UA Law Students Help Maya Villages Win Landmark Legal Case

The victory is expected to result in more protection and land rights for indigenous people in Belize.
Oct. 18, 2007
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University of Arizona law students and faculty are sharing the victory with Maya villages after the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Belize voted to uphold rights to the land traditionally held by indigenous groups.

Law scholars and UA James E. Rogers College of Law professors are calling it a historic landmark case, one that will require legislation to protect traditional lands. The decision will also likely aid in the efforts of other indigenous people seeking similar rights.

Professor S. James Anaya, an expert on international indigenous rights at the UA College of Law, said the “seminal judgment constitutes the most far-reaching and extensive application of international law recognizing the rights of an indigenous group to their traditional lands and resources by a domestic court.”

Anaya and a team of UA students in the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, along with UA research associates, were among those involved in the case. Anaya, who was in Belize Thursday, has involved UA law students in such work since 1996.

The Maya communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz in April had filed cases – which were heard jointly in June – alleging that two government entities did not acknowledge their customary land rights. The case affects nearly 40 Maya villages in southern Belize.

The villages argued that the attorney general of Belize and the minister of Natural Resources and Environment violated their rights by approving logging and oil exploration on traditional Maya lands.

Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh delivered his decision Thursday, affirming that Belize is obligated by the constitution, international treaty and customary law – including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – to both respect and protect Maya customary lands.

In fact, it is the first judgment applied specifically to the United Nations' declaration, which was adopted Sept. 13 by the U.N. General Assembly.

Conteh wrote about the relationship between the Maya people and their land and why it is important to both the physical and cultural life of the people. He also emphasized that the violation of their land rights violated their liberty and security.

“This may end up being the mouse that roared,” said UA College of Law Dean Toni Massaro who, after hearing about the decision, said she was “proud” of the work of Anaya and his team.

“These things have a way of starting locally and then expanding globally,” Massaro said, adding that the case will undoubtedly result in a political and legal precedent that will shift contemporary ideas about property rights.

“If there are other places where other communities are dealing with situations that are deed driven, they can say, ‘Look at what they did in Belize,’” Massaro said. “It shows that there could be another way of looking at the problem.”

As far as the student experience goes, Massaro said this type of involvement proves to create “a lab for lawyers" that creates positive influence locally and elsewhere.

“Anaya did an outstanding job of involving students. The UA is committed to local and global impact,” Massaro said. “It’s the land grant mission at its best.”