5. Empowering the Oppressed – The Mayas


The indigenous people in Belize are concentrated mainly in the south and west of the country, in the Corozal, Cayo, Toledo and Orange Walk districts. They are mostly of two main groups. Various Maya groups and the Garifuna who are mostly African in origin but have taken on Cariban language and identity. The Chol Maya are thought to have been in Belize and the Yucatán region since the second millennium BC. Much of Belize’s original Maya population died as a result of new infectious diseases and conflicts between tribes and with Europeans. Later migrations of Maya from Mexico and Guatemala filled an area left vacant by the Chols who had suffered heavily from diseases and Spanish depredations.

The Mayan population is around 10 percent of Belize’s 270,000 inhabitants. This indigenous population is divided into three groups: Yucatan, Mopan and Q´eqchi. The first group originated from the Yucatan peninsula and arrived in Belize in the mid-19th century as refugees from the Caste War between the indigenous Maya people and the Mexican government. The Mopan Maya came in the late 19th century from the Guatemalan region of Petén, escaping from forced labor, while the Q´eqchi settled in Belize around 1870 fleeing the slavery situation in which they were kept by German coffee producers.

Young and old dancing together in a Mexican town.

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruled in 2015 that the Belizean government should ‘create an effective mechanism’ to identify and protect Maya lands in accordance to their traditional governance. The Belizean government however has refused to acknowledge that ruling and even allowed international companies to begin extract oil and other resources from indigenous territories. To implement the CCJ ruling Mayan communities have themselves began to demarcate their own territories and establish their traditional community governance.

As elsewhere in Central and South America the struggle in Belize is for the most basic of rights. The freedom to practice the indigenous culture and control their own lands and destiny. In some places modern social media and the internet aids the struggle. In other places the courts are a way to fight paternalistic and corrupt system of exploitation as in Belize. The main problem with that approach is that court rulings and orders are not always implemented. Armed struggle has sometimes been used by desperate groups with horrendous results. That violent aspect has almost universally been abandoned as peace  has prevailed and oppression somewhat decreased.

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