right to free, prior and
PRINCIPAL ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED
Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous
Management (SATIIM), Forestry Department of
the Government of Belize, Ministry of Energy,
Science & Technology and Petroleum, US Capital
Energy Belize Limited, Supreme Court of Belize
Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize
Timeline of the case
Civil society organisations working
on extractives industries, civil society
organisations working on nature conservation,
governmental bodies working with
indigenous peoples, activists, researchers
extractive industries, oil exploration, protected
areas, legal action, FPIC
The Toledo and Stann Creek districts in Southern Belize, and the
Sarstoon-Temash National Park in particular, are home to indigenous
Maya people and Afro-descendant Garifuna people. Since 2006, these
peoples are confronted with oil exploration and drilling in the park.
The communities have undertaken legal action and public awareness
campaigns in order to defend the customary land rights of the
indigenous peoples living in the park and their right to free, prior, and
informed consent (FPIC). In April 2014, the Supreme Court of Belize
ruled that the licences granted to the oil company were unlawful.
Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize
Background and issues
The Toledo and Stann Creek districts in the south of Belize are home to over 40 villages of indigenous
Mopan and Q’eqchi’ Maya and one village of Garifuna people1. Both groups are dependent on the
land and natural resources for their physical survival and the reproduction of their unique cultures.
The National Geographic Society believes that the way the Q’eqchi manage the rainforest today is a
unique remnants of ancient agroforestry techniques.
The Sarstoon-Temash National Park was established in 1994 in the Toledo district and covers 42,000
acres, including the ancestral territories of the abovementioned Maya and Garifuna communities. The
communities had not been consulted on the creation of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, but an
agreement was reached in 1997 when the government agreed to recognise the customary practices of
the communities. The communities established the Sarstoon Temash National Park Steering Committee
– which became the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) in 1999 – to co-
manage the national park (MRG 2013). In 2004, a formal co-management agreement between the
communities and the Government of Belize was signed. Recognised by the Ramsar Convention, the
park is the second largest of the country and houses its most pristine wetland and tropical rainforest.
Three communities adjacent to the park – Conejo, Midway and Sunday Wood – use the northern
portion of the park for farming, hunting, ﬁshing and gathering. Despite the fact that they have little
impact on the biodiversity, they agreed to scale down their activities inside the park to support the
1 The Garifuna identify themselves as Afro-indigenous and have lived in Belize for more than 200 years.
towards making land governance more people-centred
This case study is part of the ILC’s Database of Good Practices, an initiative that documents and systematises ILC members
and partners’ experience in promoting people-centred land governance, as deﬁned in the Antigua Declaration of the ILC
Assembly of Members. Further information at www.landcoalition.org/news/antigua-declaration-ilc-members
This case study supports people-centred land governance as it contributes to:
Commitment 3 recognize and protect the diverse tenure and production systems upon which people’s livelihoods depend
Commitment 5 respect and protect the inherent land and territorial rights of indigenous peoples
Commitment 9 prevent and remedy land grabbing
In 2006, the Government of Belize granted US Capital Energy a licence to conduct seismic testing in an
area known as Block 19, which includes the Sarstoon Temash National Park. The Government violated
the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the Maya and Garifuna communities, who are
the customary owners of the land in question.
In 2007, Belize adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a
member of the Organisation of American States, it is also a signatory to the American Convention on
the Rights and Duties of Man. The issuance of a licence to conduct seismic testing the ancestral lands
of the Maya and Garifuna communities, without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), is in
contradiction with both the declaration and the convention.
SATIIM mounted a multifaceted advocacy campaign that was based on (i) awareness raising about the
environmental risks posed by oil exploration inside the park; (ii) coalition building, networking and
mobilisation of local supporters; (iii) policy research and analysis; (iv) lobbying Government oﬃcials; (v)
generating international support; (vi) legal action; and (vii) monitoring of the oil exploration activities.
The cornerstone of the campaign against oil development in the National Park was the legal action:
SATIIM successfully challenged the legality of the permission granted to the oil company by the
Forest Department in 2006 and again in 2013.
Legal action in court (2006-today)
The 2006 licence was ﬁrst challenged by SATIIM in the Supreme Court on the basis that (a) no
environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been conducted, as required by law, and (b) that the
government had by-passed SATIIM’s as co-manager of the park. In September 2006, a judicial review
found that the licence indeed lacked an EIA. However, the Supreme Court did not rule the seismic
testing of US Capital Energy inside the park as illegal.
In another ruling, independent of this SATIIM’s legal action, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled in 2001
that the Maya communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz are de facto holders of customary land titles
and that the creation of the State of Belize had not extinguished their title. In 2010 the Supreme
Court reaﬃrmed this ruling for all Maya communities. The Court further ordered the Government of
Belize to identify, demarcate and title the customary land of the Maya and to abstain from any acts
which would aﬀect the existence, value, use and enjoyment by the Maya of their lands. These court
rulings, along with national and international laws, stipulate that the Maya are de facto holders of
land titles for their customary territories and that their FPIC is required for any development project
on their territories.
Despite these rulings, in early 2013 the Government granted US Capital Energy a new licence to
construct a road and drill an exploratory well inside the park. In July 2013, SATIIM challenged again
the legality of these licences in court (claim 394, known as SATIIM, et al vs the Attorney General). In
April 2014, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled that the licences for road construction and drilling
were unlawful, as they were granted without the FPIC of the indigenous communities, as required
by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
refusal to discuss
and resolve our
forced us to seek
Court of Belize.”
Gregory Ch’oc, SATIIM.
This historic ruling of the Belize Supreme Court nonetheless did not explicitly strike down the
operating permit of US Capital Energy, which expired on April 30th, 2014. The Government has used
this legal ambiguity to waive the expiration date of the permit. Moreover, in May 2014 the Supreme
Court issued a perfected ruling that substantially weakened the original ruling, as it ordered the
Government of Belize to “seek and make good faith eﬀorts to obtain free, prior and informed consent
from the claimants”.
In June 2014 the Court informed the government that it had not complied with the Court’s order and
mandated that the parties go to mediation. Therefore, for the ﬁrst time since 2006, the government
was forced to talk to the communities. The government is challenging the mediation process
ordered by the Court. The litigation is still going on today and the company has been drilling since
June of 2014.
Building cohesion and support in the communities
Facing attempts from the government and the company to weaken community leadership through
‘divide and conquer’ tactics, SATIIM and the community leaders made eﬀorts to maintain the cohesion
in the communities.
SATIIM held meetings with each of the four communities, showing evidence of the risks of oil
exploration and exploitation in the National Park. Each community signed a resolution in which
it formally opposed the oil drilling inside the park. Several meetings were organized with the civil
society umbrella organization – Rod of Correction Movement – that issued statements of support.
The Toledo Alcalde Association (TAA) also published a resolution in support of SATIIM’s and the
indigenous communities’ position.
Building awareness in the country and beyond
SATIIM carried out a large number of awareness raising and public education activities:
»public forums to promote discussion and dialogue on the issue;
a tour for media reporters in the park, showing the communities aﬀected by the oil exploration;
»newsletters and email updates;
»newspaper articles and radio and TV interviews;
an online petition to ask the Government and US Capital Energy to stop oil developments inside
the National Park - with the help of the non-governmental organisations EcoLogic and Global
Response, over 3000 citizens from Belize and around the world signed;
»UN reports (CERD and UNHRC), produced in partnerships with local organizations;
»presentations of the case at international conferences.
Importance of the case for people-centred land governance
This case demonstrates the importance of clearly defining and respecting the right to free, prior
and informed consent. It also shows that, in case this right is not respected, it can be claimed in
court. Thanks to the combination of public awareness raising and legal action in court, SATIIM
and the communities have been able to make substantive progress towards a peaceful and
The indigenous Maya and Garifuna communities living in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park were formally
recognised as co-managers of the park, thanks to an agreement between the government of Belize and
SATIIM. They did not formally hold land titles for their ancestral territories.
In 2006 the government granted a licence to US Capital Energy to start oil explorations in the park, without
conducting an environmental impact assessment, without obtaining the FPIC of the communities living
in the park, and without consulting SATIIM, which formally is co-manager of the park.
After SATIIM started legal action and public awareness raising, the following results have been obtained:
»in 2006, a judicial review found that the permit to start oil explorations in the National Park was
illegal because an EIA was lacking; the licence was quashed;
»in two separate rulings in 2007 and 2010, the Supreme Court of Belize recognised the Maya
communities’ property rights to the land they had traditionally occupied and the resources
they had traditionally used;
SATIIM, in collaboration with other non-governmental organisations, collected 3000 signatures,
asking the government and the company to stop the oil explorations;
»in April 2014, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled that the Government’s decision to allow oil
drilling and road construction was unlawful, as the permissions were given without having
obtained the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the indigenous Maya communities;
»in June 2014 the Court ordered the parties to enter into mediation.
SATIIM and the four indigenous communities case continue to get advocacy and support from
numerous international actors including Minority Rights Group International (MRG), International
Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Right and Resources Initiative (IRI), Oak Foundation,
Ecologic Development Fund, New England Biolabs, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples
(IFIP), Cultural Survival and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food; and domestic actors
including the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, the Maya Leaders Alliance, the Toledo Alcaldes
Association, the Association of Protected Areas Management Organization (APAMO), Rod of Correction
Civil Society Movement and Belize Environmental Law.
“We have never
said that we
do not want
but [...] it will
not occur if we
do not alter [...]
the equation of
Crique Carco community.
Lessons for civil society
Work actively to maintain unity in the communities
One of the ways in which SATIIM and the indigenous communities fortiﬁed themselves and
maintained unity was through the adoption of collective resolutions that clearly articulated and
reaﬃrmed the decisions taken. The resolutions were signed on a voluntary basis, to demonstrate
community members’ commitment to the litigation process and to support each other.
Another method that SATIIM found eﬀective for maintaining the communities’ focus was the
convening of regular meetings between community members and the legal team. These meetings
oﬀered an important venue for community members to get clariﬁcation on any legal and non-legal
issue that arose from the claims.
Understand internal governance structures
Sustaining community-led activism to inﬂuence public policies requires an in-depth understanding
of the indigenous communities’ governance structures and the degree of inﬂuence the State has
Use the national media eﬀectively
SATIIM utilizes the national media to build awareness and generate support at the national level.
This include providing access to communities for testimonial as a peoples movement, but also to
build greater understanding of the indigenous peoples issues by the larger society. The use of the
national media was crucial to the building of awareness and support.
Lessons for policy makers
The Belizean government must fulﬁl its obligations under domestic and international law to recognize
and protect the ancestral land rights of indigenous people.
US Capital Energy must provide accurate, understandable information to the communities where
The Government of Belize and US Capital Energy must abstain from attempting to divide the
communities by handing out gifts.
SATIIM has always understood that political and legal advocacy against the national government
and US Capital Energy would be a long, arduous and resource-intensive process.
Some of the communities encountered internal challenges that delayed the consensus-building
process and decisions on issues related to the litigation.
Some community leaders falsely purported to represent the views of the entire community on the
oil issue. For example, the Alcalde of Conejo signed a document, presented to him by US Capital
Energy, in which he certiﬁed (contrary to fact) that the entire community had unequivocally granted
the company free, prior and informed consent. The Alcalde was later removed from oﬃce under
Maya Customary Law and SATIIM used the experience to strengthen the community’s autonomy.
“We don’t want
the company to
say ‘yes you’re
going to get
a bridge and
beneﬁt’. We want
so that we can
Crique Carco community.
Replication and scaling-up
The experience of SATIIM and the four indigenous communities may be replicated or scaled up by
other communities facing the same threats around the world. As the SATIIM experience demonstrates,
there are always ways to use domestic and international laws in order to halt development projects
that would negatively impact the life of indigenous communities.
References and further reading
Cultural Survival (2013). Internet campaign Demand US Capital Energy and the Belize Government
Respect Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights. Available at: https://www.culturalsurvival.org/take-action/
Supreme Court of Belize (2014). Maya indigenous community of the Toledo District vs. Belize, Case
12.053, Report No. 40/04, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser. L/V/II.122 Doc. 5 rev. 1 at 727. Available at: http://
Minority Rights Group International (2013). ‘Suddenly we have no more power’: Oil drilling on Maya
and Garifuna land in Belize. London: MRG. Available at: http://www.minorityrights.org/download.
SATIIM (2006). Annual Report. Available at: http://www.satiim.org.bz/download/newsletters-and-
SATIIM (2014). US Capital Energy and Government of Belize Taunt Supreme Court SATIIM ﬁle for
Injunction. Press Release. Punta Gorda, March 18. Available at: http://www.satiim.org.bz/download/
News 5 Report on SATIIM vs. US Capital Energy (22 October 2013) http://vimeo.com/77558462?
Save our Natural Heritage, Press Conference (2011) https://www.youtube.com/
Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM)
81 Main Street, Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize
Phone: 501-722-0103 - Fax: 501-722-0124
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Suggested citation: Ch’oc, G., Claps, L. M. and Cherlet, J. (2015) Indigenous
communities successfully claim right to free, prior and informed consent,
Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize. Case study of the ILC Database of
Good Practices. Rome: ILC.
The International Land Coalition (ILC) is a global alliance of civil society
and intergovernmental organisations working together to promote secure
and equitable access to and control over land for poor women and men
through advocacy, dialogue and capacity building.
The opinions expressed in this brief are those of the authors and do
not necessarily constitute an oﬃcial position of the International Land
Coalition, nor of its members or donors.
Authors: Gregory Ch’oc (ex SATIIM), Luis Manuel Claps and Jan Cherlet (ILC
Secretariat). Last updated: February 2015. Printed on recycled/FSC paper.