Maya Land Rights & Governance

Cristina Coc and Pabla Miss from the Maya Leaders Association Toledo Alcaldes Association discuss their advocacy for Maya land rights in Belize.

Maya Land Rights: the Conejo and Santa Cruz Lawsuits


Nancy Stanley, Associate Director for External Relations
The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law
520-621-8430 (office) 520-979-0142 (cell)
James Anaya 520-626-6341 (office)


In a potentially precedent-setting step with far-reaching implications, the Maya indigenous villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz will soon file claims in the Supreme Court of Belize, asserting that the government of Belize has failed to recognize, protect, and respect Maya customary land rights. These villages, along with others of southern Belize, assert legal rights to the lands they and their ancestors have traditionally used and occupied, and that these rights are protected by the Constitution of Belize.

The claimant villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz are represented by attorney Antoinette of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP) at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law. Professor Anaya and his associates have been successful at pursuing the claims of indigenous peoples in various countries, and they have represented the Maya people of Belize in their successful petitions before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and United Nations human rights bodies.

Anaya’s work on the Belize case has been supported by the efforts of students participating in his International Human Rights Advocacy Workshop, a 2-3 credit law course. Through this workshop, students researched issues for the lawsuits, helped to draft the pleadings, and developed educational materials highlighting the internationally recognized rights of the Maya people, their current situation and the purpose of the lawsuit. Several of these students have traveled to Belize to collect affidavits, communicate with clients and the Belizean local counsel, and coordinate efforts within Belize.

The lawsuit comes after nearly ten years of attempts by the Maya people of Toledo District to secure recognition of their customary land rights through negotiations with the government of Belize and through appeals to international human rights bodies.

International pressure has been building on Belize to acknowledge Maya land rights. In its decision concerning the Maya Communities of Toledo District v. Belize, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States found that the Maya people have rights to their traditional lands and that these rights constitute property protected by international human rights law. Consequently, the Inter-American Commission called upon Belize to delineate, demarcate, and title Maya traditional lands according to the customary land use and occupancy practices of the Maya people.

United Nations agencies have also recognized Maya customary land rights as protected property. Recently the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People urged Belize “to fully implement the recommendation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”

Similarly, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern about “reports regarding privatization and leasing of land without prior consultation or consent of the Maya people, as well as the granting of concessions for oil development, logging and the production of hydro-electricity.” The Committee stated that such problems “call for immediate attention.”

In October 2000, the government of Belize signed the “Ten Points of Agreement” with representatives of the Maya organizations in southern Belize. In this agreement, the government acknowledged that the Maya people “have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their longstanding use and occupancy.” However, the government has continued to ignore these rights, and Belizean statutory law does not provide any way to title or document communal lands.

On May 5, 2006, the Maya Leaders Alliance and Conejo Village submitted a written request to the government asking for demarcation and recognition of Conejo village lands. On February 22, 2007, Santa Cruz Village submitted a similar written request to the government of Belize. The government so far has failed to acknowledge or respond to these requests.

The Constitution of Belize affirms in Section 3 that “every person in Belize is entitled ... , whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, to ... protection from arbitrary deprivation of property,” and further states in Article 17 that every person is entitled to protection from the arbitrary deprivation of “property of any description.”

The villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz are asking the Supreme Court to affirm their collective and individual customary property rights in the lands and resources that they have used and occupied according to Maya customary practices, and to declare that the villages hold title to these lands. They also ask for an order requiring the government to abstain from any acts that affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of those lands without the free and informed consent of the villagers.

A successful legal action before the Supreme Court of Belize would set a precedent that will oblige the government to respect the lands of all the Maya communities in Toledo.

The legal history of this case, detailing work conducted by Professor Anaya and his students, is available here

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