Inter-American Commission Hears Concerns over Indigenous Property Rights in Guatemala

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At Monday’s hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, representatives from the Indian Law Resource Center, Defensoria Q’eqchi’, and Maya communities told commissioners that establishing environmental protection areas in Guatemala without indigenous involvement violates human rights and environmental norms.



Plans to create the Sierra Santa Cruz protected area raised concerns that indigenous lands would be managed and controlled by a private institution on behalf of the Guatemalan government. The proposed project is one of many that seek to gain control of the land and resources which indigenous peoples have traditionally used and occupied in Guatemala.


At the hearing, Leonardo Crippa and William David, attorneys for the Indian Law Resource Center, were joined by four representatives of the Defensoría Q’eqchi’ – Arnoldo Yat Coc, Maria Santos Ax Tiul, Carlos Antonio Pop Ac, Alfredo Cacao Ical – and an indigenous leader, Elias Israel Pop Cucul, who represents 43 indigenous communities affected by the proposed protected area.



“The root of the problem lies in the failure of the Guatemalan government to fully recognize indigenous collective property rights to land and natural resources, as well as to self-government,” Crippa told the Commission. “This has made Maya communities vulnerable to assaults on their lands and resources which threaten their cultural existence and ability to survive.”



Elias Israel Pop Cucul said, “Our grandmothers and grandfathers have been protecting these lands and resources for a long time, and we will continue to protect them. We are not against a protected area, but we want to continue to control and manage these lands and resources according to our own vision as Maya Q’eqchi’. We don’t need someone from the outside to tell us how to take care of our resources. I am here to ask for respect of our rights and our way of life.”



            Maria Ax Tiul told the Commission, “We are sons and daughters of the mother earth, called Ralch’och’ in Q’eqchi’. This project will seriously affect the special relationship we have with the land, as well as ceremonies and access to sacred sites, activities of daily life, traditional organizational and political structures, and the collective rights of our communities.”


In addition to insisting that indigenous rights be considered in the design, establishment, and management of protected areas, the hearing highlighted the meshing of international environmental, human and indigenous rights standards.


David, staff attorney for the Center, said there is no real conflict between environmental law and indigenous rights. Experience has shown that indigenous management is conducive to conservation, he said, citing a growing body of state practice in countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, where protected area management has been done by indigenous peoples according to their own worldview and traditional land tenure.



Underlying all of these threats is the failure of the Guatemalan state to properly recognize indigenous collective land rights through the demarcation and titling of their lands. Crippa said the proposed protected area violates the Maya Q’eqchi’s property rights, rights to self-determination and to self-government.



“We commend Guatemala for its interest in conservation and biological diversity, but it is time that Guatemala lived up to the international standards it has ratified by reforming its laws to allow for a more ample implementation of these principles,” Crippa said.

Crippa and his legal team are continuing to work toward persuading the Guatemalan government to respect the land rights of the Maya Q’eqchi’. Local counsel has been hired to exhaust domestic legal remedies as the Indian Law Resource Center prepares a case to address these overarching issues related to indigenous collective rights in Guatemala.