Protecting Land Rights

Tarahumara Fight for Land in Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Choreachi is one of the most traditional indigenous communities in the Sierra Taruhumara, occupying since time immemorial an 80,000 acre area near Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon. Choreachi is both a cultural and an ecological treasure of international importance. Its people have long fought illegal logging of their old growth pine forest lands. In the 1990s, they were stripped of their rights over their land and threatened by a neighboring peasant community that claimed half of Choreachi’s lands on the basis of fraudulent documents.

The people of Choreachi took a new legal approach in 2007, filing a claim that raises land issues in terms of indigenous rights. At the community’s request, EDLC recruited a team of lawyers at DLA Piper to research and write an experts’ report for use in the case pending before Mexico’s Agrarian Tribunal. The report argued that the rights of the people of Choreachi to their lands and natural resources are guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights treaties that are binding on the Mexican courts.

Hearings in the case have taken place, and the court continues to receive expert studies on anthropology and topography. This case will determine the fate of a people, their sacred lands and forests, and their ability to survive as a culture. If the court rules in favor of Choreachi, this could be an important precedent for other indigenous people in Mexico bringing similar claims.

Oil Palm Plantation in Cameroon

The rainforests of Cameroon are among the most biologically rich forests in the world, harboring numerous unique and threatened plant and animal species. U.S.-based Herakles Farms proposed a 200,000 acre monoculture palm oil plantation to be superimposed on a mosaic of dense forest, agroforest, farmland, and human settlements in this area. The 2009 agreement between Cameroon and the company exempts the company from taxes for the first ten years of production, and sets a rental rate of $.20 per acre for undeveloped land, far below historical rates.

Most of the 45,000 people from the thirty-eight small villages affected by the plantation rely heavily on farming to feed their families and earn an income.  They fear that the deforestation caused by the plantation will dramatically alter their livelihoods, and further limit their already limited ability to expand the land area on which they rely.

In 2011, with the help of EDLC, they filed a request for an injunction with the regional court, claiming violations of Cameroonian laws. Barristers in London recruited by EDLC prepared arguments based on international law. The court granted the request, but the company later succeeded in having the judge replaced due to purported “bias.” EDLC also enlisted lawyers from the WilmerHale firm, who sought to engage with the company, and help in other ways. In 2014, Cameroon granted a lease to the company for the plantation, but reduced the area by 70%. It now appears that the company may not be able to develop the project.

Dam-Affected Communities in Brazil

In 2010, EDLC learned that defamation cases had been brought against people affected by the Barra do Brauna dam that had been built by a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Power, a Canadian corporation. Those being sued had objected to the refusal of the company’s subsidiary to pay adequate compensation and provide adequate resettlement to the communities affected by the dam. The subsidiary had used intimidation tactics to force some of the families into unfair compensation deals. EDLC also reviewed the outstanding compensation claims and concluded that they were reasonable.

Because it was suspected that the Canadian parent company was not fully aware of the acts of its subsidiary, EDLC recruited the Toronto law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell to engage with the parent company. The firm called the company´s attention to the serious misconduct of its subsidiary, and pointed out that Brookfield had failed to meet international standards of corporate conduct, as well as international norms and best practices for cases involving involuntary resettlement. The firm urged the company to withdraw its legal claims against the displaced, and to negotiate a resolution of all outstanding claims in good faith.

The Canadian parent company immediately responded positively, agreeing to negotiate with those affected by the project. All of the claims for compensation, including housing, land indemnification, and support for a transition period, were accepted as valid. An agreement was reached on the amount due in each case, and these amounts were paid in 2011. The company apologized to the local people for its subsidiary’s previous handling of the matter.