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International court case pits mining interests against Indigenous land rights


A trial going on in Central America could have broad implications for Indigenous communities around the world that seek to regain control of ancestral lands. It started this month at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. The case centers on a land dispute near a nickel mine in Guatemala. Demand for nickel has increased around the world as it is used in batteries for electric cars. The ruling could take months, and one question is whether the Guatemalan government would comply with it. Reporter Maria Martin has more.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Like so much Indigenous history, going back to the Spanish conquest in Guatemala, the case has to do with la tierra, the land, and who controls it. An Indigenous group from a small community in the northeastern part of the country is asking the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to give them clear title to the land they've been living on for generations.

CARLOS POP: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA MARTIN: Attorney Carlos Pop represents the people of the community called Agua Caliente. He says residents have worked for nearly 40 years to establish legal title. After paying for it, they discovered the titles had been ripped from the property records. They've faced forced evictions as the government handed out mining licenses in this lush area in the mountains above the shores of Guatemala's largest lake, Lago Izabal.

RODRIGO TOT: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA MARTIN: Queo'Chi Maya Community leader Rodrigo Tot tells me by phone that people are anxious for the court to rule, as they've suffered for many years. As he was growing up, starting in the 1960s, he watched as mining companies started strip mining for nickel all around Agua Caliente, with no consultation with the communities whose land they were polluting - the lake, the rivers and other sources of water, he says.

TOT: (Speaking Spanish).

VICTORIA SANFORD: This strip mining, first of all, it creates a toxic waste dump. You can see nasty stuff. You can smell nasty stuff.

MARIA MARTIN: The community brought Victoria Sanford into the case as an expert witness about the violence the Queo'Chi Maya may have endured trying to hold onto their lands and about the complicated history of land grabbing by the state going back centuries. An anthropologist at Lehman College in New York, she says this case is significant not only in Guatemala but in New Caledonia, Africa and other places. As more batteries are needed for electric cars, demand for nickel rises, as does the danger for local communities.

SANFORD: You know, the most dangerous occupation to have right now in Latin America is to be an Indigenous environmental activist, and so these folks need protection.

MARIA MARTIN: The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mining failed to respond to numerous requests for comment. Meanwhile, Agua Caliente leader Rodrigo Tot says he's concerned about what the court will decide and whether the government of Guatemala will comply. The Inter-American Court is backed by the Organization of American States, and its rulings carry legal weight, but the Guatemalan government has ignored past court decisions in favor of Agua Caliente's land rights.

TOT: (Through interpreter) I'm worried because our own authorities don't understand our situation and, in fact, are against us. They favor those who seek to take the riches from our community.

MARIA MARTIN: Tot's activism has led to threats, and in 2012, his son was killed. In addition to the land titles, the community is asking the court for compensation for damages and for security for Tot and his family. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Antigua, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Martin