Urgent follow-up on GR action #1/97 - Stop logging on Maya Lands
From South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC), 15 December 1997
Last January we wrote letters to the Prime Minister of Belize, urging him to (1) cancel logging concessions on traditional Maya lands in Southern Belize, and (2) guarantee full participation of the Maya people in all development plans for the region.
On December 17, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will decide whether to grant a loan to the Belizian government for paving the Southern Highway through the Maya territories, directly affecting 40 Maya communities. The Toledo Maya Cultural Council, which asked for our GR Action in January, opposes this loan because the Maya people have NOT been allowed full participation in the planning and development process. The Maya people fear that rapid development in the Southern Zone, made possible by the improved road, will further threaten their forests and their livelihoods. They want the IDB to withhold the loan to the Belizian government until safeguards to their land rights and their full participation are in place.
The Toledo Maya Cultural Council and the Indian Law Resource Center ask GR members to send faxes IMMEDIATELY to the IDB Director of our country -- to influence their votes on December 17.
In your faxes, ask the IDB to:
1) Postpone consideration of financing for the Southern Highway until all outstanding social and environmental problems, especially land rights, have been resolved to the satisfaction of the affected communities.
2. Disapprove the loan until it contains an agreement with the government that includes binding environmental and social mitigation measures to a) protect Maya lands, b) carry out environmental studies required by IDB procedures, c) significantly reduce the anticipated indirect environmental damages, and d) promote equitable access to economic and social benefits envisioned as a result of paving the road.
3. Urge the government of Belize to legally recognize Maya lands.
4. Ensure true community participation in decision making by respecting the views of the affected population, local lenders and local NGOs who are opposing approval of this loan until land rights and environmental mitigation measures are secured.
Please send faxes to your country's Director at the IDB (choose from directors listed below). Send a copy of your fax to Enrique Iglesias, President, Inter-American Development Bank, Fax No. 202/623-3614.
THANKS FOR YOUR QUICK RESPONSE TO THIS URGENT SITUATION.
Columbia and Peru
Bolivia, Paraguay and Uraquay
Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua
Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden
Panama and Venezuela
Belgium, Germany, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands and Switzerland
Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago
Chile and Ecuador
Argentina and Haiti
Dominican Republic and Mexico
Croatia, Japan, Portugal, Slovenia and United Kingdom
United States of America
Brazil and Suriname
Following is the text of a letter from the president of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council to the IDB:
November 21, 1997
The Board of Directors
Greetings from the Toledo District. I am writing you with regard to the loan application before the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) by the government of Belize to upgrade the Southern Highway. The struggles that the Mayas face in the context of a developing Belize are common to all Indigenous people in this hemisphere: recognition of ancestral lands, culture, justice and the environment. I speak to you as a man who has unconditional love for Belize. I am asking you to suspend giving the loan to pave the Southern Highway until the land tenure for all the Maya villages is completely settled.
Since 1993, the government of Belize asked the Mayas to contain their milpa system and continue to help preserve the forests. We did not object when the Forest Planning and Management Project (FPMP) was put in place by the Forestry Department with advice from the Overseas Development Agency (O.D.A.) even though its reach includes some of our ancestral lands. FPMP wrote a draft management plan for the Columbia River Forest Reserve without input from the Maya, and none of the Maya organizations endorsed it. Then, without our knowledge and without consultation with us, the Government began to give logging concessions in the Reserve to foreign companies. Now, there are over 17 concessions for logging lands the Maya use. Concessions to Malaysian companies Toledo Atlantic International and Atlantic Industries alone are already damaging the streams, drinking water, hunting and fishing of 22 Mopan and Ke'kchi Maya villages.
The greatest fallacy that has been promoted by the government is that this area is not unique. In 1993, scientists from Conservation International, the St. Louis Botanical Garden and the Center for Environmental Studies, after a careful assessment of the area has concluded "We can say without hesitation that the evergreen forests of this area are of great national and international importance, as a reservoir of biological diversity."
The government would like us to believe that all social, economic, environmental, and ecological concerns have been met. That is not true. At the same time, we are blamed for depleting the forests. However, we do not abuse the land.
Government logging concessions to some 500,000 acres in our area are the "development" that the paving of the Southern Highway would promote is primarily for the benefit of elite and outsiders. Without security in our lands, our Maya people will be disposed and further improvised. The logging situation is closely related with the paving of the Southern Highway. We are not against development. However, we do not support development, which would have lasting negative impacts on the social structure of the local people. We are at risk particularly because the status of our land tenure is so tenuous. We have no legal rights to any of our land.
More disturbing comments were made by Owen Gentle at the end of a study of "Review of Land Leases, Titles and Applications in the Toledo District" to the Environmental and Social Technical Assistance Project" (ESTAP) on January 31, 1997. He said, "It has been noted that the Maya Belizeans had not been submitting applications for lands that they are in occupation of. This was due to the fact that in the past they were used to paying annual tenancy on their lands. Annual tenancy means paying a rental from year to year and also means that the tenant has no legal claim to the land and could be asked to evacuate the land at short notice. The Maya Belizeans should take up the option available to all Belizeans. This is to apply to the Commissioner of Lands and Surveys for permission to use the services of Private Surveyors to survey their lands.
This is a sad indication of the government's continuing hard-line on indigenous land rights. Our culture is based on a communal land system and shows a real lack of understanding about our rights and our culture. We are asking the government to recognize our rights to land where we have lived and used. Half of the Maya population lives outside the so-called Maya Reserves. With respect of Indian Reservations, the 1992 Lands Act states that "nothing in this act shall prevent the Minister in charge of lands from selling them in the ordinary way."
Consultation of the Mayas even with the ESTAP has been minimal and one-directional. The government has effectively excluded from that process the key issue of indigenous land rights. Similarly, the government prevented review of the logging concession by the Bank on its environmental and social impact assessments. It kept those concessions secret until late August of this year. To what extent is the paving of the Southern Highway a service to the logging industry?
As a means of concluding, allow me to share a statement made by Rodolfo Stavenhagen. Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean "Sustainable development must also help preserve the cultural identity of peoples and nations, since economic growth that ignores cultural identity is, in the end profoundly destructive." The road that the Mayas are travelling is not only lonely but also powerless.
I thank you in advance for your support.
GLOBAL RESPONSE is an international letter-writing network of environmental activists. In partnership with indigenous, environmentalist and peace and justice organizations around the world, GLOBAL RESPONSE develops Actions that describe specific, urgent threats to the environment; each Action asks members to write personal letters to individuals in the corporations, governments or international organizations that have the power and responsibility to take corrective action. GR also issues Young Environmentalists' Actions and Eco-Club Actions designed to educate and motivate elementary and high school students to practice earth stewardship.
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