Recently in Belize the Supreme Court in an historic land rights case involving Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and four Alcaldes from surrounding communities against the government of Belize (GOB), handed down a decision which seems to have favoured the government of Belize and the oil company US Capital Energy.
The Garifuna community, throughout this important case, which sought answers to important legal questions and primary among these questions is does the government have to seek the free and prior informed consent of the indigenous communities that would be affected by any contract, licence or permit granted by the government to a third party, to conduct development within the lands owned by the indigenous groups, has been completely silent. Almost as if they do not exist.
The Garifuna community of Baranco rests within the Sarstoon Temash National Park. Their community is one of the communities affected by the drilling for oil by US Energy Capital with the permission of the GOB. However unbelievably when SATIIM brought action against the GOB for not seeking the prior free and informed consent of the communities, Baranco, a Garifuna community, opted not to join the other communities that gave SATIIM permission to sue on their behalf. Since then Baranco has said nothing.
Looking at the larger picture, no statement could be located where the National Garifuna Council, the eminent Garifuna organization in Belize, which is recognized by the GOB as the representatives of Garinagu in Belize, has said a single word on this important issue, which would fundamentally affect the way GOB deals with indigenous groups in Belize in the future. Not a single press release by NGC was found on this important case during research.
So what is at stake? Basically, how much potential the GOB has and how much potential the communities have to control the lands they live on and the resources located on the land is at stake here. Potential, in this article, could be substituted for rights, as in rights to use the land owned by indigenous groups. It has been recognized by international standards in such documents as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that such groups have certain rights with justification of these rights seen in the preamble.
Here are two paragraphs of the Preamble of UNDRIP:
“Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests,
“Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources,”
It also its Preamble says the following with regards to development of the lands of indigenous peoples:
“Convinced that control by indigenous peoples over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources will enable them to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions, and to promote their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs,”
The purpose of the preamble in a document is usually to lay out the fundamental principles, purposes and goals of the document. Above is what is laid out in the UNDRIP document, which is an international agreement to which Belize is a signatory. So the potential to enjoy the control of the lands they live on and to have a say in the resources found there upon is at stake. Right now these rights are enjoyed by the Maya and Garifuna in Toledo.
If we look at the contract and the permit between the GOB and US Capital Energy, they have already violated the rights of Garifuna and Maya in Toledo. They have destroyed the lands by building access roads into the forest without the informed and free and prior consent of the community and they have affected the land with the drilling for oil and the previous seismic testing using explosives. Who will pay for this damage?
It cannot be ascertained of course until a court hears the case and makes a decision but we do know that the Maya and Garifuna would benefit from such a case. Furthermore if oil is found or if minerals are found or if gold is found in the lands surrounding these or other communities around Belize, will they have a share in the resources extracted from the lands of the ancestors of these indigenous groups?
Maya may well get an answer but will Garifuna in Toledo? How can they if they do not bring any action against the GOB and US Capital Energy? If they do not bring action, they do not have a right to compensation for damages.
As stated above National Garifuna Council has been deafeningly silent on this issue and it is expected they will continue to be silent. From Baranco, precious little can be cited as to their thinking from public records; for instance, from the Belize Times on November 8, 2012, Dr Joseph Palacio, currently the chairman of the Barranco Village Council wrote, on behalf of the concerned residents of Barranco, a letter regarding the environmental impact assessment regarding the current development by US Capital Energy’s search for oil, or EIA as they are called.
He shares some concerns about the project. In the letter he also has an expectation that the GOB would help them navigate through the legalese basically of the EIA and to explain it to the indigenous people in plain language they would understand. Though that is a right described in the UNDRIP, it would be conflicting for the GOB to provide the community with what Dr Palacio is requesting as it is in the GOB’s interest to see this project go forward. If this project does not go forward the GOB would be liable to pay for the costs of delays to this project per the production sharing agreement with US Capital Energy.
This means, if the Garifuna in Barranco should decide to bring legal action against GOB and US Capital Energy, any cost in delay of the project due to that action would be a costly one to the GOB. Though it would force both GOB and US Capital Energy to come to the bargaining table, it could be clearly seen then it is not in the interest of the GOB to provide the communities with all the facts as they would be able to understand as Palacio requests in his letter. Palacio’s approach seems to be an honourable one, one of openness and transparency expected from GOB. What the response was to this letter if any is not certain at this time.
More recently, Palacio has made statements that are very pro US Energy Capital and GOB where the current oil drilling project in Barranco is concerned. Would he be as supportive one can wonder if he saw this report by a United Nations Rapporteur found at this link: http://unsr.jamesanaya.info/study-extractives/map/index.php/reports/view/72 regarding the US Energy Capital oil project?
This report clearly states the benefits to Barranco are uncertain and with regards to the distributions of royalties funds, unclear. James Anaya, the author of this report, was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People. One look at the report will tell a much gloomier picture than the one the GOB and US Capital Energy must be painting for Barranco Village Council and the residents of Barranco.
Potential problems, according to Anaya’s report, include land problems, no obtaining of prior consent, seismic testing using explosives, US Capital Energy fomenting division among the Maya, bribery in the Alcaldes election, the pro oil company leader elected was subsequently removed.
A search at US Capital Energy website yielded no information regarding the project they are undertaking in Belize except for a single picture of oil leaking as it is captioned. In the press in Belize, US Capital Energy through their attorney Michael Peyrefitte has been extremely verbally aggressive toward SATIIM and in particular its leader Greg Ch’oc. The GOB likewise has been verbally aggressive towards Ch’oc and SATIIM with Ch’oc being singled out in the media.
What should Garinagu do in this case? First Garifuna should protect their land rights from any encroacher on those rights. Garifuna should also form alliances with the Maya community in fighting infringement on these rights. They are all indigenous groups; it would make no sense not to support each other’s efforts in fighting for the rights of indigenous people.
Garifuna leadership must begin to be heard in the legal realm in Belize. It is irresponsible for a group like National Garifuna Association to not take a position in the landmark land rights case involving SATIIM. Barranco Village, a village of Garinagu, is a part of SATIIM but did not sign on to this current case.
The Garifuna hold a trump card in all this, however. The Garifuna are not affected by the difficulties in the case the Maya through SATIIM are experiencing. Many of the stumbling blocks put in the way of SATIIM cannot be used against the Garifuna. If Garifuna decided to press on with a court case against GOB and US Energy, which some are convinced is the only alternative, they would quickly become a force to be reckoned with.
Garifuna Activist and Belizean Activist