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Feminism meets activism

...Maya land rights activist stands up for people’s rights in Belize
Published: 
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Some participants of the recent three-day symposium Indigenous Geographies and Caribbean Feminisms: Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism, held March 30 – April 1 at UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad. It brought together some regional women leaders from several indigenous communities, including Akawaio, Garinago, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machusi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warao First Peoples. Photo courtesy IGDS, UWI. (insert) Q’eqchi Maya land rights activist Cristina Coc.

At the age of 36, she is unique for being a female spokesperson lobbying for the rights of an exploited but resilient people, and for having the gift of talking about complex issues simply, connecting with people to help negotiate understandings and protect her people’s interests. She travelled to Trinidad recently to give the keynote speech at a conference and workshop organised by two university departments, the Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS, with lecturer Dr Gabrielle Hosein) and Geography (with lecturer in Critical Geography, Dr Levi Gahman).

The name of the three-day symposium was Indigenous Geographies and Caribbean Feminisms: Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism, held March 30–April 1 at UWI, St Augustine. It brought together some regional women leaders from a range of indigenous communities: Akawaio, Garinago, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machusi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warao First Peoples, who shared experiences and gave presentations, later to be collected in a book.

Participants came from Guyana, Suriname, TT, Honduras, Belize, Bolivia, Dominica, the US, Canada, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. The T&T Guardian attended on March 31 and heard interesting presentations from Melanie Newton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto; Vanda Radzik, a Guyanese women’s activist (she helped found Help & Shelter, which counsels abused women); Cheryl-Ann Boodram, a TT social work researcher who studies marginalised communities; and Tracy Assing, a TT writer, filmmaker and Carib descendant. That evening, Mayan activist Cristina Coc gave the feature speech, speaking about her own experiences and work in Belize, where just two years ago, her people received legal land rights after some long court battles.

Belize, a country of great natural beauty, isn’t quite Latin American or Caribbean, yet considers itself a bit of both. Although its official language is English, it now has more Spanish speakers, due to migration. Belize became fully independent from Britain in 1981. With tropical forests, ancient Maya temples, and the largest barrier reef system in the northern hemisphere (the reef is a UNESCO heritage site), the casual visitor may be lulled into thinking that this laid-back mixed culture of Mestizo, Kriol, Maya, Garinago, East Indian, Mennonite, African and European peoples has no major problems.

But there you would be wrong. After listening to Cristina Coc, who has been working in social justice and woman’s rights issues since her youth, you realise that Belize, too, has its problems. One of them is a historical attitude of prejudice and dismissive indifference to rights claimed by its own indigenous peoples—especially if these rights apply to land ownership (there are two indigenous peoples in Belize: the Maya and the Garinagu or Black Caribs). Another problem is the lingering ghost of colonialism: it can haunt how people do things, even how they see or value each other.

Cristina Coc’s life’s work, so far, has been advocating and organising for the betterment of her Mayan people in different ways. She co-founded the Julian Cho Society in 2004 to lobby for indigenous rights. That organisation in 2007 won the Violence Prevention Fund award for promotion of non-violent social change in Belize. She has helped Mayan communities define their traditional boundaries, clarified land tenure issues for them, and engaged in far reaching discussions with Mayan colleagues about future land management.

Coc is also one of the spokesmen for the Maya Leaders Alliance in Belize, and currently helps represent the Maya of southern Belize in ongoing land rights negotiations with the Belize government. She has worked directly with the Maya villages of Toledo in southern Belize to mobilise for the campaign to secure indigenous land rights. Most Maya there work in farming and sustainable forest activities.

About 11 per cent of Belize’s 374,651 population is Maya, or about 41,000 people; they form the largest indigenous minority, and they are among the modern-day descendents of the classical Maya civilisation which has been living in the area spanning the Mexican Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras for many centuries, since 2000 BC.

Maya culture is linked to the land in spiritual, cultural and practical ways. They farm; they care for the forests, from which they derive food and supplies; and they believe that a sustainable relationship with the land underpins their very identity. They are distrustful of foreign ethnic invaders who see land only as a means of making profit by resource extraction or by land acquisition and sale.

For decades, modern-day Belize governments have refused to recognise Maya rights to land. So, as Coc explained, the Maya took matters to their local courts, starting in 1996. They achieved a landmark ruling on April 21, 2015 from the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Belize’s highest appellate court, which ruled that the 38 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya Indigenous communities of southern Belize have rights to the lands they have customarily used and occupied. It was an extraordinary victory, and one in which Cristina Coc played a part as advocate for Maya rights.

The ruling meant that Maya lands should be demarcated and ultimately titled, so that the Maya people can enjoy those rights.

Yet up to now, the Belize government has not given a single actual land title to any of the Maya communities.

So Cristina Coc’s struggle on behalf of her people continues, taking on a new phase of not necessarily waiting for State enactments to happen, but instead, encouraging Maya communities to go ahead and define their own sustainable livelihoods using the land and resources already legally agreed to as theirs—whether or not they receive a formal land title.

Cristina Coc’s example shows that intelligent, united, persistent activism can achieve good results—but that sometimes, one victory means the start of a new journey, and new challenges.

• See more on Cristina Coc tomorrow

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