Garifuna people have rights to their lands in the southern part of Belize

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Wellington C Ramos is an Adjunct Professor History and Political Science, Educator and Columnist

By Wellington C. Ramos

The British Crown under the leadership of King George III was responsible for the forced removal of our Garifuna people from their nation-state “Yurumein” now known as Saint Vincent and The Grenadines in March of 1797 to the island of Rotan, Honduras where they landed on April the 12 of that year.

They decided to this for the following reasons:

  1. After they defeated the French in 1763 which ended the French and Indian seven-year war, France unlawfully gave them the island of Saint Vincent a sovereign nation and other territories that they had unlawfully colonized;
  2. They were tired of the resistance the Garifuna people gave them from 1772 to 1796 in defense of their nation and wanted to remove them from this planet;
  3. The British were also forcefully occupying the Bay Islands in Honduras which was considered Spanish territory as a result of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between Spain and Portugal;
  4. The reason why the British brought the Garifuna people to the Bay Islands, was to use the Garifuna people to fight with them against the Spanish in the region;
  5. To have the Garifuna people occupy lands in the region including Belize that belonged to Spain so that they can claim the territories for themselves under the legal concept of effective occupation.

In the treaty that Britain signed with Spain in 1763, they were only allowed to cut logwood and mahogany in Belize and not to exercise control and ownership over the territory of British Honduras now known as Belize. Also, the territory in Belize was only from the Rio Hondo River to the Sibun River which was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Governor in Quintana Roo Province, Mexico.

From that point to the Sarstoon River, that area was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Governor in Peten, Guatemala. The British had no intention at the time to make Belize one of their colonies because they could have included Belize in this treaty and several other treaties especially the Godolphin Treaty of 1670 (The Treaty of Spain).

The 1763 Treaty between Spain and Britain. The Spanish gave permission to the British to cut logwood and also Mahogany as far south as the Sibun River. It expressly forbade the British from building any fortification, setting up any formal government or doing any agricultural works, or any other productive economic activities apart from wood cutting.

In 1802 when the British granted the Garifuna people permission to come to Belize, they had them settling in the area that was under the control of the Spanish Crown. Spain had the authority to remove the Garifuna people from this area but did nothing. From 1802 to 1821 when Guatemala achieved its independence from Spain, the Garifuna people lived autonomously without any interference or support from the; British, Spanish or Guatemalan governments.

All the Garifuna people who were born in the territory during that time were still citizens of their homeland Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The Spanish and the Guatemalan governments could have granted the Garifuna people Spanish and then subsequently Guatemalan citizenship but they did not. In 1859 Guatemala signed a treaty with Great Britain granting the southwestern part of Belize to Great Britain.

The Garifuna people under International Law had the right to declare what they wanted to do with their lives, under self-determination of a people but did not. In 1862, Britain made Belize a colony of theirs and then moved to exercise jurisdiction over the Garifuna people.

The right of a people to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law (commonly regarded as a jus cogens rule), binding, as such, on the United Nations as an authoritative interpretation of the Charter’s norms. It states that people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty.

In all the discussions between Great Britain, Spain, Belize and Guatemala over the disputed territory in the south and western part of Belize, nothing has been mentioned about the length of time that the Garifuna people have been living in that area, prior to the independence of Guatemala on September the 15, 1821 and Belize’s independence on September the 21, 1981. They are all acting as if the Garifuna people do not have rights to the lands in the area, that they have been occupying for centuries.

Indigenous rights granted to the Mayas will have to be granted to the Garifuna people as well, because they are also indigenous people, who have been living on their lands before Guatemala and Belize becoming independent nations.

Not only were the Garifuna people living on their lands but they were also using their territories customarily for their survival. Farming, fishing, hunting and many other types of cultural activities have been taking place since their arrival to the southern part of Belize centuries ago.

Even though the Garifuna people are entitled to their lands, the government of Belize will not give it to them unless they assert their rights to their lands, as the Maya people did. This will require informing the Belize government that they intend to assert their rights to their lands.

When the British Crown granted Crown Lands to the Maya and Garifuna people in 1872, these groups took it for granted that the government of Belize will never infringe on their land rights. However, when Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, both the PUP and UDP governments, have been using, leasing, taking away and selling Maya and Garifuna lands without their consent and approval.

Judge Conteh ruled in favour of the Maya people in 2007 for them to have rights to their lands. It also stipulated for their lands to be surveyed, mapped out and for the government of Belize to pass the Indigenous Land Rights Act on behalf of these two indigenous groups. The Belize government appealed the decision to the Belize Court of Appeals and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and lost both appeals.

The government of Belize have not yet convened a legislative session to pass this law in the Belize National Assembly. What is the government of Belize doing by being in contempt of court is baffling to the average citizen?

When a government refuses to abide by a court order, they are in violation of the very constitution they swear to uphold. The longer the government of Belize take to pass the Indigenous Land Rights Act, the worse the situation will become.

The Garifuna and Maya people will not give up on their land rights. The land is gold and they need it to survive.

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