Vance Center Pursues Indigenous Rights Worldwide

January 2018

The challenges to their natural and cultural resources that indigenous peoples face worldwide are a regular concern to the Vance Center. A global project four years ago provided the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a survey of how governments and extractive industries did or did not accommodate the right to free and prior informed consent. The Environment Program recently has confronted these challenges in Cambodia and Guatemala, and now the Human Rights and Access to Justice Program has similar projects underway.

Indigenous peoples’ rights are enshrined in international law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Convention on Human Rights. Despite these protections, indigenous peoples around the world often face the loss of their land, usually in the context of extractive industries projects, the denial of their culture, increased violence, either by the state or in absence of state protection, and are marginalized as second-class citizens under domestic legal systems.[1]

In Nicaragua, the Vance Center is advising the Centro por la Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, or CEJUDCHAN) in a campaign to educate indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on their rights under both domestic and international law. The indigenous communities living on the Atlantic Coast are under continuous threat of displacement from outside groups seeking to exploit the Atlantic coast’s rich natural resources. The Nicaraguan government has granted logging rights to multinational companies, and outsiders have bought or acquired communal lands, despite protections under Nicaraguan and international law. There has also been a recent increase in violence, believed to be related to drug trafficking, which has forced hundreds of men, women and children to flee their homes.

In response to these increasing threats, CEJUDCHAN has launched a project to educate and empower Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-descendant groups regarding their communal land rights. Working together with a U.S. and a Nicaraguan law firm, the Vance Center supported this project by creating a Spanish-language curriculum, modules, and materials that CEJUDCHAN will use to train indigenous communities on their communal land rights under international and domestic law.

The Human Rights and Access to Justice Program also is working in Belize to support the Maya Leader’s Alliance, the leadership body of the Maya communities of southern Belize, to enforce their right to communal land. These communities are the region’s earliest known inhabitants and continue to live in over 30 villages throughout the Toledo District of Southern Belize.

Today, the Maya people of Toledo are among the most outspoken and organized groups to defend their natural resources to which they have longstanding cultural and historical claims but no enforced legal title, a pervasive circumstance throughout Southern Belize. The Maya rely on the land where they live, and their lack of ownership and control contributes to their endemic poverty.

The MLA has asserted its rights before the domestic courts of Belize, as well as the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court in the Belizean system, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Despite rulings by these national and international tribunals that the Mayas do have rights to their ancestral land, the government of Belize continues to deny them. In one instance, the government bulldozed a highway through Maya land, and, in a second case, authorities allowed the desecration of sacred ancient Maya sites.

The Vance Center seeks to assist the MLA in litigating in the Belizean Courts and the Caribbean Court of Justice to challenge these actions and enforce the Maya’s rights to their ancestral land. Lawyers interested in joining in this effort should contact the Human Rights and Access to Justice Program.