Culture’s ties to the land: the Belize-Guatemala border conflict’s implications for the Maya communities in light of the UN Declaration

Culture’s ties to the land: the Belize-Guatemala border conflict’s implications for the Maya communities in light of the UN Declaration

  • Culture’s ties to the land: the Belize-Guatemala border conflict’s implications for the Maya communities in light of the UN Declaration

by Zelena Jones


The dispute between Belize and Guatemala over Belizean territory, and by extension, access to the Caribbean Basin, is one of the oldest, ongoing border disputes in all of the Americas.  This conflict has prompted the two countries to agree to submit a final resolution on the conflict to the International Court of Justice (hereinafter ICJ) at The Hague.  However, the populations of both countries have to concede to The Hague’s jurisdiction through the democratic processes within each country’s respective national governmental institutions.  Guatemala continues to assert a historic claim to Belize based on the argument that they inherited the land from the Spanish Crown, and that the British colonizers violated treaties that would allow Guatemala to recognize the former   British   Empire’s   colonial   holdings   in   Central   America. Although Guatemala previously asserted a claim to the whole country of Belize, at present, it is only claiming a right to the southern half of Belize where many indigenous communities live, including two Maya ethnic groups and the Garifuna. Belize, as a sovereign nation-state, on the other hand,   views   this   territorial   claim   as   an   infringement   upon   its sovereignty.


Two recent occurrences have prompted Guatemala to assert this claim. The first occurrence is the recent discovery of oil.  The governments of both countries seek economic development opportunities stemming from this. The second is the migration of mainly Q’eqchi Maya people from Guatemala into southern Belize, where Belizean communities of the Q’eqchi Maya tend to live.  This migration from Guatemala   into   Belize   has   resulted   in   border   clashes   between Guatemalan  and  Belizean  security  forces  leading  to  deadly confrontations in some instances. Security forces in Belize view these indigenous migrants as illegal immigrants from Guatemala and often respond with violence. Operating under assumptions that these individuals are planting their footing in Belize as loyal citizens of Guatemala,   the   Belizean   government   has   portrayed   the   illegal immigration problem as a threat to Belizean sovereignty.


This article will argue that instead of granting territorial concessions to Guatemala as a way to solve the problems stemming at the  border,  the  borders  should  remain  intact  and  that  a  bilateral agreement between Guatemala and Belize, with the involvement and consent of the Maya communities, should allow Guatemala access to Caribbean Basin. Granting territorial concessions to Guatemala in the form of ceding Belizean Maya lands to Guatemala would be a grave injustice to the Belizean Maya. The Maya communities located in southern Belize have secured substantial rights under the Belizean Constitution, vocalized loyalty to the Belizean government, and camaraderie with the rest of the Belizean Citizenry. The legal system in Belize has more favorable land-holding rights for the Maya communities in  the  contested  area,  as opposed to the legal  system in  Guatemala. Favorable landholding rights leads to a situation that is conducive to the protection of the cultural rights of the various Maya communities.


The Supreme Court of Belize was the first court to formally refer to the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People (hereinafter “UNDRIP” or “the Declaration”) in a court opinion. Even though Guatemala adopted policies respecting the cultural rights of the various ethnic groups within its borders,  such cultural rights provisions cannot be actualized on the ground when many of the Maya communities in Guatemala still have not secured the appropriate land rights. Such cultural rights are merely celebratory rather than having any tangible effects. This is evident in the practice of the Guatemalan government reserving the right to evict whole communities to make room for development  projects benefitting transnational  capital. Relocation  of Maya communities to accommodate transnational capital leads to uprooted communities. This situation threatens the cultures of the various Maya peoples since there is a deep cultural emphasis on maintaining close ties with the land. In contrast, the Supreme Court of Belize has adopted its first Aboriginal Rights precedent that provides for the legal protection of the Maya communities’ customary land tenure.  It is the first country to apply the principles in the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


This paper argues that such title to land, and rights to the subsoil of the land, better protects the cultural integrity of the Maya communities than the promise   of   protecting the   cultural   rights   of   the   Maya communities in Guatemala. Guatemala should reevaluate its societal problem of land inequality before attempting to make such requests from its neighbor. Therefore, any border resolution from the ICJ should not grant territorial concessions to Guatemala.


The   practical   manifestation   of   the   border   conflict   is   the migration of Q’eqchi Maya into southern Belize because of the situation of land inequality in Guatemala. These migrants are, in fact, landless. While this particular border conflict is overshadowed by other global/cross-border conflicts, it is significant in that it highlights the gap between the rhetoric respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and the practical reality of states making decisions that disregard the rights of indigenous peoples. While many countries have signed onto relevant international agreements promising the securing of rights to indigenous peoples, much of these promises are not entirely secured.  In general, granting territorial concessions should not occur when the state making that request has not made efforts to address the underlying problems of a given border dispute.


Part II of this paper will provide the relevant historical background of the dispute and the history of Maya migration in the Belize-Guatemalan region that harkens back to pre-Columbian times. Part III will provide a brief overview of the United Nations Declaration for  the  Rights  of  Indigenous  Peoples  of  which  both  Belize  and Guatemala are parties. Part IV will delve into a discussion of the cultural rights provisions in the Guatemalan Constitution and into an overview of the problem of land ownership in Guatemala. Part V provides a brief overview of the Caribbean legal systems and the land dispute cases involving the Maya Communities of southern Belize that lead to the development of the indigenous rights jurisprudence in Belize. Part VI will discuss the policy and practical implications of the property and cultural rights in Guatemala and Belize, and provide an alternative solution to granting territorial concessions to Guatemala. Finally, part VII will conclude the paper.


Read full article here!


How to Cite:


Jones, Z. (2011). Culture’s ties to the land: the Belize-Guatemala border conflict’s implications for the Maya communities in light of the un declaration. Wis. Int’l LJ. 29, from

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