In many Caribbean lands, they now exist only in history books, having moved, been killed or exiled when conquering Europeans came in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, they remain — many in small numbers — their territory shrunk to deep rural lands or coastal fringes where modern services and the arm of the State often do not reach.
Once, all was theirs. They are the Caribbean’s First Peoples — among the Maya and Garifuna, Saramacca and Maroon, Carib and Kalinago, and a host of Amerindian nations within a nation.
For the last five centuries they have been the disappearing people of the Caribbean, as disease, displacement, disproportionately high poverty, discrimination, and the loss of tenure over land and resources have combined to decimate their populations.
Many have died; many more have disappeared into the majority people who came through miscegenation.
Now called Indigenous People, they gathered for a historic Improved Access to Justice in the Caribbean (IMPACT Justice) Project conference, seeking to use the legacy of the Europeans — the Caribbean justice system — to redress historical injustices and acknowledge their claim for rights and respect. IMPACT Justice is a five-year justice sector reform project being implemented from within the Caribbean Law Institute Centre, UWI Cave Hill Campus.
As if to mark a new plateau of recognition, not one but two justices of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and an attorney general participated in the conference.
The conference was hailed as rare, unique, historic, and a landmark in the recognition of the need to redress centuries of degradation and discrimination.
Many here feel that law and justice, not government programmes, is the best route to improving their lot — a view shared, if unofficially, by a judge of the CCJ, Belize’s highest court.
“The best antidote to such marginalisation is not welfare, it’s not benevolent government programmes to help out the people. It is justice!” argues Justice Adrian Saunders.
Justice Saunders, a Vincentian, feels a “natural kinship” with the Indigenous People of his native land, the Garifuna of mixed Carib and African descent, who now amount to 3,000 people living mostly in the north of Yurumein, as the Garifunas call mainland St Vincent.
The CCJ has made a landmark ruling in a three-decades-old quest for recognition of land rights of 30,000 Maya people, roughly one-tenth of the Belizean population, who live mostly in the Toledo District of southern Belize. In recognising the land rights of the Maya, the CCJ issued a consent order to which both the Belize Government and the Maya people agreed, where they would work together to resolve land tenure issues, while acknowledging the Maya people’s original ownership and control of their lands and natural resources.
“The best way to engage with the Indigenous People of the region is to understand and acknowledge the injustices they face and have endured; to secure their access to justice; to enhance their confidence in the integrity of the justice system and to ensure that, not just for them, but for everyone, the wheels of justice run as efficiently and effectively as possible,” the CCJ judge says.
Not only have the Maya battled successive Belizean Administrations in the law courts, but they have also fought against the attitudes of the majority population.
“As a reaction to the Maya land rights, many have told us to ‘get along with the programme’, that we should be grateful ‘because now we are educated, civilised’,” says Pablo Mis of the Maya Leaders Alliance, representing the Maya Q’eqchi and Mopan peoples of southern Belize. “Our state officials have promoted that the Mayas are ‘creating a state within a state, asserting special rights’.”
Mis argues that these attitudes not only fail to address the indigenous people’s issues but “further weaken the diverse fabric of our communities and, in our case, our Belize.
“Mayas [are] seeking an affirmation from the courts that a historical injustice is being committed against the Mayas. Therefore, the court orders are measures to remedy, to not tolerate such injustices in the 21st century,” Mis says.
With the funding of the Canadian Government, the conference came with inputs by Canadian legal and geography experts who have presented the recent experience of Canada’s First Nations people in their long struggle for justice, using recent court judgements and geographic information technology to assert their rights.
The conference has revealed a patchwork quilt of legal advancements in Indigenous People’s rights in Caricom nations.
Experts note that land rights for most Indigenous People in the heavily forested countries of Guyana, Suriname and Belize, extend only to use but not to title ownership.
For the highest-ranking Amerindian in the Guyanese Government, vice-president and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Sydney Allicock, the David Granger Administration is determined to resolve the land rights claim of the country’s 50,000 Indigenous People “once and for all”, through the creation of a Hinterland and Indigenous People’s Commission.
The enduring legacy of colonialism, which did not recognise land titles for Indigenous People, remains a “work in progress”, say the experts, particularly in Guyana where, under the Independence Agreement of 1965, a commitment was made to settle Amerindian land title claims.
“The bedrock of sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous Peoples all across the globe is land, which includes water and all the other natural resources,” Allicock tells the gathering in a presentation. To back this up, he suggests a mix of “relevant government policies, strong legislative provisions and appropriate support systems”.
Land tenure is not only about ownership, it is about preserving food security and sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous Peoples, many of whom are on the front line of the global battle against climate change, says Filiberto Penados, a Mayan who heads Belize’s Engaged Scholarship and Service Learning programme.
The delegates, drawn from the leadership ranks of Indigenous Peoples’ communities across the Caribbean, drafted a series of action plans which they hope will eventually form a new social contract between governments and native nations.
They also hope that with the application of a growing body of recent legal doctrines and judgements in favour of Indigenous People, they can also protect their role as custodians of ancestral lands, gain a greater voice in what happens to their lands, and end illegal logging and the pollution of rivers and streams through mining processes.