Post 258.

Last week, behind its glass façade, the CCJ was the site for a historic battle not yet won. These are hard words to write given that a judgment was already handed down ordering the Belizean state to return ancestral land to the Maya people. So, if the battle was won, why still fight in court?

Put yourself in the footsteps of the Maya as you follow this story. In 2015, the CCJ affirmed the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities, in the Toledo District of southern Belize, to lands that they have historically used and occupied.

Up to last week, those lands were not legally returned, meaning Maya land rights remain unprotected, forcing the Maya people to return to the CCJ to press the Belizean government to abide by the ruling.

Maya community organizations also appealed to the courts to protect their lands from multiple concessions given by the government of Belize to oil, logging, grazing and agricultural interests. These incursions occurred without the Maya people’s free, prior and informed consent, and without any redress. Not only has the Belizean government not returned Maya village lands, it continues to destroy and parcel out leases for land not legally, historically or morally its own.

Meanwhile, the government of Belize was ordered to develop a mechanism to recognize Maya land rights claims in consultation with the Maya people. A Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission was established, but no elected or designated representative of any Maya community or body in Belize has ever sat on the Commission. It is run by state officials who are not sensitive to customary protocols of engagement, good faith or international law. The Maya must meet the Commission on its terms. Imagine a paper judgment which has not guaranteed justice, but been met with delay and denial.

The $300 000 Belizean dollars which the CCJ directed the government of Belize to invest in achieving compliance is being spent, on a range of costs including rent, vehicles, consultations, administration and salaries, without any compliance achieved. Recognising insult added to injury, last week, the court mandated 50% go directly to the Maya people.

They don’t have resources to keep going to the Supreme Court, and neither should the Belizean people be putting their resources to defending state violation. Maya organisations want the courts to impose sanctions and fines against the state, and have also have called for a tribunal with teeth to resolve these issues out of court. Imagine, three years ago, this is a battle they thought they won.

Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance, and a long fighter in this struggle, said to me, “This case is being watched by Indigenous communities all over who are using this case to leverage their own land claims, and it was highlighted in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This is happening in our midst in Port of Spain. The world is watching, are we?

Carrying the burden, costs and tears of this with them, Maya communities continue to organize, demarcate their traditional boundaries, and envision sustainable alternatives which put ancestral reverence for nature at the heart of a Maya economy. Cristina’s heart was heavy, but her words committed: “Maya people have to remain resilient in face of these challenges, uphold our wellbeing, be a self-sustaining people, resist these violations, and protect our lands, territories, culture and identity.”

Their struggle may seem far from yours, but injustice is something with which we can all identify. The Belizean government seeks to replace Maya victory with defeat. The injustice of a battle already won, yet still having to be fought, reflects on us all from the CCJ’s glassy front on Henry Street.

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Post 242.

When you are in a gathering with women leaders from Akawaio, Garifuna, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machushi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warrau First Peoples, it’s best to simply listen.

These women, some of them among the few women chiefs in the region’s Indigenous People’s communities, represent those who have belonged to the land and who the land has belonged to for many thousands of years. Most striking in their stories is their struggle against lack of recognition of such belonging.

Listen to women like Faye Fredericks, who is Wapichan and from what is now known as Guyana, and who has been passionately fighting mining and logging’s shocking destruction of the very forest her ancestors and community have drawn their sustenance and cosmologies from as long as they remember.

Next time you think approvingly of Guyana’s economic model, ask yourself how we can so ignore her evidence and her community’s right to fish from rivers which haven’t been poisoned. Ask yourself if such ‘necropolitics’, or wielding of political and social power to determine life and death, is truly ‘development’.

Listen to women, like Christina Coc, who is a spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance from what is now known as Belize, who has been battling the Belizean state for more than a decade to get back rights to land that was once theirs. The Alliance achieved an historic victory in 2015, affirming the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities of southern Belize to the lands that they have historically used and occupied. The MLA website states, “This historic legal affirmation – which states that traditional land rights constitute property, equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law – is the first indigenous peoples land rights victory in the Caribbean region”.

As I listened, I reflected on how much the Westminster model, and the notions of leadership, property and rights it has protected, has failed our region. I kept wondering why not support these struggles and these women who are on the absolute frontline of defending rivers, forests, alternative forms of farming and exchange, and shared approaches to land.

Might Ziya’s life be better if she could still swim in Santa Cruz’s many rivers as children could at the turn of independence? Might her life be better under Indigenous systems of governance which value nature, and not just as a ‘resource’ but a source of life, and provide greater respect for communal land? Might the trails of the Northern Range be better protected if in the hands of First Peoples, as Tracy Assing dreams, rather than subject to the Ministry of Forestry?

These Indigenous women are engaged in absolutely contemporary political movements, against the states to which we declare loyalty, in battles in which we are entangled while pretending innocence about what outcome would be truly and historically just. They also struggle against corporate unsustainable practices and even banks that profit from their place in the region while providing no room for developmental loans unless communities allow themselves to be divided by the collateral of private property.

We must deepen our practices of recognition and inclusion, and welcome alternatives to our colonial inheritance. Think of Anacaona, a Taino chief or Cacica, who ruled the island of Kiskeya, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1503, during a meeting of eighty caciques, including Anacaona, the Spanish Governor ordered the meeting house to be set on fire to burn them alive, similar to what centuries later occurred to Rigoberta Menchu’s father and Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala in 1980. Cacica Anacaona was arrested and accused of conspiracy for resisting occupation, and sexual concubinage as an escape, and was executed. She was only twenty-nine years old.

In March 2016, Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres, a leader with the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, was assassinated for her defiance to mining and logging concessions, and proposed dams. Miriam Miranda Chamorro has taken over her work, moving in and out of hiding for her own safety.

These battles were being waged five hundred years ago as they are being waged today. It’s time we listen and stand with these women on the right side of history.

Stories and interviews with Indigenous Caribbean women, on their struggles and leadership, are on the IGDS Youtube page. Click, watch, and share them with our region’s citizens, students and children.

Post 224.

It isn’t often that Caribbean people who support struggles for equality get good news. On August 10, 2016, the Belize Supreme Court struck down the country’s sodomy law as unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for our region and reflects home-grown leadership and strategizing to secure greater justice through our institutions.

The movement to take a case to the courts was started by UWI Faculty, of whom we should be proud. In 2007, Jamaican legal feminist scholar Tracy Robinson, then at Cave Hill’s Faculty of Law, opened a conversation about litigation as a strategy.

Later discussion with Joel Simpson, then of the Guyanese LBGT organisation SASOD, Douglas Mendes SC, and Godfrey Smith, former Attorney General of Belize, led to the formation of the Lawyers from the UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-Rap). However, U-Rap’s litigation possibilities were first outlined in an UWI LLB research paper by Conway Blake in 2004, and drew on Jamaican lawyer Philip Dayle’s legal assessment of laws criminalising same-sex sex in the Caribbean in 2006.

U-Rap member, Guyanese Arif Bulkan, now at the Law Faculty in St. Augustine, also worked with claimant, Caleb Orozco, a long-time LGBT activist, in this case against Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code. Counsel were Trinidadians Christopher Hamel-Smith and Westmin James, now Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill.

We need such fearless regionality, which included the community-based strength of Belizean LBGT and HIV Advocacy groups such as UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement ) and PETAL (Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual women), as well as Caribbean scholars and activists.

Following Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin’s decision, Caleb Orozco is quoted as saying, “This is the first day of my life in which it is legal for me to be me.” I can’t think of a more over-due experience, one which we can imagine enslaved ancestors felt as far back as 1834 when they were first formally recognized as human. We wait to see how this momentous precedent will affect law across the region as the long struggle for full emancipation for all, and recognition of the equal humanity of all, is re-energised with hope.

In another U-Rap case, four transgender women challenged an 1893 law against cross-dressing in Guyana, arguing that it reproduced discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2013, in what LBGT advocates decried as a ‘dubious decision’, the judge ruled that cross-dressing is a criminal offense only if it’s done for an “improper purpose”, which could include prostitution. The law was considered to already allow cross-dressing to express or accentuate one’s sexual orientation. In essence, the law was reinterpreted and upheld instead of being struck down as unconstitutional.

The Belizean case also comes after decades of work by a range of groups, from feminists to scholars to HIV/AIDS activists to public health advocates, to create constitutional reform recommendations, policy positions and OAS resolutions committed to ending discrimination, inequity, stigma, vulnerability and human rights violations on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality.

Indeed, the Belize decision recognized that Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which banned “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” and primarily targeted same-sex sexual activities, denied a right to dignity, privacy, equality and freedom.

Consenting adults of the same sex are now free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and are due equal protection under the law, meaning simply what everyone else already expects and gets.

Key about the Chief Justice’s ruling was his view that the bill of right’s protection of sex from discrimination includes sexual orientation. This reflects part of a larger, nuanced critique of legislation that polices sexual orientation as fundamentally and unfairly policing how LBGT persons live their own conceptions of sexual rights and human rights as well as manhood and womanhood.

These legal challenges continue, pressing for discriminatory legislation to be taken off the books. Earlier this year, a CCJ ruling made clear that Caribbean homosexuals must be allowed the right of free movement within CARICOM, and that immigration laws banning their entry, for example to Trinidad and Tobago, should be repealed.

Every generation, resistance against unjust laws and policies ignites across the region. That spark burns bright, fed by last week’s decision.