IGDS_group_Cristina-Coc.jpg

Some participants of the three-day symposium Indigenous Geographies and Caribbean Feminisms: Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism, held March 30 – April 1, 2017, at UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad. It brought together regional women leaders from several indigenous communities, including Akawaio, Garinago, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machusi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warao First Peoples. Photo insert shows Q’eqchi Maya land rights activist Cristina Coc from Belize, who gave the keynote address. Photo courtesy IGDS, UWI.

Feminism meets activism

Cristina Coc shares her story of Maya struggle for rights in southern Belize

By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Original story published April 2017, T&T Guardian.

At the age of 36, Maya land rights activist Cristina Coc is an outspoken lobbyist for her people’s rights. She has the gift of talking about complex issues simply, in order to connect with people and help protect Maya community interests in Belize. She travelled to Trinidad in March-April 2017 to speak at a University of the West Indies (UWI) three-day conference on Indigenous Geographies and Caribbean Feminisms: Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism, held March 30–April 1, and in the process, touched hearts and minds with her story of struggle spanning decades.

The conference brought together women leaders from a range of indigenous communities: Akawaio, Garinago, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machusi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warao First Peoples. Participants came from Guyana, Suriname, TT, Honduras, Belize, Bolivia, Dominica, the US, Canada, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The T&T Guardian attended on March 31, 2017 and heard presentations from Melanie Newton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto; Vanda Radzik, a Guyanese women’s activist (she helped found Help & Shelter, which counsels abused women); Cheryl-Ann Boodram, a TT social work researcher who studies marginalised communities; and Tracy Assing, a TT writer, filmmaker and Carib descendant.

That evening, Cristina Coc gave the feature speech, speaking about her own experiences and work in Belize, where in 2015, her people received landmark legal land rights after long, hard-fought court battles.

Belize, a country of great natural beauty, isn’t quite Latin American or Caribbean, yet considers itself a bit of both. Although its official language is English, it now has more Spanish speakers, due to migration. Belize became fully independent from Britain in 1981. With tropical forests, ancient Maya temples, and the largest barrier reef system in the northern hemisphere (the reef is a UNESCO heritage site), the casual visitor may be lulled into thinking that this laid-back mixed culture of Mestizo, Kriol, Maya, Garinago, East Indian, Mennonite, African and European peoples has no major problems.

But there you would be wrong. After listening to Cristina Coc, who has been working in social justice and woman’s rights issues since her youth, you realize that Belize, too, has major issues. One of them is a historical attitude of prejudice and dismissive indifference to rights claimed by its own indigenous peoples—especially if these rights apply to land ownership. There are two indigenous peoples in Belize: the Maya and the Garinagu or Black Caribs.

 

Another problem in Belize is the lingering ghost of colonialism: it can haunt how people do things, and even how they see or value each other today.

Cristina Coc co-founded the Julian Cho Society in 2004 to lobby for indigenous rights. That organisation in 2007 won the Violence Prevention Fund award for promotion of non-violent social change in Belize. She has helped Maya communities define their traditional boundaries, clarified land tenure issues for them, and engaged in far-reaching discussions with Maya colleagues about future land management.

Coc is one of the spokesmen for the Maya Leaders Alliance in Belize, and currently helps represent the Maya of southern Belize in ongoing land rights negotiations with the Belize government. She has worked directly with the Maya villages of Toledo in southern Belize to mobilize for the campaign to secure indigenous land rights. Most Maya in that area work in farming and sustainable forest activities.

About 11 per cent of Belize’s 374,651 population is Maya, or about 41,000 people; they form the largest indigenous minority, and they are among the modern-day descendents of the classical Maya civilisation which has been living in the area spanning the Mexican Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras for centuries, since 2000 BC.

Maya culture is linked to the land in spiritual, cultural and practical ways. They farm; they care deeply for the forests, from which they sustainably derive food and supplies; and they believe that a respectful, even spiritual relationship with the land and nature underpins their very identity. They are distrustful of many business or government interests which see land only as a means of making profit by resource extraction or by land acquisition and sale/lease arrangements which generally ignore existing residents.

For decades, modern-day Belize governments have refused to recognize Maya rights to land, and have often granted mining, logging and other concessions to private business interests, without any consultation with the Maya who live there. Indeed, Maya are often treated as squatters in their own ancestral lands. So, as Coc explained in her speech, the Maya took matters to their local courts, starting in 1996. After almost 20 years, they achieved a landmark ruling on April 21, 2015 from the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Belize’s highest appellate court, which ruled that the 38 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya Indigenous communities of southern Belize have rights to the lands they have customarily used and occupied. It was an extraordinary victory, potentially setting a global precendent for indigenous land rights.

The ruling meant that Maya lands should be demarcated and ultimately titled, so that the Maya people may legally enjoy those rights as stewards of their ancestral lands. Yet up to now, as Cristina Coc told us with a quiet anger born of injustice, the Belize government has not given a single actual land title to any of the Maya communities.

So Cristina Coc’s struggle on behalf of her people continues, taking on a new phase of not necessarily waiting for any formal State-bestowed land titles to materialize, but instead, encouraging Maya communities to go ahead and define their own sustainable livelihoods using the land and resources already legally agreed to as theirs.

Cristina Coc’s example shows that intelligent, united, persistent activism can achieve good results—but that sometimes, hard-won victories require constant, creative resistance against oppressive State governments to make them a reality.

 
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