Carranza LLP partner Moira Gracey has been part of the legal team seeking legal protection of the customary land rights of the Maya indigenous people in southern Belize since 1999. During that time, the team won recognition of their land rights at the Intaramerican Commission on Human Rights in 2000, confirmation of those rights through the domestic courts in Belize in 2001; a re-confirmation of the rights at the trial (2010), appeal (2013) and final appeal (2015) levels. Since 2015, the government has been very slowly developing a process to demarcate and title the Maya villages' lands. However, despite these legal victories, many government officials continued to behave as though Maya land rights didn't exist, and so the team represented the Maya village of Jalacte in a 2016 claim against the government for expropriating Maya lands without neither consultation, due process nor compensation. The government had widened and paved a dirt road through Jalacte's lands, turning it into a highway, built an agricultural control station on a farmer's land, and installed an agricultural and immigration checkpoint between the village and and the rest of Belize (Jalacte is located on the border with Guatemala).
In addition to coordinating the legal team for the case, developing the legal arguments and heading the drafting of court materials, Ms. Gracey spent two weeks in Belize in the summer of 2018 assisting and preparing local counsel for the trial.
The Belize Supreme Court issued its judgment in the case on June 16, 2021. Once again, the court vindicated the right of the Maya people to their customary lands, and confirmed that by expropriating it without regard to Maya customary rights, the Government of Belize had violated constitution. The court also made clear that Maya customary lands are not "national lands". Most importantly, for the first time in the decades of litigation, the court ordered the Government of Belize to pay damages to the Maya claimants. Furthermore, it calculated those damages not with reference to its market value, but to the economic and cultural value it has for the Maya people. Damages were almost six million Belize dollars. This is a very significant award in a country of 400,000 people, and should provide very strong motivation for the government to devote appropriate resources to its legal obligation to demarcate and title Maya lands expeditiously, and to protect them from encroachment.
A copy of the judgment will be posted on the Belize Supreme Court website, at belizejudiciary.org/civil-judgments/2021 in due course. If you would like a copy of the decision before it is available online, please feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.