Today, the Caribbean Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision finding the Maya—one of Rainforest Foundation US’s partners in southern Belize—have rights to the lands they have customarily used and occupied. Today’s judgment requires the government to demarcate and register Maya communal lands and protect them against incursions by outsiders.
“This judgment sets an important precedent worldwide, building upon ever greater recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples internationally,” said James Anaya, Professor of Human Rights and Policy at the University of Arizona College of Law and Co-Director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP) Program. Professor Anaya explained that the judgment “reinforces the international standard that indigenous peoples have collective property rights based on their own customary land tenure systems, even when they do not have a formal title or other official recognition of those rights, and that states are bound to recognize and protect those rights.”
Professor Anaya and the IPLP Program put together and coordinated the team of lawyers and students that brought the lawsuit on behalf of Maya organizations and villages, leading to today’s judgment.
Complementing and informing the domestic litigation, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report in 2004 in favor of Maya land rights in Belize, in terms similar to today’s judgment. The IPLP Program, which along with the Indian Law Resource Center litigated the case before the Inter-American Commission, has also assisted Maya leaders to raise the land rights issue with United Nations bodies.