Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Berkeley's role in a legal decision with "huge" implications

By Rosemary Joyce

One of the striking things anyone who routinely lives outside the US discovers is what a narrow slice of the world we are informed about by the US media.

I am sure that the explanation by cable news executives and newspaper editors is that US readers just aren't interested in the rest of the world. But I don't believe that, because when I talk to people, even at the breakfast place in the small town north of Berkeley where I live (population ca. 20,000), they are deeply interested in the world, and often have opinions about other countries and their dilemmas --  interests often frustrated by the lack of global reporting available to them.

So when my colleague, anthropology professor Anne Pyburn of the University of Indiana, forwarded me a story headlined CJ rules for Maya; implications "huge", I thought about how unfortunate it was that no one in the US is likely to hear about this, unless they have a friend who works in or on Belize, or on issues of indigenous rights. I especially thought it would be a shame for readers of the Berkeley Blog not to know the role of Berkeley researchers in this remarkable story. And then there is the implication of energy corporations, including US-based ones, in what now is a stalled attempt to exploit the territory of an indigenous group for oil exploration in ecologically sensitive and high risk areas.

Here's the main lead: Belize's Chief Justice ruled in favor of the contemporary Maya people of southern Belize in a hard-fought land rights case,

a victory that is bound to have far-reaching implications for that part of the country, including how the Government proceeds with logging, mining, and petroleum concessions in what the Maya community claims is over 500,000 acres of ancestral homeland.

The parties in the suit disagree about the implications, with the representative for the Maya community calling for the existing concessions to be re-examined, while the Belize government representatives want to apply it only to future decisions. One of the corporations potentially affected by the legally upheld rights of the Maya community to be consulted and asked for their consent is US Capital Energy, whose "concessions for petroleum ... nearly completely overlaps with the territory in question". While US attention is fixed on the environmental impact of British Petroleum's deep water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, US Capital Energy's Belize subsidiary was among seventeen companies to be granted concessions for oil prospection in ecologically sensitive areas of Belize, including concessions to a Taiwanese company for shallow and deep water drilling offshore in the Gulf of Honduras where the second-largest barrier reef in the world is preserved, revealed in Belizean investigative reporting on May 11 of this year.

Notice that even though the ruling has been handed down, the reporter cannot help but say the Maya community "claims" this is their ancestral homeland. In Belize, there has long been a belief that the prehispanic Maya were entirely wiped out by the British colonizers, and that Maya living in Belize today migrated there recently from Guatemala. Studies of Classic Maya inscriptions were used as evidence against the modern Maya, supposed to show that the ancient occupants spoke a different Maya language than the people who occupy the land today. (This would be approximately like using inscriptions in Latin in the US to claim that the real population of the US was Roman, to disenfranchise the English-speaking majority living here today.)

Luckily for the reputation of my own discipline of anthropology, the principal expert arguing against this position was Professor Richard Wilk, also of Indiana University, whose arguments the Chief Justice characterized as “very compelling and helpful". His position -- that the Maya of the Toledo District of Belize today are descendants of the population that existed before the Spanish colonization -- is amply supported by historic archival records from the 16th to 19th centuries, long after the last Classic monument was put in place in the territory.

Oh, and the Berkeley connection? among the sources cited by both sides in the case was "the book, Maya atlas: The struggle to preserve Maya land in Southern Belize, published in 1997 by North Atlantic Books".

As described on the Department of Geography web pages dedicated to the Atlas, it is "a project of the Mayan People of Southern Belize in cooperation with Toledo Maya Cultural Council - Toledo Alcaldes Association and U.C. Berkeley Geography Department and GeoMap":

The maps, text, photographs, drawings and interviews were done by Maya village researchers and cartographers elected by the communities. In their own words and with their own maps, the Maya describe their culture and rain forest, and their desire to protect and manage their own land.

Scholarship like this matters. This decision, and the rights Maya people in Belize can now assert, is a lasting legacy of the late professor Bernard Nietschmann (1941-2000) and all the students and Belizean collaborators in this project.