Cristina Coc

A Q’eqchi’ Woman of Southern Belize

Cristina Coc Speaks with Civic Fellows.

Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya communities have long made their livelihoods by growing corn in the forests that are today within the Toledo District of southern Belize. When the Government of Belize granted a series of large, unrestricted logging concessions to a multinational company in the mid‐1990s, the Maya built a social movement that fought the logging concessions and social discrimination. They also initiated a major lawsuit
against the Government of Belize for indigenous rights to their lands.

In December 2004, the Inter‐American Commission for Human Rights ruled that the Maya of Southern Belize have full indigenous rights to the lands of southern Belize. However, this momentous ruling had not yet brought about concrete changes in their land tenure status. The Julian Cho Society is an organization founded by Ms. Cristina Coc dedicated to the conservation of the environments and rights of indigenous peoples of Southern Belize.

Ms. Cristina Coc is presently Program Director of the Julian Cho Society (JCS), and also one of the key organizers and co‐spokesperson for the MLA. Ms. Coc is a Maya woman from southern Belize, who brings a wealth of knowledge of these communities, fluency in Q’eqchi’, and experience in mobilizing local residents. Over the last year, Ms. Coc and other Maya Leaders have worked closely with teams of lawyers from the
Indigenous People’s Law & Policy Institute of University of Arizona to develop strategies to test the lawsuit, negotiate with the Government of Belize, and build capacity among local Maya.

A main strategy of the Maya is to ask Governments help with boundary demarcation between Maya villages, a task specifically set out in the IACHR ruling. Ms. Coc has worked with the communities that border the largest parcel of National lands remaining in the Toledo District, helping them to define their traditional boundaries, clarifying land tenure, and engaging the villages in far‐reaching discussions about future management of their lands.

Ms. Coc and other leaders have been trying to convince the Government of Belize to respect the IACHR ruling and the rights of the Maya. They have met with the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Minister and other ministers of government time and time again.

The Maya have had to come to terms with their reality and recognize that progress has been agonizingly slow; the Maya are still marginalized, still second‐ class citizens. This lead to the historic event on April 3rd 2007, when two Maya villages, Conejo and Santa Cruz, brought a claim under the Constitution of Belize for redress for violations arising from the government’s failure to recognize, protect, and respect the customary lands rights of the Maya people, which are based on their traditional land use and occupancy. This action was consequently followed by a trial which took place from June 18‐21, 2007 during which time Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh heard from the claimants, experts, and government witnesses. The claimant villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz were represented by local counsel, Mrs. Antoinette Moore, a prominent human rights
attorney in Belize and supported by the member organizations of the MLA including the Julian Cho Society.

On October 18, 2007, the Supreme Court of Belize handed down its landmark decision in the case of Conejo and Santa Cruz. The Supreme Court accepted the argument of Conejo and Santa Cruz villages that Maya customary property rights, like other forms of property, are protected by the Belize Constitution and
international human rights law. He held that the government’s failure to recognize, respect, and protect the land rights of the Maya claimants violates constitutionally‐protected rights to property, non‐discrimination, and life.

The Supreme Court declared that the Maya people of Conejo and Santa Cruz have rights to the lands and resources that they have used and occupied according to Maya customary practices and ordered that the Government of Belize:

  • Determine, demarcate and title Conejo and Santa Cruz village lands in accordance with Maya customary practices
  • Cease and abstain from any acts that might affect the value, use, or enjoyment of Conejo and Santa Cruz village lands (including issuing leases, land grants, or concessions for logging and oil), without the adequate consultation and agreement of the Maya villagers.

Ms. Coc is a young woman, but in this work, she has accumulated vast experience. She has felt the cold reality of discrimination. She has negotiated complicated and contentious issues at the highest level. Most importantly, she has gained the respect of the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan villagers of Toledo.

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Cristina Coc Speaks with Civic Fellows.