"Government of Belize and U.S. Capital’s display of force last week Friday demonstrates the lawlessness of their intention in the region …”
Maya community leaders of the buffering villages of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, where US Capital Energy is gearing up to drill for oil in Toledo, were on Friday met by a group of police officers - armed, at least in one instance, with what appears to be an M-16 rifle - when they attempted to gain access to the drill site.
The Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and the Maya communities’ leaders have issued a public statement, condemning what they contend is “the continued use of heavily armed police and BDF to intimidate SATIIM and the community leaders of the Sarstoon Temash Region.”
“Government of Belize and US Capital’s display of force last week Friday demonstrates the lawlessness of their intention in the region and is symbolic of what is to come later. Every oil company operating in [the] world has its operations guarded by military and paramilitary forces; and it seems to us that it will not be any different in Belize,” said the SATIIM statement.
SATIIM asserts that when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.
It added that, “We cannot tolerate this. If this is now the modus operandi of US Capital Energy and the Government of Belize, then perhaps that time has come to change our strategy. We prefer that the government send the heavily armed police and military to the border area to protect and defend the territorial integrity of this country, rather than to harass land owners of this country.”
Their statement goes on to say that, “SATIIM and the Maya communities maintain that both Government of Belize and US Capital are engaged in illegal activities on Maya customary titled lands. Our communities have not granted their consent for these activities, and as such we declare that they are in illegal occupation.”
Cordelia Requeña, SATIIM’s Environment and Human Rights Programme Manager, told Amandala that a group comprised of 9 community leaders, 5 SATIIM rangers and its programme officer, Martin Cus, were near the drill site when SATIIM was barred from entering.
She said that they left Punta Gorda Friday morning and went up the Temash, travelling for about 40 minutes to get to the site. They had to walk about 300 meters from the river’s edge to get to the drill site. Soon, they were met by armed police and US Capital reps.
“We feel that the excessive use of force was not necessary,” Requeña said, adding that the Maya leaders weren’t armed and there were no guns on their vessel.
Officer Commanding the Punta Gorda Police Formation, Superintendent Simeon Alvarez, told Amandala that the police were merely there to “keep the peace.”
“The police were only present to prevent anything from getting out of control,” he told our newspaper. Alvarez said that they are preparing a report on the incident to forward to the Commissioner of Police, who, he expects, will issue a formal statement on the matter.
According to Alvarez, “nobody was detained; nobody was stopped. Everything went peacefully.”
“I don’t think the police was out there to intimidate the SATIIM personnel. I don’t think that was the case,” said Superintendent Alvarez.
The main reason for police presence, he said, is that the group was right near the drill site.
“How did they know you were going to the drill site?” we asked Requeña.
“That’s a good question. We don’t know,” she replied.
According to Requeña, they were on routine patrol of the area - something they regularly do to check illegal incursions. However, when they were refused entry to the drill site, there was “some verbal back and forth” between their team of 15 persons and the 4 armed police officers who were accompanying representatives of US Capital Energy.
SATIIM Executive Director, Greg Ch’oc, was not a part of the team, she said. She said that it is the first time they have encountered armed police in this fashion.
The US Capital group indicated that the entry point the Maya team had used was “illegal” and they insisted that the established road should be used to access the site, Requeña said.
“The community leaders were allowed [to visit the drill site]; SATIIM was not allowed,” Requeña said. She told us that the Maya leaders, as well as personnel from PGTV, were given a tour for about 45 minutes.
How will SATIIM respond to the latest developments? Requeña said: “Basically, we will continue to conduct our patrols. It is something we still need to do. We need to maintain the environmental integrity of the area.”
She said that when they don’t patrol, there is too much illegal fishing, hunting and natural resource extraction from the park. According to Requeña, “mostly it’s from our Guatemalan neighbors who conduct illegal fishing and hunting, all the way up the Temash and Sarstoon Rivers.” Evidence of their presence, she said, ranges from camp sites to curassow feathers strewn on the forest floor.
Last month, Greg Ch’oc, SATIIM’s Executive Director, came public to say that the Forestry Department had issued the NGO a letter, barring it from entering the Sarstoon-Temash National Park – a protected area the NGO has co-managed since 1997. Nevertheless, Ch’oc’s message to the Government was that they would not desist – after all, the park sits on Maya ancestral lands to which they have customary rights.
“I want to make clear here: the wishes of the communities – that the park is indigenous land. As a people, we have sacrificed; we have been denied access to the very land that we own. We have recognized and we have always recognized the importance of protecting and safeguarding our natural resources. And I want to tell the Forestry Department and the Government of Belize that SATIIM will continue to manage and protect the national park, because it is our interest and the interest of the Belizean people,” Ch’oc added.
According to Requeña, the last time they were out on a patrol with the security forces was back in May. Since the Government booted SATIIM from the park, they have decided to continue conservation efforts on their own.
On Friday, SATIIM reported that, “In addition to the Government of Belize’s position, through the Forest Department to terminate its co-management agreement with SATIIM and the communities, the Belize Defence Force recently informed SATIIM [that] it could no longer continue their long standing partnership of conducting bi-national patrols along the Sarstoon boundary.”
It added, though, that, “Notwithstanding the Government’s position, the buffer communities recognize that it is in their interest and the country of Belize to continue managing the area, to minimize the illegal activities and intrusion into the area. However, shortly before embarking on a routine patrol to the area this morning, police officers attempted to intercept SATIIM rangers and traditional leaders to search SATIIM’s vessel and collect the names of all persons onboard.”
SATIIM contends that the Government, through security officers, has embarked on “sustained efforts and continued harassment of SATIIM and the indigenous communities in their management efforts;” but, it added, “this won’t deter SATIIM and the communities from doing what they know is right and what they need to do.”
It added that, “We will not be told how and when to traverse our traditional lands. We will go where we decide we need to go, as we have traditionally done. US Capital or the Government of Belize will not determine our movements on our traditional lands.”