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Arizona Law Receives $125,000 Grant for Legal Work in Indigenous Communities in Belize

The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and its Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP) have received a $125,000 grant to continue the program’s groundbreaking work in the Maya communities of Belize. The grant was awarded on October 10, 2007, by Lannan Foundation, which has previously funded the IPLP program’s work in cases designed to help Maya villagers secure their rights before the Belize Supreme Court.

“The grant is important in both educational and legal terms,” said Professor S. James Anaya. “It allows Arizona Law students to learn lawyering skills in an international context, and to learn what it takes to litigate human rights issues, from preparation to argument. They are able to do this in a case of such profound importance that communities and governments around the world are watching and awaiting an outcome.”

Since 1996, Anaya and teams of students have worked with attorneys in Belize and Maya organizations to develop strategy and court documents for the cases. Earlier this year, they participated in a local press conference announcing the filing of the lawsuits, joining over 300 Maya villagers who traveled to Belize City to show their support.

The consolidated cases were most recently heard in the Belize Supreme Court on June 18 - 22, 2007. The Belize villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz were represented by local counsel, Antoinette Moore, a prominent human rights attorney. Professor Anaya testified as an expert witness on indigenous peoples’ rights to property under international law and the common law.  IPLP staff and students participated in all aspects of preparing the case, including drafting legal documents, collecting affidavits, and preparing witnesses.

In their brief to the Court, the villages asserted that Maya property rights, like other forms of property, are protected by the Belize Constitution against discriminatory treatment or other infringement. They argued that the government’s failure to recognize, respect, and protect the land rights of the Maya claimants that derive from their own customs and traditions violates their right to property; the right to be free from discrimination; and the right to life, liberty, security of the person, and the protection of the law.

If the legal action is successful, it would set a precedent obliging the government to respect Maya rights to their lands in Belize. The villages of Conejo and Santa Cruz asked the Court to order the government of Belize to determine, demarcate, and title their traditional village lands. As part of this process the parties would have to develop a framework for the demarcation and titling of the traditional lands of Conejo and Santa Cruz villages, and to develop a mechanism to replicate the process for all the Maya villages in the form of legislative and administrative reforms. A decision in the case is anticipated after the Supreme Court reconvenes late this month, but Professor Anaya notes that “even the most favorable decision will require additional legal action to assist the villages in securing the full benefit of their rights.”

A full exposition of the case, including legal documents, is available at www.law.arizona.edu/depts/iplp/advocacy/maya_belize/index.cfm?page=advoc and will be updated as the case proceeds.

Lannan Foundation is a family foundation which, since 1994, has funded projects to support rural indigenous communities.  Details on Lannan projects are available at www.lannan.org.


Posted:10/10/2007
Updated: 10/12/2007