Indigenous peoples all over the world continue to face being dispossessed of their traditional lands and the natural resources that are part of them.  Often done in the name of national economic development, these actions threaten the cultures of indigenous groups and their survival as distinct peoples.  In light of these worldwide trends a Supreme Court decision in Belize in October, 2007, is historic.

In his decision, Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh found that Belize is obligated not only by the Belize Constitution but also by international treaty and customary international law to recognize, respect, and protect Maya customary land rights.  He held that the Belize government's failure to acknowledge the customary land rights of the Maya villages violates their constitutionally protected rights to property, equality, and life.

Canoes in Sartstoon Temash National ForestTraveling by canoe in Belize's Sarstoon Temash National Forest

Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP Program) Professor S.  James Anaya, who was appointed U.N.  Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples in March, 2008, underlined the importance of the decision by Chief Justice Conteh, “So it's not just a matter of material interest or gain that we are talking about with indigenous peoples and their right to land.  It's about their basic right to life and he made that connection explicitly and that's significant.  We haven't seen that in decisions in other countries so explicitly.  So I think it really is going to reverberate around the world very quickly.  There is a lot of international focus on the rights of indigenous peoples and this case is going to be noticed and rightly so I think.”

For a copy of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Belize, claim forms, affidavits, and documents submitted by the Government of Belize, as well as Inter-American Commission and UN Documents, please click here.

Read more about the landmark victory for indigenous rights in Belize.  

Although the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Maya to their traditional lands and resources, the government of Belize has interpreted the judgment as applying to only the two claimant villages in the lawsuit, leaving the other thirty-six villages in the area unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, the government of Belize then took the position that it has no responsibility to identify or respect Maya village lands unless their customary title has been proven in court - and has adopted a policy of delay with respect to the implementation of this judgment. Though we continue to fight these battles in court, the delay has resulted in numerous infringements, violations, and expropriations of Maya lands.