Thursday, March 17, 2011

Indigenous people make united stand at summit

Attempting to adjust the trajectory of their nation’s development, the Indigenous Peoples of rural Belize call their Government’s approach into question

With the vast majority of Belize currently under concession from oil companies, the commitment of the Government on resource extraction is undeniable.  In the southern Toledo district, US Capital Energy are already at work and are reported to be just months from beginning to drill. The Indigenous Peoples, who have lived upon the land for generations, were expected to accept this as a done deal. Yet, to quietly sacrifice their land is not on their agenda. They are making a stand and forcing their Government to listen.

Panel of speakers listen to Greg Ch'oc
In Punta Gorda, the principal town in the district, leaders from indigenous villages crowd in a community hall. They have come to listen to experts on the legal, environmental, social and economic aspects of oil development. A translator reiterates in their Que’qchi language. After a series of round table discussions are held, it is proposed that a stand against the Government is made. A vote is held and a unanimous show of hands give their support.

 The participants decide to collaboratively write a declaration. A document is projected to the front of the room and the audience take turns to contribute to its content. Phrasing is debated and the use of single words questioned before finally agreed.  The resulting People’s Position Paper outlines the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples and states how they intend to proceed.

Santa Theresa's Mario Chub states the People's Position
The media soon arrive with their video cameras, microphones and flash photography. One of the village members is chosen to read the statement aloud. Santa Theresa resident Mario Chub stands defiantly as he reads: "We learned first hand about the hidden consequences of oil development, including challenges to negotiating fair and equitable compensation, dealing with inevitable environmental pollution and possible human rights violations."

He compounds their decision for a participial role for all communities in proceedings, stating with certainty that this is “the beginning of a conversation which will ensure that throughout the oil development process, our communities are treated with fairness; dignity and their legal and human rights are honoured.”

The unprecedented event is plastered across the news. The Mayan people are having their views heard by millions across the country, demanding that their human rights are respected throughout their country’s ill-conceived pursuit of wealth through oil. In the national debate on this contentious issue, their message is loud and clear.
Amandala Page 3, the widest read newspaper in Belize, 11/03/2011
 For the Mayan people whose lives are built upon lands that are an oil hot spot, extraction has irreversible social and cultural implications. For it to go ahead, they will have to sacrifice huge areas of their traditional land. Land where generations of their people have felled trees for buildings, hunted for food and sought natural medicines. The erosion of their culture will be inevitable as machines, foreigners, industrial infrastructure and pollution are brought into their rural villages. Should there be any of the inevitable mistakes and mishaps that are so common in oil extraction projects across the world, the consequences would be of catastrophic proportion.

Greg Ch’oc from Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) stated that “an oil spill would not only be an ecological disaster, but an act of genocide. For the Mayan people, their land is integral to their way of life.” Of Mayan background himself, Greg pioneers the rights of his indigenous people.  At the event in Punta Gorda, facilitated by SATIIM, Ch’oc speaks to his fellow people: If we do not fight for our share, we’ll forever be worse than where we are right now... If we lose the land and lose the river and lose the wildlife, then what do we get? We end up losing everything.”

Whilst discussions take place amongst indigenous community members, Government officials stand outside the venue handing out leaflets to participants and passers by. Entitled ‘Facts about oil exploration’, the leaflet advertises all of the supposed benefits of oil extraction. Lee McLoughlin, from the organisation Ya’axché Conservation Trust, shakes his head in disbelief. “The irony is” he says “is that it has come from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. I would like to know on what basis the Deputy Prime Minister, who is Minister of this department, claims that oil development is beneficial for the environment of Belize”.

The leaflet features the case study of Spanish Lookout as an example of a successful oil extraction project. Given that minutes earlier, Leonard Reimer, former member of the resident’s Petroleum Board at Spanish Lookout, was advising event participants of his regret of going ahead with oil exploration, its timing is almost comical. Reimer had just explained that the company failed to meet any of the agreed conditions of the contract intended to benefit his community.  He explains that the money they received as compensation was not near what the damage was”. Members of his community were compelled to move away as they feared the pollution caused would affect their health. Meanwhile the oil company demanded that the biggest proportion of the money the community received be invested into new roads that could cater for their heavy machinery.

Despite dissatisfaction and protest, the leaders of the nation have dollar signs in their eyes as they consider the potential value of the oil buried underneath the feet of some of their people. In February, Prime Minister Barrow stated that US Capital Energy is no more than 6 to 9 months away from actually beginning to drill, and certainly when they reach that point, drill they will”. Outcry ensued as numerous organisations in Belize declared such action illegal.

Today, the certainty with which Barrow stated that that remains the position of the Government and that position will not change” is being questioned. As Ch’oc explains "The battleground is in Toledo, what happens in Toledo will determine what happens in the rest of the country.” The Indigenous Peoples are taking matters into their own hands to play a pivotal role in the future of their nation. They know their rights and they will not go down without a fight. 

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