Victory for Indigenous Rights in Mexico
The Indigenous Community of Choreachi
Choreachi is one of the most traditional indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara. From time immemorial, the people of Choreachi have occupied a roughly 80,000 acre area, most of which is still covered in old-growth pine forest, in Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon region. Choreachi is both a cultural and an ecological treasure of international importance, but sadly, like many other indigenous communities in Mexico, Choreachi has been exposed to numerous threats. Its isolated lands are coveted by drug traffickers for the sowing of illegal crops, and by loggers who want to make money out of its old growth pine forests.
The struggle for indigenous land rights
The people of Choreachi believed that their lands were titled under Mexico agrarian laws as an ejido (collectively titled land), but this proved to be incorrect. As a result of assistance from lawyers at the Alianza Sierra Madre, a Mexican NGO, they learned that they had been victims of three fraudulent acts: a neighboring property owner had altered maps in order to claim half of Choreachi’s lands; a fraudulent assembly purported to strip Choreachi’s members of their land rights; and another neighboring property owner had made overlapping land claims.
In 2007, after Choreachi’s legal challenges based on Mexican agrarian legislation had failed, the community decided to take a new legal approach: filing a collective land claim based on the human rights of indigenous peoples. The lawsuit sought the immediate suspension of logging permits issued by the environmental agency in favor of the neighboring property based on the false maps; the annulment of all other fraudulent acts; and, most importantly, the recognition of Choreachi’s collective property rights over the lands where its people have always lived.
International human rights law, and international legal support
Unlike Mexico, many countries in the Americas had already recognized the right of indigenous peoples to receive title to lands that they traditionally occupied, establishing administrative procedures to enable them to assert and prove these land claims. At the same time, indigenous peoples were increasingly finding support for their land claims in the human rights’ protections afforded by the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the legal body responsible for implementing the Convention’s protections—has long declared that indigenous peoples are entitled to “special protection,” and it has repeatedly ruled that the Convention requires States to recognize the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands.
At the community’s request, EDLC recruited a team of lawyers at DLA Piper to research and write an expert report for use in the new case 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 international human rights treaties that are binding on the Mexican courts. These arguments were nonetheless a “hard sell” at the time, as there had hardly been any judicial precedents, let alone in the Agrarian Tribunal where the case had to be filed.
Following the preparation of expert studies on anthropology and topography, and several hearings in which the case was presented at length, in 2008 the Agrarian Tribunal ruled against Choreachi on almost every claim.
A huge victory on appeal
Choreachi appealed to a higher court, and providentially, by the time the appeal was decided in 2018, Mexico had enacted a major legal reform with a focus on the protection of human rights. In 2011, the Mexican Constitution had been amended to provide—in its very first Article—that international human rights treaties are part of Mexican law and are binding on all authorities at all levels, country-wide. The reform was taken very seriously by the judicial authorities, with the Supreme Court even creating a department dedicated entirely to improving capacity within the federal courts to decide every case with reference to the human rights treaties to which Mexico is a party.
The appeals court ruled in favor of Choreachi in a decision that is historic in several respects. For the first time, a Mexican court recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands under international human rights law. The ruling also changed the general understanding that the Mexican Revolution had conclusively resolved all land reform issues by creating and titling two types of collective properties, the comunidad (a collective property title for those who hold the collective possession of the lands) and the ejido (a collective property title that also allows for individual plots of land). Neither type of collective property ownership was thought to apply to indigenous peoples, and no other land rights solution for indigenous land claims had ever been created by Mexican law.
The appeals court solved this problem by granting Choreachi title to its land as a comunidad, thereby filling the gap in Mexican law by recognizing the rights of an indigenous community to its lands based on the applicable human rights treaties, and harmonizing those rights with existing Mexican agrarian law. Unfortunately, the Mexican government and the other defendants have appealed to the Supreme Court, so a final judgment is still months or years away.