Belize: villagers on trial for protecting Maya site

Thirteen Maya villagers are to stand trial in Belize over their expulsion of a settler they said had illegally encroached upon the grounds of an archeological site. A trial date of March 30 has been set in the case of the "Santa Cruz 13," who were arrested in a police raid of their village in June—days after expelling Rupert Myles from the Uxbenká site in southern Toledo district. Among the 13 charged with "unlawful imprisonment" is Q'eqchi Maya community leader Cristina Coc. Villagers say Myles illegally built a house on the grounds of the site against the wishes of the community, and Belizean authorities failed to respond to their call to have him removed. Villagers admit they restrained Myles when he became unruly at a community meeting that had been called to work out the matter, but deny his claims that they assaulted him. They also deny his charge that they are discriminating against him because he is Creole. Myles, who has a common-law wife in the Maya village, built his house on the Uxbenká site after being denied a request to do so on village lands. Village authorities say the decision was made based only a shortage of available land.

In his defense, Myles asserts that Uxbenká has not been formally demarcated by the Belizean government as an archeological site. The villagers counter that the site lies within their traditional lands, and they therefore have jurisdiction over it. Since a 2007 decision of Supreme Court of Belize, Santa Cruz is one of only two villages in the country to have "customary ownership" of its traditional lands formally recognized. The case was jointly brought with the nearby village of Conejo.

Additionally, the laws of Belize prohibit building on or damaging any archeological site. In May 2015, Keith Prufer, director of the Uxbenká Archaeological Project at the University of New Mexico, sent a letter (PDF) to the Belize Institute of Archaeology expressing his concern that Myles had "bulldozed into the archaeological platform… He has also built new buildings, and has burned vegetation to the very edge of the steel plaza, further endangering the ruin. The bulldozing activity has irreparably damaged the platform." Despite this, Myles has continued to have access to the site and has resumed construction since the charges were brought against the Santa Cruz 13.

The villagers also invoke their right and responsibility to defend the sacred sites of the Maya people under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association—representing the traditional elders and elected mayors of the district, respectively—issued a statement (PDF) asserting: "The Maya villagers will continue to defend these cultural heritage sites that are important to all Belizeans."

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, has made note of the case, saying in an official statement: "I am concerned by the inaction of the Government of Belize to assist Maya villagers to protect their property rights in the face of threats to those rights. It appears as though the repeated requests to local police by Santa Cruz village leaders for assistance in removing the individual from the archaeological site within their village lands, went ignored."

The UK-based indigenous rights group Cultural Survival is promoting an emergency fund appeal to cover legal fees for the Santa Cruz 13. (Cultural Survival, March 10; Amandla, Feb. 20; 7 News Belize, Nov. 17)