Maya Lands and Oil Dispute

In Belize, people who buy land only buy the surface (and the right to dig down to build surface-based projects, such as house foundations and planting fence posts).

This is because, in Belize, due to the predominant rock type being limestone, there are many branching cave networks carved out by underground rivers throughout the country. The blue hole, a popular diving site, was formed by one of these cave networks collapsing, and the sea water pouring in to fill the space left behind. On the main land, many of these caves were used by the Maya people before the European colonisation of Meso-America. The Maya believed that there were steps up to heaven and down to hell, and that the cave networks were linked into these steps. Thus, caves were very spiritually important to the Maya people. Many burial sites were made within the cave networks. They were also used for sacred rituals, including human sacrifices, on occasion.

When North American buyers came in to buy land, the government was concerned that, should they find a Maya cave, they would use it as a tourist attraction, disrespecting the original culture, possibly damaging it, and the money produced from this would be leaked out and not even help the local economy to thrive. To stop this happening, the Belizean government decided that land rights were only applicable to the surface of the land, and that should a greater depth be needed for something, the government had to be consulted.

The Maya in the South of the country, in Toledo district, claim right to the lands in their district, which was, largely, respected. However, the government decided to allow oil companies from outside to look for oil resources in the south of the country.

This has raised issues with Maya people, not just because of the lack of farmland. Maya generally practice a subsistence lifestyle, so that they only produce so much food as they need to survive, and they farm in the forest using slash-and-burn methods. Their practice has worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the forests without any noticeable negative impacts to the overall environment. However, this is threatened by oil companies. Oil wells can often leave exposed, or more exposed, oil at the surface of the land. Oil, for obvious reasons, does not mix well with slash-and-burn farming. Oil wells mean large sections of Maya land cannot be used, threatening their livelihoods.

Other concerns are that the Maya will gain little financial benefit, as very few of them will actually be employed by the oil companies. The few who are employed are likely to only be so for the short term, and to have low wages while they are. Some say that no Belizean should be happy with the current format for exploiting oil, with the company taking 95% of the total profit, and nationals only gaining 5%. It could also impact organic cocoa farming, which is a substantial portion of the Belizean economy.

This is what lead to a campaign by the Toledo Alcade’s Association and the Maya Leader’s Alliance to declare the Mayan people’s stance on oil exploitation in 2012. One MLA spokesperson said that they could not begin to discuss oil exploration without a proper acknowledgement of the Maya land rights, as, in law, their “free, prior and informed consent” is needed, as they are the owners of the land that US oil companies intend to extract from.

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