The Maya Land Rights Struggle: A framework for operationalizing ‘Development with Identity’

By Filiberto Penados and Mark Chatarpal

Dr. Filiberto Penados is a prominent Maya scholar and educator. He is the co-founder of the Tumul K’in Centre of Learning in Belize. Dr. Penados also lectures at the University of Toronto and is the Service Learning Director for the Centre for Engaged Learning Abroad (CELA) in Belize.

Mark Chatarpal is a Guyanese researcher from the Soesdyke/Linden Highway. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and was the recipient of the Frederick Ivor Case Book Prize in Caribbean Studies. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Food Studies at Indiana University.

20130916diasporaBelize is a CARICOM member state located in Central America. Similar to Guyana, Belize has a large thriving indigenous population. In 2013 the Belizean Supreme Court upheld their 2009 ruling in favour of granting land rights to the Maya people. A longer version of this paper was presented thereafter at the 2014 Belize Anthropology and Archaeology Symposium. The 2013 court ruling was recently appealed by the Belizean government at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) but in April 2015 the CCJ made a landmark decision once again in favour of the Maya land rights movement.

“This is the only place where I feel complete…here I will not die…where I do not feel inferior…here I will not go hungry.” – Maya villager, Toledo, Belize.

The Maya struggle is as old as the conquest but the recent struggle began in the early 1990’s when a logging concession was granted to a Malaysian company by the government of Belize without the consent of the Maya people. The concession was not only a violation of their rights but the logging process was affecting their water, forests, and foodways. Outraged by these actions the Maya made their dissatisfaction known to the state without any result and hence took their case to the courts of Belize in 1996. Unfortunately the case was constantly delayed and eventually sidelined because according to the Maya, the courts lacked autonomy.

The Maya chose to internationalize their cause and took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1998. The Commission eventually declared in their favour; that Maya rights to land had been violated and urged the government to make amends. However, the ruling was not binding and not much came out of that. In 2007, dissatisfied with the ongoing violation of their rights, the Maya took the case of two communities arguing that based on long standing use and occupation, their rights were being violated. The state argued that the Maya were in fact not indigenous to Belize and hence had no such rights. Once more, the court ruled that not only did the Maya people have rights to their land but also their rights were violated and the government was obligated to protect those rights. This was a great success for the Maya people but it translated into very little tangible results.

While the Maya interpreted the 2007 case to imply that these rights were true for all the communities, the state interpreted it as being applicable only to the two communities. If other Maya communities sought the same land-rights they were required to go to court. Hence in 2009 the Maya were back in court and were successful in seeking a declaration that the 2007 rulings applied to all the communities. The government appealed. In the appeal the court sustained that the Maya people do have rights to their lands but it did not demand the state take action to protect those rights. Both the state and the Maya appealed this case at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In April 2015 the CCJ made its final ruling in favour of the Maya and required that the Belizean government financially compensate the Maya for damages to their land.

While the land rights struggle is perhaps the most well known aspect of Maya struggle in Belize, the struggle in general involves more than just land rights. Three initiatives illustrate the latter, the Sarstoon Temash Indigenous Institute of Management (SATIIM), the Tumul K’in Center of Learning, and the Q’eqchi Healers Association.

The Sarstoon Temash Indigenous Institute of Management has sought to make a space for indigenous peoples to participate in the decision-making about resource management by bringing together a network of communities to engage in the co-management of a protected area. The institute also strives to carve spaces for indigenous concerns, knowledge, and practices in resource management. In 2004 the organization commissioned a study titled “The Wealth Report”, a counter narrative to the “poverty report” produced by the Belizean state, which claimed that poverty among the Maya people was hovering at 80%. While ‘the wealth report’ did not dispute that Maya peoples reported a high level of cash poverty and marginalization, it contended that Maya peoples have land, food, and a vast wealth of knowledge. The organization has also been involved in advocacy for the rights of indigenous peoples in the management of other resources such as oil. The efforts of this organization are a prime example of overcoming the dispossession, domination, and exclusion of indigenous peoples while at the same time seeking greater wellbeing and spaces for indigenous ways of knowing and being.

The Tumul K’in Center of Learning is an education initiative that was established to respond to the high

levels of poverty and exclusion among the Maya people, the erosion of cultural knowledge and identity, the limited opportunities for young people and the colonialist tendencies in the education system. It seeks to develop an alternative education model that makes space for Maya knowledge in the curriculum both in terms of content, pedagogy and the physical and social space of the school, and increased participation of parents and community in defining and managing the education of their children.

The center’s mission statement is that the “Tumul K’in Center of Learning is a non-governmental Maya organization that promotes sustainable development with identity through intercultural education, training and research fusing modern and Maya values, knowledge and philosophy.” The mission statement clearly communicates the aspiration of a sustainable development praxis that implies addressing material conditions. However, it also indicates that it has to be with identity signalling the importance of honouring Maya culture. This becomes more evident in its adoption of an intercultural education model and the idea of making space for Maya values, knowledge, and philosophy.

The Maya Healers Association is an association whose aim is to sustain Maya medicinal knowledge and practice and create a respectful space for it in Belizean society. They argue that Maya medicinal and health knowledge have been consistently denigrated and demonized by both church and state institutions resulting in the erosion of traditional medicinal knowledge. To counter these realities and in an effort to conserve various strains of medicinal plants, the Maya healers came together to create and manage a medicinal garden. The garden is also used to educate both Maya and non-Maya about Maya medicine and even engage in research — to document the validity of Maya knowledge and to advocate to the Belizean health authorities for a respectful space for Maya medicinal and health practices.

The land rights movement, the initiatives of SATIIM, Tumul K’in and the Maya Healers Association along with many other efforts are part of the Maya resistance, resurgence and revitalization. Whether in the area of natural resource management, education, or health the objective is to overcome dispossession, domination and exclusion of indigenous peoples while at the same time seeking greater wellbeing and spaces for indigenous ways of knowing and being. The struggle functions in at least two ways, first to expose the coloniality experienced by the Maya and secondly, it highlights their efforts at overcoming material poverty whilst carving out a space for a dignified life and a self-defined future. It is in this context that the food sovereignty of Maya people must be considered both as a matter of justice and practicality.


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  Gemma Robinson teaches at the University of Stirling, Scotland. She is researching Wilson Harris’s poetry, and is the editor of University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose of Martin Carter (Bloodaxe).

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