His face is lined, his skin the color of the muddy Temash River we just crossed, and his hair jet black. When he says, “There’s no money that can fix the river — you can’t buy back the river,” he says it with the authority he carries as the Mayan spiritual leader, the “Alcalde,” in the village.
I believe him.
The river is full of sediment washed off from the surrounding rainforest, the wettest area in Belize. When we crossed the river into the village of Crique Sarco two hours ago, we entered Sarstoon Temash National Park, known locally as the “land between the rivers,” an area that borders Guatemala. We are deep in Mayan country, and as our truck pulls into the village, our guide jumps out and walks across the lush grass to find the village leaders we’ve come to meet.
We got here after driving about an hour on a rough dirt road, the first 45 minutes of which was in better shape because it had been rebuilt by an oil company. Oil has come to the Mayans, and we are here for oil too — to learn how this small and very rural Mayan village is protecting its people and native lands from the threat of oil.
The leaders of this Mayan community have agreed to meet me so I can help tell their story about their fight with oil. I’m here with a NGO called “SATIIM” which stands for “Sarstoon-Temash Institute For Indigenous Management.” The Temash River and Sarstoon River border the Park, the land in between is about 42,000 acres, and indigenous Mayan country covers the Park and everything around us for miles in every direction. SATIIM’s mission is to promote and protect the rights of these indigenous people and to safeguard the ecological integrity of the region. That’s a very difficult and serious business with one oil well already drilled by an American company and others pending.
We take a short tour of the village, which has about 60 families. It’s Sunday, just before lunchtime, and the village is very quiet — some of the villagers are still in “Sunday Prayer” inside their homes. The homes are mixed frame with thatched roofs. There’s running water in a few homes, but not in most. The village is clean — in fact it’s cleaner than most of the Belizean towns I’d spent the last 10 days visiting in other parts of the country. Chickens strut around free-ranging and a couple of friendly dogs follow us along as we visit a very small store and then use a shared outhouse.
After the brief tour, we sit down in a small thatched-roof home around a plastic folding table. There’s a few electric generators in the village, but they’re not running, and so there’s no lights in the hut. My eyes adjust to the darkness after a few minutes.
SATIIM Executive Director Froyla Tzalam set up this meeting and brought me here, and she is sitting across the table. Froyla and I got acquainted over dinner last night in Punta Gorda, the nearest small city (5,000 people) which is the hub of Southern Belize and where the office of SATIIM is located. Small Mayan villages — some of which are very rural like this one — are dotted along the roads stretching miles away from Punta Gorda. Froyla is a fireball — outspoken, whip smart and filled with energy. She is also a Mayan and entrusted by the various communities that make up SATIIM to represent their voices, which are often against the Belizean government as well as the American oil company. They have picked their leader well.
The five Mayan community leaders, all men, slowly walk in and sit around the room, while two Mayan women bring in food. Rice and beans, chicken, a pork stew and a spicy soup are the menu. All are delicious as we make small talk through lunch. Almost everyone in Belize is bilingual, and the Mayans all know English as a second language — it is taught in the village school — and so we can understand each other very well though they apologize for their English unnecessarily. As we finish, the food and dishes are whisked away and the table wiped clean. There’s a long, pregnant pause before Froyla speaks and brings us to the reason for the meeting, for me to hear their stories and learn about their concerns for the oil drilling in their homelands.
Marcos Chub, who is the mayor of the community speaks first, and slowly, but then warms up as the words flow troublingly from his mouth. He speaks for a few minutes and immediately notes that this is a difficult fight — the village is fighting both the government and the oil company over rights to their land and for protection of their environment.
“They put everything sweet, like candy,” he says, referring to how the oil company and the Belizean government have tried to sell oil drilling to the local Mayans. “But the decision should be made by our community, not the government. It brings concerns because of the environmental threats. It could damage our river — our villages fish downstream and hunt as well.”
Everyone watches and listens to Marcos and no one interrupts him. When he finishes, there’s another long pause. Andres Coy, the village’s Mayan spiritual leader and Alcalde, speaks next and more directly.
“The voice of the village must be heard,” he says. “The government doesn’t respect our community. The government doesn’t care about the people, they just care about the money. Pollution is going to be in the air we breathe, the animals and fishes we eat. Yes, there will be jobs, but there will be a price to the environment.”
Andres talks about the river as I noted above, and adds, “We believe we are the owners of the resources and the courts have formally recognized that.”
Andres is matter of fact in his statement, and for good reason. On behalf of the Mayan communities, SATIIM sued the federal government and won, and when the government appealed the suit twice, SATIIM won both times including with the highest court at the Caribbean Court of Justice. Just weeks before my arrival, the Caribbean Court ruled and has now forced the government to establish some type of land rights for the Mayan people in the region.
Marcos speaks again and is now more excited as the energy in the room grows. “The government has a tricky idea and hired public relations people to give us false information,” he said.
Andres backs this up by saying, “They think the indigenous people don’t have common sense to know what’s good for us.”
As the discussion develops, it becomes very clear that SATIIM has played a critical role in educating and informing the local village, which has intermittent electricity and internet access. Among other things, SATIIM has visited with the community many times, provided technical information, including a professional review of the “environmental impact assessment” for the oil drilling, and provides weekly radio broadcasts that are heard throughout the region
At one point, Andres says, “Thank God SATIIM is helping us.”
The conversation continues for another hour as each leader speaks. They support each other with snippets of their own, the overall story becoming clearer. The men tell stories of how the oil company ran survey lines across their land, and didn’t ask for permission as the company cut new roads right through some of their farms. The men don’t believe anything the oil company says. The men say the government wants money and is trying to force oil exploration and production down their throats. Several of the men say the government and the oil company are providing “false information” to the communities.
The men tell me that the Mayan people want control of their land and the resources underneath it. The Mayans are not necessarily saying “no” to oil drilling, but they want to be consulted in the decision, and if oil drilling happens, they want part of the money. The amount of “5 percent” has been mentioned a couple times — prior to the court rulings, if oil was produced on their lands, the Mayans would have gotten nothing. If nothing else, they want 5 percent of price of the oil produced on their lands. They are wrestling with this conundrum of pollution and money and oil, their faces furrowed and their voices aching from the wrestling match.
“We are thinking for future generations,” Andres says. “The ground is like our mother; she feeds us.”
After everyone has had a turn at speaking, I feel compelled to speak myself. I had been holding my tongue as I heard the stories. I also begin slowly but quickly to get to the point.
“I’m from the state of Colorado in the United States,” I say. “Within 100 miles of my house, there are over 22,000 active oil and gas wells.” When I say this, everyone in the room gasps. They’re now riveted. So far they have had one single well drilled 4 miles away, and it has created an enormous conflict and uproar.
I continue, “The air pollution is sometimes worse than downtown Los Angeles. The groundwater has been polluted, and oil has been spilled into our rivers. The landscape has been decimated, criss-crossed and carved into little pieces.”
I pause and say, “I urge you to be very careful and very vigilant. Once you allow the drilling, you can never go back.”
“Be very vigilant,” I repeat, slowly. Everyone nods.
After a few more questions and comments, our conversation ends and we step outside. The mood brightens as the humid sunshine pours through the village canopy. We take a few photos and say good-byes. Froyla, our guide, and I head back to our truck. We walk by the village school which was recently repainted by the oil company, U.S. Capital Energy, which emblazoned their name and logo on the school in exchange for the paint job. When I ask about the name and paint, our guide says, “camouflage” — more candy from the oil company.
We get in the truck and drive back across the Temash River, leaving the village and heading back on the rough dirt road. After about 15 minutes, we reach the turnoff that leads down to where the oil company drilled the well. The road is gated with a no trespassing sign and a young man sits in civilian clothes in the guard house. When he sees us, he moves behind a wall out of sight.
Like oil drilling everywhere on the planet, the price has plunged here in Belize, and the oil company has stopped exploring and drilling, for now. U.S. Capital Energy is a privately held company and information sharing is sparse. From the villagers’ stories, it’s unclear if and how much oil was found, and at what depth, and at what price point it is recoverable. Belize has many active oil wells, and drilling and production occurrs across the nearby border in Guatemala. It’s likely that oil drilling will come to this village eventually.
As the roads smooth out — now rebuilt with oil money — and we make our way another 45 minutes back to the paved road, I consider what I really wanted to tell the Mayans. I was there as a guest to hear and tell their stories, not to tell them what I thought they should do. But what I wanted to say was that if oil drilling comes here, this place will never be the same. Roads will criss-cross your village lands, the river will be polluted, wildlife will leave, the air will be brown and stink, the landscape will become an industrialized nightmare completely different than this quiet village you live in now. You will be left with nothing.
And if you do negotiate a 5 percent royalty, your lives will be forever changed. I did the math quickly in my head as I sat in the hut. At $20 million per well over 20 years, and with just 20 wells in the entire area of the village’s farmland and rainforest, you’re looking at roughly $50,000 per person per year, which is likely 10 times more than any of them make as farmers. This serene, indigenous little village would bust apart — culturally, financially, psychologically — and never be the same.
When we hit the paved road, we turn south and can see the lush jungle of the Mayan Hills in the background. Froyla’s eyes light up and she says, “I just love this view. The Mayan Hills are so beautiful.”
For now, I think to myself.
Gary Wockner, PhD, is an international environmental activist, writer, and consultant for Global Greengrants Fund which provides funding to SATIIM
This piece originally ran on tcktcktck.org.