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News > Latin America

Guatemala's Territorial Dispute with Belize About Extractivism in Mayan Lands: Activists

  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales shows his inked finger as he votes at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize.

    Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales shows his inked finger as he votes at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 April 2018

More than USD$13.6 million were spent to legalize Guatemala's intention to exploit Mayan's natural resources in Belize.

The Guatemalan government spent more about US$13.6 million in the popular consultation on taking the territorial dispute with Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a move social organizations have qualified as “neoliberal” for its extractivist intentions.


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Maria Eugenia Mijangos, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Guatemala (TSE), said the total amount will probably vary, since the given figure doesn't take into account expenses on the day of the consultation, April 15.

The government had assigned a budget of US$40.9 million to the TSE to carry out the consultation.

“What we didn't use from those 300 million Quetzales will remain in the State's vault. They don't have to be spent, because we administered every expense carefully,” said Mijangos.

A magistrate of the TSE, Jorge Mario Valenzuela, said the electoral authorities didn't request that amount of money, and that the congress approved the budget without a previous review.

Also, the elPeriodico local news outlet reported that $21 million 778 thousand Quetzales were spent on “exceptional purchases,” that is, they were spent with no tender whatsoever, which could suggest the consultation was organized in a rush, with no time to even ask the electoral authorities about their needs, or that they had preassigned providers.

Guatemalans voted on whether to ask the Hague-based ICJ to resolve the colonial era territorial conflict between the two Central American neighbors or not. Guatemala has long claimed to be the legitimate owner of half of the territorial mass of Belize, which is about 12,272 square kilometers, and the claim has been used by successive governments to build a common enemy and gain legitimacy.

But critics of the consultation claim the government's true intention is to carry out extractivist projects in the territory, mostly inhabited by Mayan Q'eqchi people who weren't consulted about the territorial dispute.

"In Guatemala, Mayan social movements warn that the consult regarding the land and sea dispute with Belize hides capitalist interests with the intention of legalizing the looting and sacking of the region's natural resources."

The Guatemalan government has promoted and safeguarded mining, hydroelectric plants and other extractivist projects in Indigenous territories for decades despite strong opposition from local populations. As part of their strategy, they constantly criminalize and arrest social leaders for their activism, accusing them of murder, kidnapping or terrorism.

Now, environmental and Indigenous organizations are worried the referendum and the trail will only be an instrument to legalize Guatemala's use of Belize's natural resources in a region largely populated by Indigenous Q'eqchi, in benefit of transnational companies, just as they do on their territory already.

“We call the people to vote against it because we're aware of the looting against our indigenous brothers and sisters,” said Carmen Alicia Torres, spokeswoman of the Northern Region Collectives.

Guatemalan authorities are promoting the consultation under the excuse of recovering the territory which would attract foreign investment, trade, tourism and security for everyone. However, Guatemala rarely respects the ILO Convention 169, which forces authorities to carry out consultations on local Indigenous populations before going ahead with any project.


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Gaining control over half of Belize's territory, where the Indigenous population have significantly more power over their own territories than in Guatemala, could change the “foreign investment” into hydroelectric plants, mines, wind farms, logging, and other non-environment friendly activities in now protected areas.

“Belize is a territory with significant resources, and then there are British and United States transnationals interested in oil and exploitation,” said Guatemalan historian Roberto Landaverry

In Guatemala, popular consultations done by Indigenous communities themselves are non-binding, which means the government can ignore the will of the local population in support of any transnational project in the area.

“The state grants environmental licenses to foreign extractivist companies without observing their obligation to guarantee the right to a previous popular consultation,” says Itzamna Ollantay, a Quechua human rights activist residing in Guatemala.

Also, the government of President Jimmy Morales is using the consultation to combat his low approval rating. In fact, the ICJ doesn't need any previous consultation in order to hold a trial and Guatemala can appeal to it any number of times.

At the end, only about 24 percent of Guatemala's voting population went to the polls. Of those, 95 percent approved the government's inquiry.

After the vote Morales offered some words to the press, making a small but revealing mistake. The consultation took place “in order to go to the ICJ and find a definitive solution on the territorial dispute we have with Mexico... I mean, Belize,” explained Morales, the president of Guatemala and the former performer of the racist practice of black-face comedy.

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