Many of you have learned about the unsettling events taking place in Belize, which have become particularly visible in relation to the village of Santa Cruz in the Toledo district the past two weeks. I have been asked to offer my thoughts on the events and the subsequent media discussions by a Belizean and international community who are both confused and outraged.
As a social anthropologist who has lived and conducted research in Santa Cruz, I too was confused when I began to hear news reports that characterized the detention of Mr. Rupert Myles by the Santa Cruz village police at the request of the alcalde as an unjust and racist attack. In my time living in Santa Cruz, I witnessed the village police detain people at the request of the alcalde many times, including the tying and restraining of individuals who were behaving in a threatening manner to others. This practice is within the jurisdiction of the alcalde, whose office has had long historic recognition by the government of Belize, and much has been written about this. The village was assembled for a fahina, or regular community meeting, at the time of Myles’ detention so there are many witnesses of his threatening behavior. The village members were carrying machetes because they were prepared to chop the grass around the community center and other common areas, as happens regularly immediately after the fahina meeting.
I have not spoken to Mr. Myles but it seems that he was either unaware of or did not have regard for the typical process for taking up residence in Santa Cruz. When I requested permission to stay in Santa Cruz, the village leadership discussed the request and gave permission for a house to be built in a specified location. I was told of my obligations to the village. I have seen requests from Maya applicants denied as well as accepted. I have seen the same for non-Maya applicants.
There is nothing in my experience that suggests that a non-Maya person, a Belizean of any ethnic group who was willing to learn the techniques and adhere to the guidelines of community land management would be refused entry on racial grounds.
During my time in Santa Cruz, I had the opportunity to work extensively with the Uchb’enk’a K’in Ahaw Association (UKAA), a community-based organization formed to represent the community in relation to the archaeological site of Uxbenk’a, located within the village boundary and the surrounding lands. I witnessed firsthand the commitment of the elected executive board of the organization to protect this site of cultural and environmental heritage. The UKAA discussed the demarcation of the boundary around the site, what land use activities may not take place at the site core, and co-developed a community plant trail within the boundary. It is not surprising to me that the community leadership were concerned about the occupation and manipulation of land within the archaeological site. The multiple requests from the community for Myles to remove his house from the archaeological site show their strong commitment to the management of their land and their cultural resources.
It is very concerning to me that the actions of the community leadership in Santa Cruz described above led to the arrest of 11 community members. My concern deepens that these arrests appear to have targeted not simply the village police or leaders who made the arrests but others who were not even involved. And my concern deepens further, and turns to sadness and outrage, when I hear of the injuries that sent 2 of the men who were arrested to the hospital. Violence of this kind is unacceptable in Santa Cruz, in Belize, or anywhere.
Perhaps it would not have been without images and video posted on social media without context and little factual information about events that took place. It appears that this incident may have little to do with the detention and much to do with the series of cases involving land rights in the villages in Toledo, the latest of which was re-affirmed earlier this year in the Caribbean Court of Justice. The Belize Supreme Court decision giving Santa Cruz the legal recognition to the rights to their land took place in 2007 and yet it appears that this incident is being used as a reason to challenge these rights.
Listen to both sides of the argument in the Belizean media:
Read more about the alcalde system here: http://firstpeoples.org/wp/maya-people-of-southern-belize-endorse-consultation-framework-for-fpic/
Read more about the decision of the Caribbean high court here: http://www.law2.arizona.edu/depts/iplp/outreach/mayaBelize.cfm
Read the United Nations Human Rights news article on this matter here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16208
Another point of view worth reading: http://twocanview.com/2015/07/05/mario-laras-thoughts-on-the-santa-cruz-incident-in-belize/
Kristina Baines is our resident cool anthropologist. She’s been formally trained in applied, sociocultural, ecological and medical anthropology at Florida Atlantic University (BA, MA), the University of Oxford (MSc) and the University of South Florida (PhD). She has a strong interest in corn, how what we do in our environment makes us well, and using innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience. You can find out more about how these interests translate into projects and pursuits by perusing the rest of our site, or you can contact her directly at email@example.com.