Bad faith and betrayal in Belize: Maya governance under attack

  • March 25, 2022

Land & Liberation

The government of Belize is attempting to suppress Indigenous self-determination and disavow customary Maya governance in the name of “development.”

Gathering of community members from Maya villages, the Toledo Alcaldes Association and Maya Leaders Alliance. Photo: Toledo Alcaldes Association-Maya Leaders Alliance-Julian Cho Society.

For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.

— Frantz Fanon


any social movement sympathizers, scholars and activists concerned with combating land-grabbing, climate breakdown and environmental ruin are familiar with the Zapatistas, but far fewer are up to speed on the parallel Maya land struggle that is taking place a few hundred kilometers to the east, in Belize. Uniquely, this is a struggle for Indigenous territory and self-determination situated in both Central America and the Caribbean. While local autonomy is the ultimate aim, it also involves resistance to extractivist “development aggression” and an authoritarian state, as well as rejecting the British monarchy, patrons of privatization and lasting vestiges of empire. More succinctly, it is a battle against what the Peruvian decolonial scholar Anibal Quijano refers to as the “coloniality of power.” This is the struggle for land and freedom of the Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan Maya communities of Toledo District, southern Belize.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous and Afrodescendant communities continue to be subjected to recurring enclosures and expropriations of land as a result of state-sanctioned “development” projects. The ecological damage, social harms and forced dislocations that follow are directly connected to extractivist agendas masquerading as initiatives for economic “growth” and “progress.” The plunder and violence that ensues is a tangible manifestation of the lasting legacies of the plantation economy, enslavement and imperialism. Regrettably, accumulation by dispossession has become a hallmark of development in the region.

In turn, rural Indigenous, Afrodescendant and peasant groups throughout Latin America and the Caribbean continue to be negatively racialized and adversely affected by economic growth schemes marketed as “green” and “sustainable.” The destructive consequences of neoliberal development include land grabs; displacement; destitution; the demolition of ecosystems; illness induced by pollution; spikes in sexual abuse and gender-based violence; loss of heritage, culture, languages; and the criminalization — and targeted killing — of land defenders. Many of these trends can be seen in the multi-ethnic and ecologically biodiverse country of Belize.

Belize was historically besieged by colonizers from both Spain and Great Britain and known as “British Honduras” until its independence in 1981. To this day, it maintains a hierarchical structure of governance based upon the Westminster model, which was imposed by the British Empire. Notably, Belize has one of the highest per capita murder rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is already one of the most violent regions in the world. The state, rather notoriously, also has a tarnished track record of repudiating Indigenous land claims, both of the Maya and Garinagu.

Amidst this reality, two key pillars of the land struggle and autonomous Maya movement of southern Belize are the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), an Indigenous Maya institution of democratically elected village leaders called alcaldes. The MLA, also fully Maya, is a coalition of grassroots environmental defenders, political activists and former alcaldes. It was officially formed in 1999 as a union of Maya organizations and has since evolved into a coalition of activists, former village leaders and elders in the land rights struggle. Its members have been engaged in community organizing and environmental defense for decades.

Given the MLA is accompanying the TAA, members of the movement use the acronym TAA-MLA as a moniker and means of centering the role of the alcaldes association. Together, the TAA-MLA serves and advocates for over 20,000 Maya people across 41 remote communities in Toledo District, Belize’s southernmost and poorest district. Broadly, the movement is endeavoring to build, much like the Zapatistas who are also guided by Maya cosmology and collectivity, “a world where many world’s fit.”

The Maya Land Struggle

In addition to grassroots mobilizing and resistance, the TAA-MLA represents Maya communities nationally, regionally and internationally on legal matters related to human rights violations, racial discrimination, land encroachments, heritage site destruction and threats to cultural survival. In 2015, after 20 long years and numerous caustic legal battles with the state, the Maya movement made history regarding the recognition of Indigenous land rights by winning a landmark case against the government of Belize in the Caribbean Court of Justice, the region’s highest and final court of appeal. The court’s decision established that the Maya’s customary communal lands and notions of complex tenure are equal in status to the conventional private property rights recognized in Belize’s constitution.

The 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice ruling also came with a compliance order requiring the state to work in “good faith” with Maya communities, specifically the appellants, the MLA and TAA, to delimit, demarcate and title traditional Maya territories. As a first step towards its implementation, the court further required the government to develop a Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) protocol in conjunction and via consultation with the TAA-MLA, which has not yet happened.

Tellingly, the government of Belize has absconded from its role in the implementation process for over seven years. During this time, state-sponsored land predation and encroachments onto Maya farmlands and milpas have continued. Sometimes the infringements occur under the guise of “help” and “development,” in other instances dispossession is an outcome of the fraught “good intentions” of conservationists and charities. The intrusions have been so persistent that the government was yet again found guilty of violating the Maya’s customary land rights this past year.

Despite their watershed victory over the Belizean government in the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2015, the TAA-MLA maintain that organized communities and grassroots movements are the drivers of social change and point source of self-determination — not the state nor the courts. In actualizing this, the alliance has, since its beginning, engaged in a wide range of tactics and strategies aimed at effecting what Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck refers to as “non-metaphorical decolonization.” The movement recognizes, like Aymara anarchist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has proclaimed, “that there can be no discourse of decolonization, no theory of decolonization, without a decolonizing practice.”

For the Maya of Toledo District, this decolonizing practice includes protecting and preserving their Maya culture, languages, cosmovision and even dreams. It also entails retaining and embodying their Indigenous conceptions of ral ch’och’ (being “children of the earth”) and se’ komonil (togetherness-community). Se’ komonil is a kaleidoscopic and layered Qʼeqchiʼ (Maya) term that escapes English translation but connotes “living well together in dignity, balance and harmony.” The phrase is not dissimilar to the Quechua notion of sumak causay, the broader idea of buen vivir, and the Tseltal and Tsotsil (Maya) concept of el lek’il kuxlejal, which many Zapatista supporters will be familiar with.

Significantly, for the Maya of Toledo District, being ral ch’och’ and nourishing se’ komonil are inherently connected to taking care of, cultivating reciprocal relationships with, and defending the land and environment — not to mention practicing their customary system of communal governance, the alcaldes.

The Contentious Politics of Free, Prior and Informed Consent

Villagers gather to collectively discuss the state’s revised FPIC protocol as part of communal process and Maya customary governance. Photo: Toledo Alcaldes Association-Maya Leaders Alliance-Julian Cho Society.

Against the backdrop detailed above, in late January 2022, the TAA-MLA issued a press release announcing that Maya communities in Toledo District had been “ambushed” by the government. The alliance’s declaration, not to mention the ongoing clash that is taking place between the Maya and state, was prompted by the government unilaterally filing a FPIC protocol with the Caribbean Court of Justice. That is, the state, ironically, revised and submitted the FPIC framework without either consulting or obtaining consent from the appellants of the 2015 court case, the TAA-MLA.

FPIC is sanctioned by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and permits Indigenous people to discuss and decide the terms and conditions through which development projects that will impact their lands and cultures will be planned, initiated, scrutinized and evaluated. While it has garnered a great deal of traction globally as a mechanism for safeguarding Indigenous communities and attenuating environmental damage, several analysts argue that the FPIC framework can best be thought of as a limited instrument or even trap that inescapably reproduces Western worldviews and the concentrated power of the state. Despite FPIC’s deficiencies, many observers have noted the protocol can, in some instances, be employed by Indigenous groups to mitigate land grabbing and environmentally destructive development projects.

Regarding the FPIC protocol in Belize, the government is claiming that it conferred with Maya communities before submitting the new framework to the Caribbean Court of Justice — and that the Maya accepted the revised protocol. The TAA-MLA have resoundingly disputed the state’s claim that meaningful consultation and approval took place and is asserting the government is acting in bad faith and with impunity, as it has done before.

Once news of the government’s filing broke, the TAA-MLA specifically denounced the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs, the office which played a key role in unilaterally proffering the new FPIC protocol to the Caribbean Court of Justice without properly fulfilling its responsibility regarding the duty to consult. Essentially, the TAA-MLA is contending that the state at once violated the court’s consent order and betrayed the Maya communities by refusing to engage in good faith negotiation and consultation. Maya village leaders have specified this was an act of “total disrespect,” not to mention disavowal of Indigenous governance.

Maya movement leaders and villagers have since explained that the government is operating in an imperious manner as a means to undermine the customary governance system of the Maya, the alcaldes, and deny the legitimacy of its representative body, the TAA. Maya activists from the alliance have surmised that the state’s explicit rejection of the TAA, a critical element of Maya governance, is a concerted effort to fracture and sow discord amongst communities, which is a long-standing divide-and-rule strategy deployed all over the world against Indigenous peoples.

Refuting Indigenous Governance

In addition, in what Maya activists are saying was an equally audacious and authoritarian move by the government — which has a history of violating Maya land rights — it independently altered the terminology of FPIC, replacing the word “consent” with “consultation.” Consequently, the abbreviation FPIC, according to the government, is now a framework related to free, prior and informed “consultation” — not “consent”.

Changing the highly specific term “consent” to the more ambiguous word “consultation” will hinder the Maya’s ability to refuse and resist future development initiatives that will impact their territories, communities and cultural heritage. In essence, eliminating “consent” from the compulsory process will disempower Maya communities and place decision-making authority solely in the hands of the state.

The omission of “consent” further implies that the state’s obligation is limited to only informing and listening to what Maya communities have to say, but that it is ultimately free to do as it pleases. This will reverse a host of key advances Indigenous people have made across the international sector with respect to affirming that self-determination and “consent” — not merely consultation — are at the heart of encroachment issues related to development projects and even conservation efforts.

Blunders by the Belizean government related to its unilateral alteration of the FPIC protocol have been patently obvious, if not embarrassing. For example, in a recent information campaign related to economic development with Maya communities in Toledo District, officials from the government’s Ministry of Human Development, Families and Indigenous People’s Affairs patronizingly announced to Maya villagers that FPIC literally means “Free, Prior and Informed Consultation.” This contravenes the accepted definition of FPIC that is used globally.

Another major flash point related to the amended FPIC framework the government is trying to have formalized by the Caribbean Court of Justice is that the alcaldes of the TAA, as elected village leaders and representatives of a customary Indigenous Maya institution, have been deliberately omitted from the new protocol. Adding fuel to the fire and as a means of further subverting the alcaldes and Maya movement, the government issued a press release of its own on its website, which simultaneously questioned and blatantly denied the very presence of Maya communal governance by bluntly asserting: “We do not believe that there is such collective governance system of the Maya people.”

Moreover, in its non-consensually revised FPIC protocol, the government replaced the TAA with a list of Maya-led NGOs it single-handedly deemed as being eligible for consultation. Rather peculiarly, some of the NGOs the state listed are no longer even operational and, markedly, none are a critical element of customary Maya governance like the TAA is. Supporters of the Maya communities deemed this cunning deceit and called it out as one of the myriad ways in which the non-profit industrial complex is used to obstruct grassroots Indigenous self-determination.

In the face of the government’s brash modification of FPIC and its rogue submission of the newly revised protocol to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the TAA-MLA is maintaining that the collective governance system and right to self-determination of the Maya of Toledo District have “once again” been attacked. In doing so, Maya activists cited the state’s lengthy rap sheet of disavowing the alcaldes and repeated efforts to undermine the TAA. As one might imagine, the alliance rejected the government’s new consultation framework outright and condemned its redefinition of FPIC.

Mobilizing Nationalism and Managerialist Compulsions

Maya women in southern Belize attend a participatory assembly with the Toledo Alcaldes Association. Communal listening-dialogue gatherings are integral to collective decision-making and customary governance across the 41 Maya communities of Toledo District. Photo: Toledo Alcaldes Association-Maya Leaders Alliance-Julian Cho Society.

In responding to the TAA-MLA’s assertion that Maya systems of customary governance were being denigrated and renounced by the actions of the state, Belize’s Prime Minister, John Briceño, marshaled an appeal to nationalism, which inferred that the Maya movement of southern Belize is greedy, irrational and separatist. In his statement he alleged: “I think they [the MLA] will not be happy until we give them over the Toledo District and that’s never going to happen under a PUP (People’s United Party) government. Toledo is a part of this country and as a government we have a responsibility to this country.”

It is well worth noting that the Maya of Toledo District, which is a multi-cultural and heterogeneous district in its demographic make-up, readily self-identify as Belizean and have never sought to have the region split from the rest of the country.

In a virtue-signaling bid to rationalize removing the TAA from the consultation process, the government, through a narrow and liberal-managerialist approach to “inclusion” that is common amongst credentialed professionals and elitist bourgeois institutions, vaguely argued that every person should be consulted on issues related to development. During a follow-up press conference, the TAA-MLA did not dispute this point in principle, agreeing that decision-making authority should ultimately rest within each and every Maya community.

Detailing this stance but in situating inclusion within an Indigenous frame of collectivity and direct democracy, Cristina Coc, spokesperson of the MLA, clarified:

We don’t disagree with that (i.e. that every member of a community needs to be a part of the consultation process). This is not something new to us (the Maya). That is the way that we make decisions in our communities. Customarily, the fundamental authority for decision making rests with the village meeting where the members of that community collectively — by way of consensus — make decisions.

The crux of the matter regarding making sure every village member is included in the FPIC protocol thereby remains the process through which consultation occurs. The Belizean government is trying to force and micro-manage the Maya communities into existing and operating on its terms and conditions. Conversely, the TAA-MLA and Maya villages are seeking to hold fast to their customary governance system and communal ways of organizing.

Maya customary governance in southern Belize includes gathering together, listening collectively, disseminating information, deliberating issues and arriving at consensus in participatory assemblies known as “ab’inks.” For generations, the ab’ink, which is inherently democratic and inclusive, has been a fundamental cornerstone of Maya self-determination and governance. Revealingly, the state deleted every mention of the ab’ink from the amended FPIC framework and, in a calculated move, is attempting to remove the communal assemblies from the FPIC procedure.

Amid heightened tensions and escalations in hostile rhetoric, Cristina Coc, a Qʼeqchiʼ environmental defender who was criminalized by the state in 2015 along with 12 other Maya villagers yet later had all charges dropped, did not waver and responded to government’s belligerence with the following:

I just want to make it clear that despite the appearance, or what the perception out there might be, it is very clear that this government is attempting to remove and erase the traditional governance institution of the Maya people, which is dangerous and damaging…

This a concerted effort to plant seeds of division among our people and to break up the collective institution that provides the strength and the unity that has carried this movement for 30 long years. …Enough is enough.

The Dynamics and Dilemmas of Decolonization

This particular FPIC altercation and the broader Maya struggle in Belize raises necessary questions about prevailing notions of sovereignty and self-determination, which are relevant to communities and geographies everywhere — not just in Latin American and the Caribbean. The dynamics at play in this case also cast critical light on the contentious politics and dilemmas that materialize at the nexus of land, capitalist modernity, state power and economic development.

In his revolutionary work The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon avowed: “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” For settler and postcolonial societies across the world, the “mission” at hand is the pursuit of actually-existing democracy and decolonization. With respect to Indigenous people’s pluralistic and ever-evolving practices of collective governance, relationality and peace and diplomacy, how does one reconcile the political legitimacy of the nation-state, profit-driven extractivist development schemes and continued existence of a ruling-class nationalist bourgeoisie? State disavowals of Indigenous worldviews and ways of organizing are not only colonial mimicry, but an absolute betrayal of the “mission” Fanon was so fervently and furiously pleading humanity to remain beholden to.

Indeed, as the conflict in southern Belize illustrates all too clearly, while the complexion of postcolonial governments and face of bourgeois institutions may change, the authoritarianism of the state and repression of Indigenous self-determination stays the same. Even so and equally, Maya environmental defenders in Toledo District are continuing to fight for land and freedom “from below” in the face of the Westminster modeled state, the capitalist hydra — and ongoing legacies of colonialism — come what may.

Shelda-Jane Smith

Shelda-Jane Smith is an ISRF Fellow and Lecturer in Power, Space and Cultural Change at the University of Liverpool with a focus on public health, race and liberation psychology. Her research integrates community-based praxis and the volunteer work she does as part of the Merseyside Caribbean Community Centre and Liverpool African-Caribbean Grassroots Initiative.

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