human rights & business (and a few other things)

Landmark ‘Business and Human Rights’ Decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice: Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights and Oil Exploration in Belize



It is a pleasure to welcome back Dr Jérémie Gilbert as a guest poster on ‘Rights as Usual’. Jérémie is a reader at the University of East London. He is the author of  Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights under International Law – From Victims to Actors  (Transnational Publishers, 2006) and Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights (Routledge, 2014). This post is his.


On 22 April 2015, in a much-awaited decision against the government of Belize, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) affirmed the rights of the Mayan indigenous communities over their traditional lands (The Maya Leaders Alliance & others v. The Attorney General of Belize, CCJ, April 2015). The case concerned the rights to land of the Mayan communities of Southern Belize who have been fighting for decades to have their rights over traditional lands recognised. The battle of the communities of the Toledo District for the recognition of their land rights must be put in its wider context, that of their opposition to the activities of the Texas-based oil company USCapital Energy, Inc. This blog covered previous CCJ decisions on labour rights and on the unenforceability of an arbitral award on grounds of public policy.

Background to the case: oil exploration in the Toledo District

As reported by Minority Rights Group International,

In 1994, without consulting [the concerned communities], the government converted almost 42,000 acres of their ancestral territory into a national park. The government then opened the park to oil exploration by USCapital Energy Belize, Ltd, a wholly owned Belizean subsidiary of American company USCapital Energy, Inc.

And in 2001, as reported by Cultural Survival, USCapital Energy received a concession from the government to extract oil in Southern Belize. Since then they cut over 200 miles of seismic trails through the national park and community lands. It has also been reported that USCapital Energy began drilling inside the National Park in 2014.

The final decision in a long series of national and international decisions

The decision from the Caribbean Court of Justice hopefully marks the end of a long legal battle, which started more than twenty years ago. In 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report recognizing Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo. It also highlighted that by failing to consult and seek their informed consent before granting logging rights and oil concessions on their ancestral land, the government had violated their right to equality enshrined in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

At the national level, the Supreme Court of Belize quashed the USCapital Energy’s seismic testing permit in 2006, and in 2007 ruled that the Mayan communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz held customary title to their lands and ordered the government to respect and demarcate their territory.

In 2010, in another ruling, the Supreme Court found that all Mayan communities in the Toledo District held customary collective rights over the land and resources. Finally, in April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the permits granted to the oil company for oil drilling and road construction were unreasonable and unlawful, and in breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All these decisions made clear that the government had an obligation to recognise the collective land ownership of the concerned communities and also to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before awarding concessions on their territories.

Despite decisions at both national and regional levels, the government continued to allow USCapital Energy activities within the region without obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of the local Mayan communities.

Moving forward: consultations before exploitation of resources

The CCJ decision upholds all the previous rulings, and recognises the Maya’s rights to their ancestral lands. It is worth noting that the Court adopted a consent order, meaning that the parties have agreed to settle virtually all the points of contention. An important aspect of this consent order relates to the agreement by the government to establish a process of consultation with the concerned indigenous communities before any outside persons or entities gets permission to exploit resources inside their customary lands.

This decision is of the utmost importance. Not only does it recognise that indigenous peoples land rights should be protected and guaranteed at the national level, but it also means that no concession for exploitation of natural resources can be granted without the consent of the concerned indigenous peoples.

The Court has also declared that it will retain  jurisdiction to supervise that the Government commitments are carried out. It has set 30 April 2016 as the day when the litigants will report back to the court on progress made towards the implementation of the agreement. This will give a chance to see whether and how the government has put in place a meaningful system to ensure that the free, prior and informed consent of the communities is respected.

For more information see:

-       Chelsea Purvis: ‘Suddenly we have no more power’: Oil drilling on Maya and Garifuna land in Belize (Minority Rights Group International, September 2013):

-       Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program: Maya Communities of Southern Belize:

-       Audio of the CCJ hearings are available on the CCJ’s website.

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