World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the summer 2017 Justice Denied issue is: What legacies of colonialism prevent indigenous peoples from achieving justice? Below, Samane Hemmat describes the Belize government’s repeated attempts to undermine the legitimacy of traditional leaders, or Alcaldes, and customary law in Maya communities.
By Samane Hemmat
In early 2016, Alcaldes in the Maya village of Santa Cruz arrested an outsider who, in violation of the village’s customary laws, built his house and began farming on a sacred site, causing irreparable damage to the Maya temple of Uxbenka. Leading up to this arrest, the Alcaldes, traditional leaders of indigenous Maya communities, had issued advice, warnings, and orders to the outsider. But the Alcaldes were slapped with criminal charges by the Punta Gorda police for their actions and were publicly denounced by the Belize government simply for exercising their rights.
Throughout the extended trial process, the Belize government presented no evidence against the Alcaldes. Ultimately, all charges were dropped and proceedings are now taking place against the government, citing the grievous harms inflicted on the Alcaldes and Uxbenka. But the case reflects a pattern of using the criminal justice system to intimidate Alcaldes, weaken the indigenous system of governance, and subjugate the Maya people. The Alcalde system is based on the customary law of Maya villages in the Toledo district of southern Belize, which predates British and Spanish colonizers. Although the system continues to thrive today, attempts to delegitimize Alcaldes, diminish customary law, and consequently sow division in Maya villages are rooted in the colonial history of Belize. As the colonizers’ policy stated, “the Maya were to be settled” and the Alcaldes were a threat.
The autonomy of Alcaldes is derived from these leaders’ foundation in Komonil, which means “the collective” in Q’eqchi. Alcaldes act as the voice of the people, executing the collective will in the decision-making process. This direct accountability to the community allows for a great degree of self-sufficiency in villages, detaching them from the politics of the state. This relative independence of Maya communities was deemed a threat by colonial powers, and the current government continues to see them in that light. By 1968, the colonial state had become concerned about its control over the villages and surrounding spaces where the Maya lived, and thus began to develop a reservation policy. This policy tied notions of physical control—the government’s regulation of living space—to control the Maya’s day-to-day lives through the co-option of customary governance systems in a local context. In the decades since, including after Belize became fully independent in 1981, the state has continued to set boundaries for the powers and positions of Alcaldes—most recently in the 2000 Inferior Courts Act. Exerting influence over Maya traditional governance systems and continued challenges to Maya customary land tenure have been persistent strategies of seeking hegemony over the Maya.
Recent attempts to delegitimize and control the Alcalde system have involved government departments publicly raising questions about the jurisdiction of Alcaldes, their appointment, and the very existence of Alcalde systems in certain districts. There have also been unreasonable delays on the part of the government in fixing procedural irregularities relating to the appointment of Alcaldes. Such attempts to subdue the Alcalde system have real impacts. One recent example is a criminal complaint of false imprisonment made by an individual who was arrested by his Alcaldes in the Maya village of Crique Jute. The complaint was grounded in a misconception propagated in villages that the Alcaldes are illegitimate and improperly appointed. In fact, the process of electing Alcaldes has been the same since 1916—or possibly earlier. The complainant’s lawyer, the former attorney general of Belize, did not present any evidence to prove the allegation. On June 2, the Belize Supreme Court upheld a “no case” submission by the Alcaldes—arguing the complaint lacked sufficient legal grounds—with costs to be paid to the defendants. The re-invigorated efforts to subjugate the Maya should be seen as a reaction to the recent affirmation in 2015 of their customary land tenure by the Caribbean Court of Justice. The modern state’s colonial hangover of seeking to subjugate the Maya must be shaken off to pave the way for a more equal, culturally aware, and socially advanced Belize.
Samane Hemmat is a Ph.D. candidate in law at Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, Canada. Her research interests are in the areas of indigenous peoples, human rights, religious freedom, land rights, property law, and corporate social responsibility.
[Photo courtesy of Elelicht]