To mark Indigenous People’s Day, Perry World House hosted three Maya activists from Belize in a panel discussion that ranged from land-rights struggles to ways researchers can better work with Indigenous communities to how Indigenous people will be key in helping battle the climate crisis.
“For us, every day is Indigenous People’s Day,” said Cristina Coc, a Q’eqchi’ Maya community leader who founded and is program director of the Julian Cho Society, dedicated to the conservation of the environment and rights of the Indigenous Peoples of southern Belize. “There’s not just one day that we exist, although it’s important to look at that day and reflect upon what this means for the people of that land.”
Joining Coc on the panel was Pablo Mis, program director for the Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association, and Filiberto Penados, associate professor and research director at Belize’s Galen University. The talk was moderated by Richard M. Leventhal, executive director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the Penn Museum and a professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology.
Leventhal noted that researchers at Penn are working closely with the Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Maya Leaders Alliance on the ground in Belize on issues related to representation and identity, including development of a community museum that will focus on self-representation and how community members can maintain culture and tradition.
The panel members then discussed issues that they focus on in their work in Belize.
Penados said he’s particularly interested in the idea of Indigenous future-making, as Indigenous people are often cast as people from the past who can’t succeed in the present.
“Indigenous peoples are future makers, and I think the question of the future and what the future might be are certainly very relevant, especially when we think about climate change,” he said. “That is one of the things that I’m particularly interested in, working to understand how my people imagine the future.”
Coc’s focus is how land rights fit within Indigenous peoples’ struggles.
“A lot of times we, when we hear about land rights, we think about property rights or ownership of land,” she said. “For us, it is a lot more than that. It is about security and protection of a land-tenure system that has provided for our survival. It is a response as a people to our survival on the lands that we live on, the lands that we make our lives on. Land rights for us is really land-tenure security, and it is a response to our survival as a collective people on a collective land.”
For Mis, he’s interested in his community’s ability to continue to be organized and involved in shaping their own future.
“Indigenous governance is really an area for me because it's about the process; it’s about decision making. It’s about deliberately being a part of making decisions that will shape the future of not only the community but everybody else that we interact with,” he said.
Asked to define land tenure and how it differs from land rights, Mis said land tenure involves more than just parceling a piece of land or issuing a paper for property.
“It is about the ability of people to continue to exist and sustain their existence on the land. It’s crucial for Indigenous peoples to have the security of tenure if we are going to have a chance at being a part of the process of creating our future. And perhaps even going beyond that, addressing some of the global problems of inequality of poverty, marginalization, and climate change,” he said.
They also highlighted some of the progress that has been made in Belize, both political steps and legal steps, including the historic 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice Judgment and Consent Orders that affirmed that the Maya people have customary rights to their land.
“That was a huge step for us. Unfortunately, the implementation is really the hardest part of the struggle,” Coc said. “We have been able to win legal affirmations, but the implementation of those affirmations is yet to be won. We continue to map our territory even though the government is dragging its feet on that.”
Just before the pandemic, Leventhal said, there was a request to him and several other archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists to travel to Belize and report to the Maya leaders on what the work that they had done during the past several years. He asked Penados to share his thoughts on why the gathering was important and why leaders in the area of Toledo sought the meeting, which was a marked change in the relationship between researchers and people on the ground.
Penados said it is first important to understand that the Q’eqchi’ word for “meeting” actually translates into “a listening.”
“I love the word because it just changes the way to think about a meeting. Namely, when you go to a meeting, you want to say something. This is saying that you’re going to listen to people,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that is happening among Indigenous peoples, not only in Belize but around the world: reaching into their own heritage and grasping at that wealth of knowledge to think about the world differently.”
Leventhal mentioned that it was currently Climate Week at Penn, and asked the panel to discuss the shift in focus to listening to Indigenous people on how to approach the problem of global warming.
Mis said he sees three main issues to grapple with. The first is the effective participation of Indigenous peoples in the decision-making processes. The second is the issue of resource and benefit access and distribution. The third issue is recognition and respect for Indigenous people’s rights.
“We're talking not only about just celebrating a day, but we’re talking about shifting power dynamics,” he said. “We’re talking about the issue of whose knowledge is most valuable or more valuable. In fact, one of the issues that will be negotiated has to do with simple language, scientific knowledge versus knowledge in general. Just that in itself will see endless hours of negotiation. It should be just knowledge because then it leaves it open for Indigenous people’s knowledge to be a part of it. When you begin to say ‘scientific knowledge’ in the text of agreements, that restricts them.”
The discussion then turned to questions from the audience, which ranged from how the panelists have connected their movement with other indigenous communities in places like Guatemala, to generational differences in approaching the challenges indigenous communities are facing.
In closing the discussion, LaShawn R. Jefferson, Perry World House’s senior executive director, said she was left feeling optimistic. Belize offers a road map of what’s possible in the realm of social justice for Indigenous communities and can be seen as a model, not just for Central America but for the world, she said.
“We have to allow ourselves to reimagine the world in which we live, and this really requires us to think differently,” Jefferson said. “Oftentimes we think of land as a resource, and thus begins the first problem. We ask, ‘What does the land owe us and how can we use it?’ rather than ‘How are we a part of it and what do we owe it?’ It’s stewardship in the broadest and most expansive sense of the word.”