Panel Discussion Highlights Need to Safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ Collective Ownership Rights

On October 9, the Center hosted a panel discussion to highlight Indigenous Peoples’ land rights and the impacts of development activities financed by the World Bank. The event, “Indigenous Peoples’ Lands and Development: World Bank Interventions and Lessons Learned”, was held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC.

The panel brought together development and indigenous rights experts to identify key issues regarding indigenous peoples and land. Drawing examples from past Bank-financed projects, panelists showed that when indigenous peoples’ lands are at issue, development outcomes often depend on the extent to which projects recognize indigenous peoples’ special relationship to, and collective ownership rights over, their lands and resources.

Liza Grandia, Associate Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California-Davis described how a World Bank-financed land administration project in Guatemala, which operated in a legal context that didn’t provide sufficient protection for the Maya Q’eqchi peoples’ collective ownership rights, ended up resulting in land grabs and loss of sacred sites. “We found that 46% of smallholders had sold or been forced to sell their land within five years,” stated Grandia. Even though indigenous peoples had the right under the Guatemalan Peace Accords to reconstitute their communal lands, Grandia explained that “as this project was executed, no communities were ever given the opportunity to make choices other than the private titling that they had been channeled into during the civil war.”

Alf Jerve, a member of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, which investigates complaints by communities impacted by Bank-financed projects, described the lessons learned during panel investigations. Although Bank policies require that particular attention be paid to the customary rights of indigenous peoples, explained Jerve, “we find that some of these safeguards were not applied or were not applied effectively.” Jerve also observed that in some cases, providing collective land titling was given less priority than individual titling, and project plans failed to contain sufficient legal analysis of protection of customary land use and land rights.

Isabel Lavadenz-Paccieri, a former Project Team Leader at the World Bank described the project to demarcate and title indigenous territories in Nicaragua and to support legal reform recognizing indigenous peoples’ land rights, in implementation of the landmark Awas Tingni decision by the Inter-American Court. As a result of the project, more than fifteen indigenous communities were titled in Nicaragua. In addition, the project had a “multiplier effect” in the Caribbean region, leading to demarcation and titling benefiting more than 130 indigenous communities.

The Center is advocating that in the Bank’s updating of its policies and strategies, it strengthen protection for indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights. “The World Bank needs to provide clarity regarding collective ownership rights of indigenous peoples to their land within the Bank’s safeguard framework,” explained Center Senior Attorney, Leonardo Crippa. “This is important for the Bank in order to achieve better development results, prevent land conflicts, and guide countries to strengthen their land governance systems.”

Click here to access more videos and other materials from the event.