The Maya are the country's indigenous population. They are the direct descendants of the original indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula. The three Maya groups in Belize are the Yucatec, Mopan, and Kekchi Maya.
The Yucatec originated from Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and arrived in Belize in the mid-nineteenth century as refugees from the Guerra de Castes (Caste War). They now reside in the Corozal, Orange Walk, and Cayo Districts. Today the Yucatec Maya are primarily English and Spanish speakers.
The Mopan Maya moved to Belize in 1886 from the Peten region of Guatemala to escape taxation and forced labour. Mopan Maya settlements are located in San Antonio Village in Toledo District and there are also other villages in the Cayo District.
Kekchi Maya arrived in Belize in the 1870s in order to escape enslavement by German coffee growers in Verapaz, Guatemala. They settled in the lowland areas along rivers and streams and established 30 small isolated villages throughout Toledo district. Because of their isolation, the Kekchi have remained the country's poorest and most neglected minority.
Belize's Mayans are mainly subsistence farmers. The Maya have experienced continued encroachment on their lands by non-indigenous settlers and large scale logging and petroleum enterprises which threaten their traditional territories and way of life.
The country now known as Belize was originally a key part of the ancient Maya civilization, which began expanding around 1000 BCE and flourished until about 900 AD.
Mayan history shows strong evidence of connections to the more ancient Olmec (Xhi) civilization of Southern Veracruz in Mexico.
The physical ‘boundaries' of the ancient Mayan empire spanned the countries of modern day Guatemala, Belize, the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador and the five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas.
Ancient Maya cities established far-reaching production and trade networks as well as temples and religious centres and developed writing, mathematics, and astronomy that allowed them to monitor other planets and predict eclipses.
Maya territory in Belize supported an estimated population of 1 to 2 million people and large cities such as Xunantunich Caracol, and Lamanai.
Belize was the home of the earliest Maya settlements. The earliest known settled community in the Maya world is Cuello in the Orange Walk District of Belize. Archaeologists have found evidence that trace Cuello to as far back as 2000 BCE.
Belize was also an important trading centre for the entire Maya area. Some major trading centres were Moho Caye, Santa Rita, Ambergris Caye and Wild Cane Caye. Other civic centres in Belize include Altun Ha, Lubaantun, and El Pilar.
There were still many Maya in Belize by the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 19th century their numbers were augmented by the exodus caused by the expropriation of lands in Guatemala to establish agricultural export enterprises.
Of the 28 Maya ethnic groups that exist in Mexico and Central America, those that are currently present in Belize are the Yucatec, Mopan, and Kekchi Maya who are located in the south of the country.
Although the Mopan and Ke'kchi historically have been characterized under the general term Maya, recently some leaders have began to assert that they should be re-identified as the Masenal (‘common people').
The Maya of southern Belize have experienced a harsh history of colonization and continue to be deprived of their human rights, especially in relation to the lands and resources that they have traditionally used and occupied.
In October of 2000 Maya leaders and government signed the ‘Ten Points of Agreement,' in which the government recognized Maya rights over traditional lands and resources in general terms and committed to embark on a set of initiatives to make that recognition effective. This is still mostly unrealized.
In July of 2001, another framework agreement was signed dealing with issues concerning ongoing oil and logging concessions.
In August of 2002, a further round of negotiations began with the goal of addressing outstanding concerns within the agreed framework. The result was again a commitment on the part of the government to amend existing legislation in order to establish a moratorium on the issuing of logging permits and other activities that affect Maya traditional lands without prior consultation with Mayan communities.
However this moratorium was not all encompassing but limited to a corridor stretching some three kilometres on either side of a renovated main thoroughfare through Maya territory (the Southern Highway). This road project itself has prompted great concern.
The current issues affecting the indigenous minority of Belize are mainly related to continued encouragement by the Government of Belize of non-indigenous settlement, large scale logging and petroleum development on traditional Maya lands, despite stated intentions to address these matters. This not only continues to threaten Maya communities but also the natural environment upon which their culture and livelihood depends.
This prompted Maya communities to begin working with local Belizean attorneys and support groups and to reach out internationally to organizations such as the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP) Program at the University of Arizona, the Indian Law Resource Center, and the University of Toronto Human Rights Law Clinic for legal assistance. Their aim was to initiate international litigation in support of their outstanding claims.
In late 1996 following the granting of concessions by the Belize Ministry of Natural Resources to two multinational companies to log over 500,000 acres of rain forest in the Toledo District, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council (TMCC), representing 37 Maya indigenous communities, filed a claim in the Supreme Court of Belize challenging the constitutionality of the government's actions and seeking titles to their traditional lands and resources.
Several years after filing, this case remained unresolved with the government ignoring deadlines and requests for the production of documents.
As a result of the failure of domestic litigation the Maya communities submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1998, asking the Commission to use its powers under the OAS Charter to intervene and either mediate a resolution or declare Belize in violation of the relevant human rights laws.
Following an on-site visit to Belize and the Maya communities in 2001, the Commission expressed concern over the situation and reinitiated earlier efforts to mediate a negotiated settlement to the land and resource-rights issues.
These mediation efforts failed prompting the Commission to issue a preliminary report on the case in late 2003, finding Belize in violation of relevant human rights law for having permitted logging and oil development on Maya traditional lands and for failing to take affirmative measures to recognize and protect Maya Rights over those lands.
The Commission's preliminary report was initially submitted to Belize as a confidential document, in accordance with the Commission's rules of procedure. However the Belize government subsequently voluntarily made the report public with the Commission's permission.
The IACHR report is unprecedented in its far-reaching affirmation of the human rights of indigenous peoples under international law as related to lands and resources. The report builds upon the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the groundbreaking Awas Tingni case (see Nicaragua).
In its report the Inter-American Commission held that indigenous peoples have property rights over their traditional lands and resources under international human rights law, apart from whether or not those rights are recognized under domestic law.
The Commission found that the Maya have collective rights to all the lands they have traditionally used and occupied, not just those within reserve or village boundaries.
It also confirmed that international law requires the government of Belize to set the boundaries of the lands the Maya have used and lived on, and to legally recognize and protect Maya communal property rights.
Furthermore the Commission stated that the Government of Belize must consult with Maya communities and obtain their informed consent before taking any actions that affect their traditional lands.
According to the Commission, the government of Belize violated the provisions of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man that affirm the rights to property and equality before the law by failing to protect Maya lands and resources and by failing to obtain Maya consent for logging concessions and other activities on their traditional lands.
In addition, the Commission argued that the government violated Maya rights to judicial protection by failing to adequately address Maya grievances through the failure of the domestic legal process.
Nevertheless even in the aftermath of the favourable outcome in the IACHR proceedings the government of Belize has been slow to respond to calls by the affected Maya communities to meet the obligations that are owed.
Despite both the domestic litigation and the favourable decision by the IACHR the Maya communities of Southern Belize remain threatened. Neither the modest negotiated agreements reached locally nor the findings and recommendations of the Inter-American Commission have prevented the government from continuing to issue leases, concessions, and other interests that encumber Maya traditional lands.