On the morning of May 20, over a hundred Maya villagers gathered at a rural community center in southern Belize. Down from repurposed old American school buses they stepped: men in woven belts and rubber boots speckled with earth; women in long skirts and flip flops, toting babies in slings. In other villages that day, the men were planting corn, but here in Machaca, the villagers waited—stern-faced, patiently—to write their names or plant an inked thumb in a ledger. They came to pose a question, simple but stark: would their government, and the American oil company it harbored, “submit itself to the rule of law … [or to] the rule of money and the jungle”?
The people gathered at the Machaca Summit included representatives from 39 indigenous communities. Among them, four villages—Crique Sarco, Midway, Conejo and Graham Creek—were named as co-claimants in a high-profile lawsuit against the government of Belize. The suit charged that the government acted unlawfully in granting a permit to an American oil company, US Capital Energy, to conduct exploration and drilling activities on land—including in Sarstoon Temash National Park—that the communities have used and occupied for generations.
On April 3, 2014, the Honorable Madam Justice Michelle Arana of the Belizean Supreme Court ruled in favor of the communities and the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), EcoLogic’s local partner in southern Belize, who was also named in the suit. Justice Arana affirmed the government’s obligation to comply with the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and ordered the government to “obtain free, prior and informed consent from the claimants with respect to any contract permit or license that falls within the National Park.”
This judgment, sweeping on paper, has so far done little to improve the communities’ realities on the ground. US Capital Energy’s exploration activities in the park continue, in open defiance of the court ruling. The company’s government-issued permit was set to expire on April 30, 2014. However the Belizean government, exploiting a legal ambiguity in Justice Arana’s ruling—which forbade the issuance of a new permit without obtaining the communities’ consent, but did not explicitly invalidate the existing permit—announced that it would “waive” the expiration date, allowing the company to continue operations indefinitely.
In the meantime, the company and the government of Belize have begun to seek free, prior and informed consent from indigenous villages in the park’s buffer zone though, crucially, not from the communities named in the Supreme Court lawsuit. “The government has embarked on a charade,” charged Eamon Courtenay, counsel for the claimants, “of having supposed consultations with other parties who are not parties to the claim.” On April 28, 2014, the Prime Minister himself, along with representatives of US Capital energy, met with the leaders of the K’ekchi’ Maya village of Sunday Wood and the Garifuna village of Barranco. These consultations have complied with neither the law nor the spirit of Justice Arana’s order, but they have garnered significant media attention and provoked division among the indigenous communities in the region, as well as wider Belizean society.
“Why are we here?” mused Alfonso Cal, the alcalde (traditional elected leader) of Golden Stream Village and President of the Toledo Alcaldes’ Association on that day in Machaca. “Because of the turmoil we are facing in every community.” The communities were there because if their government refused, in defiance of its own courts, to seek their consent for oil development, they would not wait for an invitation to state their opinion. In the Machaca Declaration adopted that day, the villagers declared, “We categorically reject the government of Belize’s oil development agenda, which will lead to the expulsion of our people from our rightfully held land and territories, and condemn us to further discrimination, exclusion and impoverishment.”
As US Capital Energy continues its pre-drilling activities in the national park with the blessing of the Belizean government, these villagers will wait for the post-judgment injunction hearing in Belize City on June 16. But as Greg Ch’oc, the Executive Director of SATIIM as well as an EcoLogic board member, told the press, “The time is drawing near when I believe that the communities have and are becoming impatient.”
If the post-judgment injunction fails to stop US Capital Energy, there is talk among some villagers of blocking the company themselves, possibly by obstructing the road the company would use to bring an oil rig into the park. What use is the law, after all, when it applies only to ordinary Belizeans—not the government they elect, nor the foreign corporations whose investment it courts? “[The communities] want to ensure that we live in a society where the rule of law prevails, and they have demonstrated their commitment to uphold the rule of law,” Ch’oc concluded. “But it cannot be a one-sided process.”
Climbing back onto the buses to return home along bumpy roads and trails, muddied by rain, the villagers would return that night to their land. They would rise early the next day, tending to children and crops—living much the way their families had for generations. More than anything, the villagers had gathered in Machaca to demand that their government respect this way of life, and recognize their long-standing reliance on this land. “We are being looked [at] like we are nothing, like we are not here. But we will continue to be here…” explained Alfonso Cal. “Without land we cannot live.”
Maura Fitzgerald is a field intern for EcoLogic. She is spending the summer in southern Belize working with SATIIM, our local field partner in the region. Maura is a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she focuses on migration, human rights and social entrepreneurship.