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Indigenous Communities Challenge Big Oil in Belize

Groups push to keep US Capital Energy out of Sarstoon Temash National Park

The old school bus rattles along the dirt road, heading through the rainforest to the southernmost reaches of Belize. The sign would be easy to miss. Morning glory vines climb the small, rusted notice off to the right, nearly blending in with the banana plants and palm-thatch roofed houses in the Mayan community of Midway. Sarstoon Temash National Park. No Hunting, Fishing, Logging Or Fires.

A few hundred feet down the road, there is another rusting metal sign outside a small building that serves as the community health clinic: U.S. Capital Energy Belize. Oil Company Working For The Community. Like the clinic, the school and pre-school across the road are painted in the Texas-based oil company’s colors, yellow and green. Even the metal garbage bins around here are emblazoned with the company slogan: Energy that becomes life. The road ends where it meets the Caribbean Sea in the small Afro-indigenous Garifuna community of Barranco, one of the villages buffering the park.

Sarstoon Temash NationalPhoto by The Advocacy Project Temash River in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, near where US Capital Energy has been conducting seismic tests.

The Belizean government created Sarstoon Temash National Park — a 42,000-acre swath of waterways and lands rich in biodiversity that forms part of traditional Mayan territory — in 1994 without community consultation, but local communities have largely come to embrace the protected status of the area. And they have refused to cave to US Capital Energy as it attempts to develop oil prospects both in and outside of the park, pointing to the lack of consultation as well as the government’s double standards when it comes to environmental protection. 

“I mean, [the Belizean government is] going to tell me you can’t go and cut the leaves you want to make a thatched roof without their permission, you can’t go and fish, and you can’t do farming there — but it’s okay for a company to come and put a big rig in there?” says Tricia Mariano, president of the local Barranco branch of the National Garifuna Council, a group that works to preserve and strengthen the culture of the Garifuna people. “It’s contradictory,” she says, laughing.

Communities in the Toledo District of Belize have pursued two distinct paths of resistance, advancing a local indigenous conservation model within the park while also challenging oil permits and exploration activities on their traditional lands through the legal system. 

On the ground, local communities have worked tirelessly to manage the park and protect its diverse wildlife. Local management efforts were initially supported through a co-management agreement between the Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM), representing the Mayan and Garifuna communities living in the buffer zone around the park, and the Belizean government. The government terminated the agreement in July 2013 and has all but abandoned the region. However, community rangers continue to monitor the area.

“We’ve declared that we have a right to manage and patrol this region because these are our ancestral lands. So what we have done is that aside from our rangers — community rangers — we have also deployed traditional leaders to participate in these patrols,” SATIIM’s then executive director Gregory Ch’oc, told me when I met him at his office in earlier this year in Punta Gorda, capital of Toledo District.

Ch’oc brought out maps to help visualize the region he was describing. One displays the results of a community mapping exercise, demarcating sections of the park used for the gathering of medicinal plants, ceremonies and other activities in different colors. The other map shows US Capital Energy’s 200 miles of seismic lines cutting through the national park and community lands.

Along with the seismic lines themselves, the roads that the company built to conduct exploration in the area have made the area much more accessible to poachers and illegal loggers, making the community rangers’ job particularly challenging. “There’s a lot of logging and there’s a lot of hunting, especially by people from across the border, on the Guatemalan side,” says Anasario Cal, head SATIIM park ranger. Poachers go after peccaries, armadillos, and all kinds of wildlife to sell game meat, he says. “It made it a lot easier for them. The government does nothing to try to assist [SATIIM] to try to discourage illegal encroachment in the park.” The handful of community rangers do what they can, Cal says, but people simply put their illegal activities in the park on hold when patrols are in the area.

Protection on the ground has proved challenging, and local groups — including SATIIM, the Toledo Alcaldes Association, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, and the Maya Leaders Alliance — have pursued a parallel path through the court system to protect and assert collective indigenous ownership over ancestral Mayan lands. Ch’oc knows the history like the back of his hand, and he took me through the recent highlights.

Although Mayan communities launched their first legal challenge against the Belizean government over land rights in 1996, the most recent battle began in 2006, when the Supreme Court of Belize quashed US Capital Energy’s seismic testing permit. In October 2007, the Supreme Court delivered an historic ruling, determining that the Mayan communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz hold customary title to their lands and ordering the government to respect and demarcate their territory. The ruling was based in part on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ratified by the UN General Assembly only five weeks prior.

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in 2010, finding that all Mayan communities in Toledo District hold customary collective rights over the land and resources. Nonetheless, the government continued to approve US Capital Energy activities within the region without obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of the local Mayan communities.

In 2013, SATIIM filed another lawsuit against the government and US Capital Energy, and in April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the permits granted to the oil company for oil drilling and road construction were unreasonable and unlawful, but did not explicitly render them void. The permits were set to expire at the end of the April, but US Capital Energy announced its intention to proceed with drilling activities regardless, and the government waived the permits’ expiration date.

The Mayan communities of Toledo organized several public protests in the months following the ruling.  Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow has stated that he is open to dialogue with community leaders regarding oil development in the park, but refuses to sit down with SATIIM. Barrow was a lawyer for SATIIM in the successful 2006 case against US Capital Energy’s seismic testing permit, but is now a staunch supporter of oil development.

Conejo, Crique Sarco, Midway and Graham Creek — Mayan villages buffering the Sarstoon Temash National Park — have denounced attempts by US Capital Energy to divide communities with respect to their stance on the company’s presence in the area, and remain firm in their resistance to oil development. Another Mayan village in the same area, Sunday Wood, is in favor of oil development. “The communities are forest-dependent people,” Ch’oc says, sitting outside the SATIIM office, where a breeze offered some relief from the sweltering afternoon heat in Punta Gorda, capital of Toledo District. “We don’t want our lives, our communities, to be shattered as a result of the exploitation.”

Ch’oc, who stepped down from the helm of SATIIM in August, believes that the Mayan communities’ resistance has resonated beyond Toledo District. “I would say that the case, the SATIIM case, initiated a grassroots awakening that unleashed thereafter cases after cases that came up, public interest cases,” he says. “It showcased that if an isolated group of Indigenous people can summon the courage and resources to mount a vigorous challenge against the government, [anyone can].”

Environmental organizations in Belize mounted, and recently won, another such vigorous challenge against offshore oil concessions in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Following widespread public opposition to drilling in the reef that’s second in length only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, including a people’s referendum, the Supreme Court ruled all offshore oil contracts null and void last year due to the lack of adequate environmental impact assessments.

Unfortunately, back in Toledo District, US Capital Energy began drilling inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park last month. But Mayan communities buffering the park haven’t given up, and continue to pursue action on the ground and in the courts.

Sandra Cuffe
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist reporting on environmental, Indigenous, and human rights issues in Central America and Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @Sandra_Cuffe

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