Mayan people battle oil giants as Belize's rainforests threatened

oil in Belize
Flare at Spanish Lookout oilfield, operated by Belize Natural Energy with CHx investment. Photo: Robin Llewellyn
Forest communities are fighting increasing incursions onto their land by US oil companies. Now the Belizean government is seeking to reverse a court ruling preventing them allowing oil exploration, logging or mining. Robin Llewellyn reports from Belize

In a wooden hall built on stilts in the Belizean rainforest a man is speaking in Q’eqchi’, a language common among the Maya on both sides of the Guatemala-Belize border: 'When we are kept in the dark, when we are kept like in a pot, we are like chickens, and those who intend to deny us our rights are putting on the salt and the onion - all the seasonings - to cook us... And that’s what they want.'

He is Manuel Xó Cú, a member of Mayan advocacy organization Defensoría Q’eqchi’, part of a Guatemalan delegation of Q’eqchi’ leaders who have come to the Belizean region of Toledo to share experiences.

'There was a leader' he says, 'who, in three-quarter pants and a torn-up shirt went to Washington and voiced our concerns about the denial of rights to our land. The Inter-American Commission found the Guatemalan Government guilty of violating the rights of the community, and the government started to respond and to address it.'

The visiting Maya describe current threats to their communities as including nickel mines, African Palm plantations, and oil companies, in addition to the cattle ranchers who deprived them of most of their land and cleared the forests in their parents’ generation. Having experienced civil war the Guatemalans have mobilised and organised themselves to a more militant degree than their Belizean counterparts, and they expressed awe at the rainforest surrounding the village: 'You have so much land…' said visiting village leader Macario Che, and warned: 'Do not make the mistake of our parents.'

The Belizean Maya have success stories: Manuel Caal, former chairperson of the Q’eqchi’ village of Conejo, described how their 'land was being surveyed and sold and leased by people from outside of the village, [so] we put a line around our land and with the help of the organization that we helped form, SATIIM, we created a map showing the land of each village... We started to learn that we had rights, and to learn how we could take our ideas for resolving the problems of our villages to the Supreme Court.'

In 2007, the villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz successfully argued that Mayan customary law governed their use of the rainforest, and that this body of law should form part of Belizean law.  The judge drew guidance from an earlier judgment of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the two villages were able to gain unchallenged legal title to their land.

Since then, villagers in Conejo have conducted an inventory of the valuable rosewood trees in their rainforest and developed a project of sustainable forestry that maintains forest cover, provides money and employment for the village, and perpetuates the stock of rosewood for future generations. 'We saw how the law was there to protect our rights,' Caal said.

Other Mayan villages across Toledo were inspired to follow suit.  A 2010 case at the Belize Supreme Court again found in their favour, the Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh prohibiting the government from ‘issuing any concessions for resource exploitation, including concessions, permits or contracts authorizing logging, prospecting or exploration, mining or similar activity under the Forests Act, the Mines and Minerals Act, the Petroleum Act, or any other Act…’

While many campaigners saw this as an opportunity to protect their forests from illegal logging, and to foster self-reliance in place of development projects that had shown little benefit to the villagers, the government saw not community self-government but rather a large swathe of the country escaping from its control. Prime Minister Dean Barrow immediately appealed it, declaring that it was 'injurious to the public interest, it is injurious to national unity and it is injurious to the development of the Maya community.' He also refused to renew Conteh’s contract as Chief Justice that year, in a move criticised by the Belize Bar Association.

The appeal has been heard but no date has been set for the delivery of the judgment which leaves the villages involved in a legal limbo - without papers to their land or the security to develop long term solutions to such problems as the illegal logging of rosewood on their land. In a development that questions how far the Maya can use the law to protect their communities, the authorities are not waiting for the judgment to be delivered before pressing ahead with its agenda. 

The government is allowing American oil companies CHx and US Capital Energy to conduct seismic testing in the area of eight Maya villages neighbouring the village of Conejo which, as it has full land title, is excluded from the permit. The companies are allowed to conduct seismic testing inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park - listed as an internationally significant wetland under the Ramsar Convention.

"We are winning"

A week after December’s Q’eqchi’ meeting in the crowded hall in the rainforest the Ecologist spoke to Alfonso Cal, head of the Toledo Alcaldes’ Association which was party to the 2010 case. He claimed that his organization lacked the funds to fight the oil exploration, and described how the government was not respecting the 2010 ruling on the ground, but instead using the Police to enforce old concessions. He insisted however, that:

'We are winning. Only the government’s not respecting it, that’s why they appealed the case. We won in 2007, and we won in June 2010. And now they appeal. So that’s what we’re awaiting. But we know that it’s maybe 50-50, because the government picks their own judge who sits on their side.'

I asked him what the villages could do to develop their economies if the Government’s appeal failed?

'There’s a lot that we could do. Some villages want to replant back the forest, so they can leave something for their children in the future… We’re trying to look at our neighbouring country: All their land has been sold, so the poor people now have to borrow the land, and once you borrow the land the work that you do is half-half. Half for the owner, half for you.'

Alfonso Cal said the villages had not been consulted by the oil companies and described how village leaders told him no permission had been sought by US Capital Energy:

'We are just seeing people coming in and cutting [seismic] lines. But now some of the people want jobs and they say ''Don’t stop the company, we need some jobs.'' The Government of Belize should abide by the judgment of the Supreme Court that requires the Government to seek our consent; it should come to us and talk to us. But instead it’s violating our rights, just doing things the way it wants.'

At the oil company compound in the village of Barranco the Ecologist was told around 70 people were employed in the explorations across Toledo. Their permitting officer Martin Choco later estimated the figure of employed people to be nearer 100, with more about to be hired. CHx head Alex Cranberg said his company’s 'tax payments support government programs that would not otherwise be possible to fund. We are advised by our local and international counsel that all of our activities are in accordance with Belize law and relevant Supreme Court rulings.'

CHx is also involved in the only commercial oilfield in Belize, at the German Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout. David Reimer represents the community’s businesses in their relations with the oil company, and described the company’s reluctance to offer any percentage of its profits to the local community for the upkeep of local roads. The company also broke an agreement, Reimer claims, not to continue to conduct flaring, which continues 24 hours a day, although Reimer says it 'eventually agreed'to give one percent of its sales to the community.

Back in the rainforest, an illegal seismic line cutting across Conejo’s territory was discovered in January. This violated the company’s permit, the uncontested 2007 Supreme Court ruling, and therefore Belizean laws protecting Conejo’s property rights. Once the seismic line became a news story US Capital Energy argued that its passage through the village’s land had been cleared by mistake, but demanded that the community’s leadership allow it to be operated with explosives. When an immediate response was not forthcoming (the leadership having responded that a community meeting was needed to determine the response, in the presence of an attorney), the company reportedly separated the village’s 23 men from the rest of the US Capital’s workforce on Thursday 2 February and sacked them.

The community meeting was held on Sunday 5 February. US Capital’s permitting officer Martin Choco attended and read out a letter he said he had prepared, and asked villagers to sign. The letter condemned the village leadership for their initial objection to the incursion, made no mention of redress for damages, and granted US Capital Energy freedom to explore for oil on Conejo’s territory.

Martin Choco, accompanied by the helicopter pilot and GPS officer contracted from seismic company Acoustic Geophysical Services, said: 'Sign it so you can return to work”.

The leadership suspended the meeting due to what they claimed was illegal pressuring of the community.  Their request for a copy of the letter was declined by Martin Choco who reportedly took it away, and no copy was left in the village or released to the press.

Alistair King - US Capital’s representative in Belize, told the Ecologist however that the letter had been composed by villagers, and was 'nothing to do with US Capital Energy.' He added, however, that on its authority they would return to the seismic line (number 08) this week to continue operations.  He earlier told the Belizean media that Conejo’s workforce had been reinstated, and denied they had been sacked in the first place.

When I put it to him that their claimed tally of signatures - 32 villagers - amounted to less than than half of the community’s population he responded: 'The women tend to leave political things to their men.'

Anita Tzec, a researcher looking at the Maya land rights campaign in Toledo and a member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Working Group developing the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the Organization of American States, attended the meeting as an observer. Her studies not only focus on Maya land rights but give special attention to the decision making of women in these processes.  She maintains:

'At least six women signed the declaration.  And consent is definitely not a matter left to the men in Maya societies. The wider world needs to understand that these communities have their own dynamics and decision-making processes in which women play an important role. During the Conejo case the female elder Melina Makin testified as one of main witnesses at the Supreme Court.  This clearly shows the critical importance of women’s participation in the defense of their communities’ collective rights.'

Maya land rights campaigner Gregory Ch’oc also attended the meeting and said the signatories included several teenagers who appeared to be below voting age.
When Conejo’s former chairperson Manuel Caal described the community’s securing of land title to the Guatemalan delegates at the Q’eqchi’ conference, in the little wooden hall in the rainforest, it was received with a sense of wonder at their achievement.  Now however, the extent of the rights secured is uncertain given the lack of law enforcement by the Belizean authorities. 

Without resources to litigate, and facing incursions into their land that have evaded international attention, the community is encountering challenges to its legal title from vastly more powerful interests. This is forcing the community into position of vulnerability, as if being placed in a pot, and US Capital Energy is ready to add the seasonings. 

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