding message of San Pedro Columbia Villagers as they gathered for a consultation on the government’s draft Maya Customary Land Rights Policy. On Saturday the community met wit ha team from the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs comprised of the Minister and her two CEOs and the Minister of Local Government Oscar Requena. 

Oscar Requena, Minister of Local Government: “I’m very grateful that the community came out. You saw that the people had an opportunity to be able to listen, to ask their questions and get clarifications. My position has been very clear that you know at the end of the day the government presents the draft policy, engages the communities in consultations to get the feedback and at the end of the day we have to respect the wishes and the will of the people. That is democracy. We are not in any way imposing one over the other to the communities. We have to respect the will of the people.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News: While only a small portion of the nine hundred registered voters showed up for the meeting the community’s chairman Basilicas Choco says that most residents are against communal lands. 

Basilicas Choco, Chairman, San Pedro Columbia Village: “There were questions in the air as it regards to communal land and today I believe that is clear for majority of our people. The next step as I was telling them in our meeting, which I had planned for a meeting today with an attorney which is supporting us in finding alternatives because our community doesn’t want communal land, majority then majority of our community doesn’t want communal land. We are trying to seek advice, independent advice not from MLA not from Government. So a next meeting will be looking at the alternative and so that’s what I explained to them. Some of them said today “I wonder if our chairman is pushing towards and independent idea to come to us.” and then I had to respond yes it’s already there.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News: Unofficial data shows that an estimated 75% of villagers are private property owners including Minister Requena who grew up and lives in the village. The Toledo West area representative says that unlike other southern communities San Pedro Columbia has a diverse population.

Oscar Requena, Minister of Local Government: “San Pedro Columbia is a very unique village and I don’t want you to get a misrepresentation of the numbers that you see here. Generally for meetings this is, in fact I think today you have gotten a very good attendance really and truly because generally people don’t really come out for meetings here. Whilst not a great percentage of persons spoke up I think the persons who spoke essentially you know expressed their sentiments and of course you heard the people rather the congregation applauding them so it’s obvious that the residents here in San Pedro Columbia feel very strongly that they want to keep their system. Now we have to respect that. That is their will. I’ll tell you Columbia is a very unique community like many other communities across this country and really and truly San Pedro Columbia represents a melting pot of various ethnic groups and at the end of the day we have to respect their wishes.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News:  For many residents the meeting served as an opportunity to express their thoughts on communal lands which they feel have been intentionally misconstrued in the past.

Villager: “Many years ago from the time I became man I have heard private NGOs, they have MLA, they have TAA, they have so many. Who elected these people we don’t know. But now they come and go a quorum with some friends in the community and they have meetings and they go tell government that this village wants this, this community is for us – that is wrong. I attest to that. If my fellow villagers want to support me in this case they can say yes and if not I’m telling lie.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News: The main discussion points during the hours long meeting centered around the village finding a way to navigate the ruling, expanding their community and equally distributing land in the village. Chairman Choco says the next step is to seek independent legal advice and gather consensus on how the community can benefit from the process.

Basilicas Choco, Chairman, San Pedro Columbia Village: “We want to identify people who have leased land, we want to identify people who have private property. We want to identify people who are living on land that is not measured or surveyed yet. Then we want to identify our people who do not have land at all then we’re going to propose to government this is what we want. We don’t want us to come out of communal land and we don’t have an alternative. So we have and we’ve been thinking ahead. But we want to educate our people first and I believe today was a great day to educate our people.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News: The government says it is working to improve it’s translation efforts as they continue consultations in the coming weeks.

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