The Maya Leaders Alliance v. The Attorney General of Belize

Environmental justice
Indigenous Peoples
Land Rights

The Maya Leaders Alliance v. The Attorney General of Belize [2015] CCJ 15 (October 30, 2015)
Caribbean Court of Justice

In 2013, the Court of Appeal of Belize declared that Maya customary land tenure exists in all of the Maya villages in the Toledo District of southern Belize and constitutes property within the meaning of the protections guaranteed by the Belizean constitution.  Maya community organizations and leaders appealed the portion of the judgment dismissing their constitutional claim and request for relief.  The community’s claims arose out of numerous decisions made by the government of Belize authorizing incursions onto Maya land for the purposes of oil drilling, logging, grazing, and surveying.  These included a specific incident, known as the Golden Stream incursion, in which the Belizean Lands Department issued an agricultural lease over Maya village lands.  Paras. 23-24.

While the case was pending before the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the parties negotiated a consent order, which significantly narrowed the issues considered by the CCJ.   (The consent order is reproduced in paragraph 9 of the CCJ’s decision.)  As described by the CCJ, the consent order “is consensual recognition that Maya customary land tenure exists in the Maya villages of the Toledo District and are protected by the Constitution, thus rendering moot the contest as to the existence of indigenous property rights or the inclusion of these rights within the compass of the constitutional guarantees for protection against the arbitrary deprivation of property.”  Para. 10.   The Consent Order also requires the government of Belize to develop a mechanism to recognize and protect Maya land rights in consultation with the Maya people. Para. 9.  The CCJ was left to decide whether a breach of constitutional rights had occurred and whether damages were appropriate. 

The CCJ found the Government of Belize breached Maya community members’ right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing land law system recognized and protected Maya land rights.  The Court emphasized: “The right to protection of the law may, in appropriate cases, require the relevant organs of the State to take positive action in order to secure and ensure the enjoyment of basic constitutional rights,” while clarifying, “[t]he possibility of remedies in private law against the perpetrators of incursions onto Maya lands does not answer the point that there is a quite separate and distinct avenue available to the Maya people of suing the State for breach of the constitutional right to protection of the law where State responsibility is established.”  Para. 47, 49.

The CCJ could not find sufficient evidence to support the community members’ claim for special damages arising out of the Golden Stream incursion.  Paras. 63-65.  While acknowledging that the remedial action to be undertaken by the Government under the consent order was reparatory, the CCJ felt that innovative use should be made of the broad jurisdiction to grant redress under the constitution and directed the government of Belize to establish a fund of BZ$300,000 as a first step towards achieving compliance with the consent order.  Para. 77.