Guatemala Court Makes Landmark Ruling In Indigenous Rights Case

Date of publication: 
1 April 2011

Washington, D.C.— The highest court in Guatemala has made a precedent setting decision in favor of the community of Agua Caliente, a small Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous community of 385 people in El Estor, in the country’s Izabal province. The community has been fighting for formal recognition of its land rights and for justice against plans to mine nickel on the community’s lands. On February 8th, 2011, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala issued a decision that recognizes the community’s collective property rights to its lands, and ordered the government to take the necessary measures for issuing a land title to the community. The decision is the first of its kind in the country.

According to Indian Law Resource Center attorney Leonardo Crippa, the decision comes at a critical time. State police are forcibly evicting indigenous communities from their ancestral lands in El Estor. “The decision brings an end to a two year legal battle against Guatemala’s executive branch and the mining company; this decision affirms Agua Caliente’s legitimate land claim.”

According to the Court, the executive branch’s omission in properly registering and titling the indigenous lands violates Agua Caliente’s land rights and rights to equality before the law, as well as the legal principle of self-determination. “This ruling has policy implications for Guatemala’s land registry system since it reinforces the state’s duty to properly title and register indigenous lands,” noted Crippa.

The Court ordered the executive branch to take all corrective actions necessary to properly title Agua Caliente’s lands. This includes replacing pages that were removed from the official land registry book, pages that show land ownership belongs to the Agua Caliente community, but which have gone missing.

“This ruling sends a clear message to all extractive industry companies interested in exploiting the natural resources located within indigenous lands in Guatemala, especially to those with interests in El Estor. The mining must stop,” said Crippa.

In 2006, the Guatemalan government issued a mining permit to the Guatemalan Mining Company (CGN), a subsidiary of the Canadian company, HudBay Minerals Inc. Seventeen Maya Q’eqchi’ communities, including Agua Caliente, are located within the area granted for nickel extraction under the permit. The Indian Law Resource Center and Defensoria Q’eqchi’, an indigenous human rights organization based in El Estor, have been advising the communities, and in 2009, brought forward this litigation on behalf of Agua Caliente, the community with the largest depositions of nickel on their lands.

Because of rich natural resources in the Maya Q’eqchi’ territory, the communities have faced efforts by local government and mine security forces to evict them from their lands for more than 40 years. These evictions, often violent, threaten the safety of the community members, leaders and local counsel. The communities have long been concerned about the impacts of mining on the environment. They rely on the natural resources of the land and the nearby Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala, for food and economic resources.

The Center will monitor the enforcement of the Court order, to insure the collective rights of the Agua Caliente Community.