Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mayan Land Title Case in Belize May Help Indigenous Peoples Elsewhere

In an article written by Kim Petersen and published yesterday in The Dominion, an independent Canadian newspaper,, we have learned the following.

On October 18, 2007, the Supreme Court of Belize issued a ruling that will elicit cheers from indigenous peoples and activists around the world. By the same token, the ruling is sure to be seen as a dark cloud on the horizon by the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the only four countries in the world to reject the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), enacted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007.

The ruling in Cal v. Attorney General is the first anywhere to cite DRIP, and holds that “Mayan rights to occupy their lands, farm, hunt and fish pre-date European colonization and remain in force today.” Supreme Court Justice Abdulai Conteh noted, “[A] mere change in sovereignty does not extinguish native title to land. … Extinguishment of rights to or interests in land is not to be lightly inferred.” The Supreme Court further held that "that the national government must recognize the indigenous Mayans’ customary tenure to land and refrain from any act that might prejudice their use or enjoyment of this land."

This ruling effectively puts an end to the Belize government’s granting of licenses to corporations and other concerns seeking to engage in logging, mineral extraction and hydroelectric development on Mayan land. Arguably, these companies will now be forced to negotiate directly with the Mayans who may or may not allow such operations. It is almost certain that Mayan values and culture will act as a moderating force upon any such ventures, ameliorating adverse impacts on the environment and ecosystems in Belize.

In what is perhaps the most troubling (for colonialist governments and multinational corporations) language in the ruling, Justice Conteh held that “British colonial and subsequent acquisition of land in Belize did not abrogate the Mayan people’s primordial rights to their land.” Citing Delgamuukw v British Columbia, Conteh said, “Indigenous title is now correctly regarded as sui generis.” In other words, indigenous title to land is unique, unlike any other claim of title to land. Essentially, the extremely long occupation and use of land by its original inhabitants confers title to them sui generis. This ruling means that a foreign government that seizes land from indigenous peoples by military force or acquires it by deception and fraud cannot convey clear title to its own citizens.

We may soon see cases brought in the U.S. and Canada, and perhaps Australia and New Zealand raising this very issue. Citing this case, tribes will demand that title to their traditional homelands revert to them because original title belongs to them sui generis, and a mere change in sovereignty does not defeat that title. Alternatively, this ruling could be used to support the filing of liens on existing landholders in the Lakota Nation, which has renounced its treaties with the U.S. government and reclaimed its sovereignty. See

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