International human rights organizations Cultural Survival and Rainforest Foundation US stand behind Maya leaders, who were arrested on June 24, 2015, for peacefully trying to protect their lands. Here are excerpts from joint statement by Cultural Survival and the Rainforest Foundation:
Maya leaders of Southern Belize were arrested on Wednesday in a gross violation of their rights. On the early morning of June 24th, traditional leaders of the Maya people of Southern Belize were violently awoken in their homes by police on the charges of unlawful imprisonment. The charges were brought against 12 people, including the Village Chairman, and the Second Alcalde, elected by their communities according to traditional practices. Also arrested was Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) spokesperson, Cristina Coc, a peaceful and well-respected advisor to the traditional leaders and mother of two.
At an arraignment that afternoon, bail was initially set at $8000 each. When one of the attorneys for the Maya defendants explained that this was beyond the means of Maya farmers, the Magistrate increased the amount to $10,000. According to local attorneys, bail for this level of offences is usually between $1000-$3000. Bail was posted by other Maya villagers from various communities and all were released. The group warrant was never presented to the attorneys or their clients. The case has been adjourned until July 28, 2015.
The charges were filed by Mr. Rupert Myles, after he was handcuffed by local Maya police at a village meeting during which Mr. Myles became agitated and threatened to wield a firearm. The conflict arose because Mr. Myles has been illegally constructing a house on the grounds of an ancient sacred site of the Maya People, the Uxbenka temple. The laws of Belize prohibit building on or damaging any archeological site. The Maya people have legal customary ownership of Santa Cruz, where Uxbenka is located, as per a recent court decision at the Caribbean Court of Justice, which recognizes the property rights of the Maya people in accordance with their customary land tenure system. Maya customary law, which forms part of the law of Belize, requires that people apply for residence in the village. Mr. Myles at no point applied for residency.
The Maya authorities had previously alerted the Punta Gorda Police, the Belize Defense Force and the Belize Institute of Archeology about the situation, but Mr. Myles continued construction, causing irreparable damage to the sacred site by bulldozing a road to the structure. Last month in May 2015, a letter was sent to the Belize Institute of Archaeology (NICH) from the Director of the Uxebnka Archaeological Project, in which he expressed his concern that Mr. Myles had: “bulldozed into the archaeological platform (…). He has also built new buildings, and has burned vegetation to the very edge of the steel plaza, further endangering the ruin. The bulldozing activity has irreparably damaged the platform.”
[. . .] Cultural Survival, Rainforest Foundation, and First Peoples Worldwide call on Prime Minister Dean Barrows to apologize for his harmful words against the Maya people, and for all charges against them to be dropped, in accordance with national and international laws.
[Photo above: Uxebnka Archeological Site by Elelicht.]