The Caribbean Court of Justice has ruled that indigenous land rights in Belize must be honored by the government. The ruling upheld an earlier decision of an appeals court that gave the Maya people rights to land they have used and occupied for generations in the southern Belizean district of Toledo.
The ruling requires that the land be demarcated, protected, and officially registered by the government of Belize. It also dictates that the government of Belize abstain from interfering with the Maya’s land rights unless consent is given by the Maya people. In effect, the government of Belize is barred from issuing leases, grants, permits, concessions, or contracts authorizing logging, petroleum, mineral extraction, or any activity that would affect the Maya land rights.
The victory for the Maya people confirms a 2004 report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of the Organization of American States. That report’s findings were similar to the terms stipulated in the recent Caribbean Court of Justice ruling.
The success of the three-decade campaign to obtain indigenous land rights in Belize has been hailed as a worldwide victory, creating legal jurisprudence for indigenous peoples’ rights to lands and resources.
Despite the celebration from the international indigenous rights movement, Belize’s Prime Minister Dean Barrow was hesitant in his interpretation of the ruling. Barrow claimed that the Caribbean Court of Justice ruling “does not find or establish that the Maya have indigenous title.” He clarified that the government conceded land rights to the Maya people, but that those rights were for individual property rights rather than communal rights. He also told reporters that his government would resist the US$750,000 in damages claimed by the Maya people.
The Maya people are believed to have lived in the area now known as Belize since 2000 B.C. The area was seized by the Spanish in the 17th century before coming under British rule in 1862. In 1964, Belize gained independence from the British.