In October 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued its final decision in a case we filed in 1998 on behalf of the Maya of Southern Belize. The Commission affirmed that the Government of Belize is violating the human rights of the Maya communities by failing to protect their rights to property, equality, and a fair trial. The Commission emphasized that by virtue of its obligations under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man the Government of Belize must:
- Set the boundaries of the lands the Maya have used and lived on, working with the Maya in accordance with their customs;
- Officially recognize the collective property rights of the Maya communities, and take appropriate measures to protect these rights; and
- Obtain the informed consent of the Maya prior to taking any actions, including authorizing logging or oil extraction, that might affect their lands or territories.
The Commissions report is the clearest statement to date of the law protecting indigenous land rights in the hemisphere, and it represents a major advance in international indigenous rights law. We are especially proud that in its decision the Commission relied on several other cases the Center filed, especially the Awas Tingni and Western Shoshone decisions. This report is a great victory for the Maya people. It represents years of hard work by the Maya communities, the Center, and others.
Since the early 1990s, the Center has helped the Maya of Southern Belize in their fight to resist illegal incursions on their lands and confirm their rights to these territories. First on behalf of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, and more recently in partnership with the Maya Leaders Alliance, we have used advocacy and litigation in Belize and internationally to secure these rights. During the 1990s, we worked closely with Maya communities to create The Maya Atlas, the result of a groundbreaking indigenous mapping project in which Maya people used GIS technology, field investigation, and hundreds of interviews with community members to map out areas of Maya use and occupancy.
In 1998, we filed a case on the Mayas’ behalf in the Inter-American Commission. While the Government of Belize admitted in a 2000 agreement that the Maya do have rights to lands in Southern Belize, it failed to take any steps to legally recognize or protect those rights. In early 2003, the Government acknowledged some Maya demands and passed a law setting marginal limits on development along a corridor through Maya territory. This corridor encompasses a road that is part of Plan Puebla-Panamá, a pan-American highway project funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and planned without the consent of the indigenous communities through whose territories the road will cut.