In April, two Central American Maya villages filed two lawsuits in the Belize Supreme Court alleging that both the attorney general of Belize and the minister of Natural Resources and Environment had violated their property rights.
The villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz also argue that the government entities failed to acknowledge their customary land rights by approving logging and oil exploration on traditional Maya lands.
The consolidated cases were heard in June and legal experts have since said the cases could set a precedent by affirming indigenous land rights. It's the type of case that could affect indigenous populations around the world, legal experts have said.
All along, James E. Rogers College of Law professor S. James Anaya and a team of students in the university’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program have been involved in the cases.
In fact, Anaya has involved UA law students in such work since 1996.
“They are able to do this in a case of such profound importance," says says Anaya, the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy.
He said many communities and governments around the world are paying attention to the case in Belize.
Also, more funding has come to support such work.
The Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program this month received a $125,000 grant from the Lannan Foundation, which had previously supported the program. Funds from the New Mexico-based family foundation will allow groundbreaking work in the Maya communities of Belize to continue.
"The grant is important in both educational and legal terms,” Anaya says. “It allows Arizona law students to learn lawyering skills in an international context, and to learn what it takes to litigate human rights issues, from preparation to argument."
In the most recent case, both Maya villages assert that their property rights are protected by the Belize Constitution against discriminatory treatment or other infringement, such as logging and oil exploration.
The villages asked the court to require the government of Belize to devise a way to title their traditional village lands, and lands elsewhere – in effect, developing legislation and a legal process while garnishing more protection.
A decision is expected Oct. 18. If the ruling is in favor of the Maya villages, the government will be required to respect their land rights.
“It would also be one of the first times that a domestic court has ruled in favor of indigenous people’s lands and resources based on international human rights law,” Anaya says.
Students hope for a positive outcome. But no matter what happens, those who have been involved in the legal research and proceedings both in Tucson and in Belize said their work has been valuable.
Under Anaya’s direction, students in his International Human Rights Advocacy Workshop have interacted with attorneys and organizations in Central America and have conducted interviews, collected information for affidavits and prepared court documents. They also wrote opinion pieces about the case and produced brochures about the lawsuits.
Also, Anaya and others took part in a news conference in Belize to announce the filing of the lawsuits. Later, Anaya would testify in court as an expert on indigenous people’s property rights within the context of international and common law.
Maia Campbell, who graduated from the law school in May, is currently in Belize working with local Maya communities and leaders and drafting legal documents.
Campbell, now a UA research associate, says the work is important to her.
"A favorable decision by the Supreme Court of Belize will protect the lands that Maya people and their ancestors have lived on for centuries," says Campbell, a research fellow with the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program. "This contributes to the development and protection of human rights around the world."
UA law student Eric Pavri is drafting guidelines that the Maya villagers could then use – after a successful decision – to negotiate with government agencies. In preparing the document, Pavri has conducted research on shared land use practices among the Maya villages and ways the land has been traditionally used.
Pavri also is looking into ways other countries have supported the rights of indigenous people and how negotiations have typically been handled. A final draft should be completed by the month’s end, he said.
“It’s definitely a lot of hours and hard work, but I think it’s important and it’s interesting,” says Pavri, a second-year law student.
“This is pretty novel work that’s been going on at the IPLP (Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program),” Pavri says. “The law school has gotten a really good reputation for being reliable and taking on projects and seeing them through, long term.”
Seánna Howard, who graduated from the law school earlier this year, has traveled to Belize several times to work on the cases. This has provided “an element of field work,” Howard says.
And it is important work, she added.
“The litigation is part of a strategy to implement the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decisions,” Howard says.
“It is to recognize that the Maya people have customary rights to the land they’ve occupied all along,” she added, “and that they should have decision-making power over what is happening within their village.”