Resolving Land Conflicts in Guatemala

Indigenous lands under threat

Throughout Guatemala, land conflicts pit indigenous peoples against ranchers, palm oil companies, mining companies, and developers. These conflicts all too often result in violence, forced evictions, destruction of crops, pollution, harms to human health, and other violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights. In Guatemala, indigenous peoples’ rights are rarely respected:  it is extremely difficult to obtain favorable judgments in court, and when indigenous groups do prevail, it is just as difficult to obtain effective enforcement of the courts’ decisions. It is also extremely rare to find lawyers willing to defend indigenous peoples’ rights in such adverse conditions. Fortunately, there are exceptions.

A new legal approach secures indigenous land rights

For the past several years, EDLC has had the honor of providing support for an initiative led by extremely committed and capable Guatemalan lawyers who are actively defending the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and territories. During this time, dozens of lawsuits have been filed by this lawyers’ collective, with a remarkable number of favorable court decisions. This success is due in significant part to an unusual legal approach that begins with a thorough study of historical documents.

Students of Guatemalan land law know that in contrast to indigenous peoples in many other countries, indigenous peoples in Guatemala often hold the legal titles to the lands they have traditionally occupied. Centuries ago, these communities entered into agreements to “buy” their lands, obtaining title to them at the time of purchase. However, over time and through illegal processes, these legitimate titles have often been “overwritten” by false titles, under which ownership of the land purportedly belongs to private parties or to municipal governments. If an indigenous community can establish that a lawful title has subsequently been illegally overwritten, a legal action can be filed with a court to request annulment of the illegal title.

This approach has been taken in numerous cases to date, very often successfully. Favorable rulings annulling fraudulent titles that overlapped with lawful titles of indigenous communities have been obtained on behalf of Maya-Q´ecqchi´ communities in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Izabal and El Petén; Maya Poqomchi´ and multicultural communities in the department of Baja Verapaz; Maya Ch´orti communities in the departments of Zacapa and Chiquimula; Maya K´iche´ communities in the departments of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán; Maya Ixil communities in the department of El Quiche; and Maya Kaqchikel communities in the department of Guatemala.

Courts recognize Guatemalan indigenous authorities     

Other cases have led to the Guatemalan government’s official—if reluctant—recognition of various acts conducted by indigenous authorities in their official capacity. For example, an indigenous Maya K´iche´ community living in the department of Totonicapán presented to the Guatemalan government an application to receive payment for environmental services, a benefit that is available to those who keep the forests located on their lands in good ecological condition. The application was initially denied because the government did not want to accept the validity of a certificate issued by indigenous authorities as proof of the community´s ownership of the forest.

The community filed suit and obtained a favorable judgment. The court ordered the government to recognize the ownership certificate presented by the indigenous authorities, as well as the community’s entitlement to payment for environmental services.

Other successful cases have been brought against municipal governments that refused to recognize the legal personality of Maya Q´ecqchi´ indigenous communities in the departments of El Petén and Alta Verapaz.

EDLC looks forward to continuing to support this precedent-setting work, which is succeeding in its goal of obtaining full legal recognition of the land rights of indigenous communities throughout Guatemala.

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