Landmark court ruling recognises Mayan land rights

November 1, 2007

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Mayan communities in southern Belize are celebrating a landmark Supreme Court ruling which recognises their rights to the ownership of their land.

The Chief Justice of Belize stated that acquisition of the land that is now Belize, first by the British and then by successive independent governments, did not cancel the Mayan people’s pre-existing rights to their land.

‘It is evident that the Maya claimants rely on agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering for their physical survival. It is also clear that the land they traditionally use and occupy plays a central role in their physical, cultural and spiritual existence and vitality,’ said Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh.

He ordered that the government of Belize must, ‘determine, demarcate and provide official documentation of Santa Cruz’s and Conejo’s [two Mayan villages] title and rights in accordance with Maya customary law and practices’. He also ordered the government not to carry out any logging, mining or other resource exploitation projects on the Mayans’ land.

The Chief Justice referred to international legal precedents in his ruling, including Mabo, in which the Australian High Court recognised ‘native title’ for the first time, and Awas Tingni in Nicaragua, in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed the existence of Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their land, resources, and environment.

The Chief Justice also referred to ILO Convention 169, the international law on Indigenous and tribal peoples, and to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was approved by the UN General Assembly in September.

Read about some test cases on Indigenous rights (Word document)