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Landmark Legal Victory for Indigenous Land Rights in Belize
The Mayan communities in southern Belize are celebrating a great victory, having successfully convinced the Supreme Court that they are indeed constitutionally entitled to land rights they currently occupy. Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh, in a benchmark ruling, agreed with the Maya leaders and villagers of both Santa Cruz and Conejo, stating that the Government of Belize was wrong in failing to recognize, protect and respect their land rights, which are rooted in traditional custom.
The historic ruling integrated new and well-established aspects of law. Indigenous groups claimed that the Government of Belize had failed to recognize, protect, and respect their customary land rights, which were based on the traditional land use and occupation of the Maya people. The court upheld their claim that Maya customary land rights, like other property interests in Belize, were protected by the constitution. Furthermore, they successfully argued that the nature of these rights was affirmed by Maya customary law, international human rights law, and common law. The legal precedent that validated this assertion was established in 2004 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the case of Maya Indigenous Communities of the Toledo District v. Belize. In the recent ruling, the Supreme Court of Belize also cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in September 2007.
The implications of this ruling are significant: the Government of Belize can no longer issue land titles, concessions, licenses or permits without the consultation of the villagers, since the land is recognized as belonging to the communities. For the community of Conejo, this means that they have finally been recognized as legitimate stakeholders in the issue of oil exploration inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park, an undertaking that the indigenous community has argued egregiously threatens the biodiversity of waterways, mangroves and forests in the region.
This development represents a landmark victory not just for the indigenous of Southern Belize, but also sets an important legal precedent for all indigenous groups.
Posted By Anne-Sophie Samjee at 9:16am on November 02, 2007
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