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Snapshots

The law is running out of gas in Belize

Two nights ago five men searched in the darkness for Enrique Makin, the chairman of a Maya village. Four of them were from the Belizean government’s department of geology and petroleum; the other was the Mayan permitting officer of a US oil company struggling to conduct seismic testing on the village’s land. This was the day after Standard and Poor downgraded Belize’s credit ratings, citing the structural decline of the country’s oil industry. In the darkness the men couldn’t find Makin, so for now the standoff continues.

The government wants his signature for a letter the oil company composed, granting the right to operate seismic lines (corridors cleared through the rainforest along which explosives will be detonated to find oil) across the territory of the Q’eqchi’ Maya village of Conejo.

The Mayan rainforest initially looks like nature in its wild state — long stretches of jungle interrupted by villages of palm thatch houses nestled among the trees or centered about a clearing decorated with hibiscus. But that first appearance is misleading: land use is tightly controlled by the Maya with each village allotting areas for the sole use of each family to grow crops or to forest. Land is farmed through the milpa technique of rotating fields through the rainforest, allowing the trees and soil to regenerate. The borders of each village are also clearly defined, determining the hunting and fishing areas for each community.

Such regulations form part of Mayan customary law, historically overlooked by administrations, which saw only jungle and granted logging concessions to vast swathes of Toledo. A sustained campaign to secure control over their lands and resources resulted in the Belize Supreme Court granting these customary laws explicit legal recognition in 2007, initially for the two appellate villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz.

FULL ARTICLE: The law is running out of gas in Belize.

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