Belize: Caribbean court rules for Maya land rights

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) delivered a judgment Oct. 30 in a land-rights case brought by indigenous Maya elders in Belize, finding that the government violated communal rights. The case, Maya Leaders Alliance et al v the Attorney General of Belize, concerned indigenous communities in Toledo district whose lands have been usurped. The case was first brought in the Belizean courts more than 20 years ago. The country's Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that the Maya do have communal land rights, but failed to order any restitution in the case. Maya leaders then brought suit before the CCJ. In its new ruling, the CCJ wrote that the Belizean government had "breached the appellants' right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognized and protected Maya land rights." It ordered Belize to take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honor its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

The CCJ said it could not find sufficient evidence to support the appellants' claim for special damages arising out of a land incursion at Golden Stream village. But it did order the Belizean government to establish a $150,000 fund for land restitution. This order made reference to a Consent Order that the appellants and the Belizean government entered into in April, while the CCJ case was still being heard. The Consent Order recognizes that the Maya system of customary land tenure gives rise to property rights protected under the country's constitution. The order requires the government to find mechanisms for land restitution. (Stabroek News, Nov. 12; Belize Guardian, Nov,. 5; Antigua Observer, Nov. 1; Amandla, April 24)