November 12, 2008
Belize Trip Report
by Lori Maddox
I just returned from a very full week with the Mesoamerican Legal Strategy Group in Belize. We worked in Dangriga, Hopkins, Punta Gorda, Conejo, Belmopan, and San Ignacio, with a brief two-hour visit to South Water Caye. A focus of our work was Climate Change and how it is affecting communities in the region and around the world.
In San Ignacio, the waters are just now receding following floods caused by torrential rains in October. The bridge across the Macal River and some buildings were submerged, and vegetation was scoured from the river's banks.
The Strategy Group held a workshop in San Ignacio to support the work of the Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO). One workshop participant said: "I've lived here all my life, and when I was a kid we had floods. The water went down fast. Now, the water isn't going down for two weeks."
BELPO won a judgment earlier this year requiring the Department of Environment to keep its promise to prepare for emergencies that may be exacerbated by the presence of three dams on the Macal. But the government has yet to take action.
ELAW partner Clarisa Vega, a Honduran attorney, spoke about how floods and government negligence affected communities in Honduras during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and again last month. First comes the loss of lives, livestock, homes, and crops. Waving her hand to indicate the community meeting hall where we gathered, Clarisa said: "You will be living here!"
The second wave of problems comes in the form of food shortages and an increase in waterborne disease, inadequate medical supplies and care. Clarisa called for community vigilance to make sure the government does its job.
Communities around the world are struggling to adapt to climate change, in the face of increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
In southern Belize, attorney Antoinette Moore and Maya leader Gregorio Choc took us to Conejo, a Maya community that is battling to protect their traditional land rights. Choc works tirelessly to defend the rights of the Maya to live in their traditional way and manage their natural resources.
An international legal team, including Ms. Moore, has won victories in the Belize Supreme Court and the Inter-American Human Rights Court upholding the rights of the Maya to manage their own land. Representing the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), they also successfully challenged the Belize's government decision to give oil exploration rights on Maya land to a U.S. oil company in 2006. So far, the Belize Government has failed to demarcate and title the land belonging to the Maya. SATIIM isn't waiting for the government and is moving ahead to develop a sustainable forest products micro-enterprise within the community.
Choc says, "The best way to protect the rights that we've won is to exercise those rights."
Strategy Group members from Belize, Honduras and Guatemala fleshed out plans for the year to come during bus rides and flights. Among other projects, we hope to build a program this year to train "community paralegals." These leaders will help communities speak out from "ridge to reef " as we continue working from the mountains to the sea to protect natural resources and human rights.
We celebrated together the morning after the U.S. election, and with everyone we met along the way. Following Barack's victory, people greeted me: "Welcome back, America!" We have earned again a seat at the world table, and we all need to work hard to maintain it!
The Environmental Law Institute of Honduras (IDAMHO) is thrilled to welcome new staff member, Emilio Dcuire. Emilio studied biology and has been working for the last two years as a community organizer with the Christian Organization for Integrated Development (OCDIH). He will now help IDAMHO develop community legal education programs and help with administration.
Emilio (at left) had never snorkeled before. During our two-hour field trip to South Water Caye, he had his first look at the reef we are working to protect. Afterwards, he reported enthusiastically:
"In my next life I will be a fish!"
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide