By Chris Lang
Imagine for a moment that you’re running an international conservation organisation based in the UK. It’s the world’s oldest international conservation organisation. Now imagine that the organisation was founded as the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire.
Given the controversies about colonialism and conservation, wouldn’t Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line the to British throne, be the worst possible person to have as your patron?
Yet in October 2020, Prince William took over as patron of Fauna and Flora International (as the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire is now called) from his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth.
All of this came (once again) sharply into focus with Prince William spending a week in the Caribbean with his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. The trip is aimed at persuading other countries not to become a republic as Barbados did four months ago.
Emily Zobel Marshall is an academic at Leeds Beckett University whose work focusses on Caribbean culture. She suggested to The Guardian that the UK government and royals should be working with Caribbean countries to facilitate a discussion about full independence and reparations. She told The Guardian that,
“We’ve had centuries of enslavement, followed by colonialism in the Caribbean. The damage that has been done economically and historically by Britain is vast, and the legacies of that are ongoing. To still have the Queen as the head of state, in this day and age, is baffling to me.
“I think it’s important symbolically not to be a part of that hierarchy. It’s important for Caribbean countries to be proud of themselves in their own right and to be untethered from Britain.”
Colonial conservation: Protests in Belize
William and Kate’s visit started in Belize, where they cancelled a visit to Akte‘il Ha cacao farm in Indian Creek. The Guardian reports that,
Opposition to the royal excursion had arisen from a dispute between residents of Toledo district and Flora and Fauna International (FFI), a conservation charity Prince William is a patron of.
On 18 March 2022, villagers in Indian Creek held a protest against William and Kate’s visit to the cacao farm. The Maya Indigenous community of Indian Creek is currently in a land dispute with Fauna and Flora International. The Maya community claims that FFI took part of their lands in the name of conservation.
William and Kate were not planning to speak to the villagers. And they certainly weren’t interested in hearing about any long-running dispute about land rights.
Instead they were planning to visit a farm owned by Fauna and Flora International. William and Kate’s helicopter was to have landed on the village football pitch – but Indian Creek villagers where not consulted about the trip.
“We don’t want them to land in our land, that’s the message that we want to send, they could land anywhere but not in our land” Sebastian Shol, Chairman of Indian Creek village told 7NewsBelize.
And Dionisio Shol, a Youth Leader, told 7NewsBelize,
“For someone like him to say well I’m here promoting conservation, you could actually come talk to the Maya people. Most historians and scientific evidence have shown that Maya people have already done some of this work that they are putting big names to it. So for him to say well I want to save Indian Creek well obviously it’s not happening.
“We are still, Indian Creek is still suffering from the colonial legacy which simply means for us Prince William being a patron to FFI is from the colonial era.”
The Guardian reported that FFI put out a statement explaining that it had bought the land in December 2021, from private owners. A spokesperson for FFI told BBC news that FFI would, “support the livelihoods, educational opportunities and the customary rights of local people”.
“We are establishing a dialogue with key stakeholders about the future ownership and management of land and want to work with – and in support of – the indigenous community, respecting traditional Mayan rights,” he said.
According to The Guardian FFI pledged to maintain “open and continuous dialogue” with the local community.
But on 18 March 2022, Toledo West Area Representative Oscar Requena, called for dialogue between FFI and the villagers of Indian Creek. Which raises an obvious question: If FFI’s claim of “open and continuous dialogue” with the local community were true, why would Requena need to call for dialogue?
According to Requena, the area in dispute covers more than 5,000 hectares of land that the villagers have customarily used for farming, hunting, and for material to build their homes.
Logging concessions and land rights
The Environmental Justice Atlas has more information about the land disputes faced by the Maya in Toledo District. In the early 1990s the Government of Belize started handing out logging concession in Mayan territory without consulting the Indigenous Peoples and afrodescendant communities living there.
In 1996, the Ministry of Natural Resources granted a 200,000 hectare concession to a Malaysian timber company called Atlantic Industries. Two years later, Toledo Maya Cultural Council submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The IACHR ruled that the State of Belize had violated human rights by allowing logging and oil development on Mayan traditional lands. In 2000, the government and Mayan communities signed “Ten Points of Agreement” to recognise Mayan rights over their traditional lands and resources. “Those agreements have been ignored by the State,” Environmental Justice Atlas notes.
A February 2021 editorial in Amandala notes that Indian Creek is one of 38 villages in Toledo District that has customary land rights over their traditional lands, based on a 2010 ruling of the Supreme Court of Belize, subsequently affirmed in 2015 by the Caribbean Court of Justice.
As Alonso Gurmendi, an Assistant Professor at the Universidad del Pacífico in Peru, notes, “Instead of focusing on a setback for a Prince’s tour, news coverage could focus on the claims of an indigenous community fighting for its land and the role said Prince can/should play in resolving it.”