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The Caribbean Court of Appeal today affirmed a lower court decision finding that, the Maya, one of the Rainforest Foundation’s partners in southern Belize, have rights to the lands they have customarily used and occupied. Today’s judgment requires the government  to demarcate and register Maya communal lands, and protect them against incursions by outsiders.

“This judgment sets an important precedent worldwide, building upon ever greater recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples internationally,” said James Anaya, Professor of Human Rights and Policy at  the University  of Arizona College of Law and Co-Director  of  the Indigenous Peoples Law  and  Policy  (IPLP)  Program.  Professor Anaya explained  that  the  judgment  “reinforces  the international standard that indigenous peoples have collective property rights based on their own customary  land  tenure  systems,  even  when  they  do  not  have  a  formal  title  or  other  official recognition  of  those  rights,  and  that  states  are  bound  to  recognize  and  protect  those  rights.”

Professor Anaya  and  the  IPLP  Program  put  together  and  coordinated  the  team  of  lawyers and students that  brought  the lawsuit  on  behalf  of Maya  organizations and villages leading to  today’s judgment.

Complementing and informing the domestic litigation, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of Organization of American States, issued a report in 2004 finding in favor of Maya land rights in Belize in terms similar to today’s judgment. The IPLP Program, which along with the Indian Law Resource Center litigated the case before the Inter-American Commission, has also assisted Maya leaders to raise the land rights issue to United Nations bodies.