International Court Rules in Favor of Indigenous Community Land Rights

October, 2001
The Inter-American Court on Human Rights, in a precedent-setting ruling, recognized the property rights of indigenous community traditional lands. The international court, located in San José Costa Rica and the American hemisphere’s most important human right tribunal, declared that the state of Nicaragua violated the human rights of the Mayagna Sumo Indigenous Community (the Awas Tingni) and ordered the state of Nicaragua to recognize and protect the legal rights of the community with respect to its traditional lands, natural resources, and environment.

Romina Picolotti, Legal Program Director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) in Argentina, and co-author of the legal brief (Amicus Curiae) filed in the case that laid out the links between the environmental degradation and human rights abuses caused by illegal private lumbering in the indigenous territories, stated, “This sentence sets an important precedent for indigenous communities throughout the world whose human rights are systematically violated by environmental degradation. This is a unique case in which the links between human rights and the environment have been duly defended using international human rights law and instruments.”

Durwood Zaelke, formerly President of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), which co-authored the amicus brief filed in the case said, “This represents An important step towards the recognition of the human rights of indigenous communities of the Americas; it’s the first time that an International Human Rights Court expressly recognizes property rights of indigenous community traditional lands. We are pleased to see that human rights tribunals are awakening to many human rights violations which occur involving economic, cultural and social rights”.

Following repeated claims since 1992 for formal titles to their traditional lands, the Awas Tingni, an isolated northern costal community of Nicaragua, took their case to international court. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the Court that received the case, is part of the Organization of American States, embodying the hemisphere’s human rights institutions. A broad coalition of indigenous organizations and communities of Nicaragua, as well as several non-governmental organizations, including CEDHA and CIEL, supported the Awas Tingni by filing amicus curiae briefs (friend of the court briefs) before the Court in support of the proposition that Nicaragua generally has acted contrary to the land rights of indigenous communities.

James Anaya of the Indian Law Resource Center, Professor at the University of Arizona and attorney of Awas Tingni in the case, stated that the concerns of Awas Tingni over land tenure, intensified when transnational companies began entering the community’s claimed lands, with the permission of the Nicaraguan government, to inventory the valuable tropical forest resources and plan for large scale logging. In December of 1993 the Nicaraguan government, through its Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), granted a concession to the Dominican-owned company Maderas y Derivados de Nicaragua, S.A. (MADENSA), for logging on approximately 43,000 hectares of land, most of which is within the area claimed by Awas Tingni on the basis of traditional land tenure. Under pressure from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a major international environmental organization, the government agreed to suspend the concession until an agreement could be negotiated with the Awas Tingni community and adequate environmental controls could be established.

The petition filed against Nicaragua, upon which the Court ruled in favor of the Awas Tingni, alleged violations of the right to property, the right to cultural integrity, and other rights that are affirmed in the American Convention on Human Rights and other international instruments, and it requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights assist the community in its effort to stop the concession to SOLCARSA and to achieve secure land tenure.

In its sentence the Court ordered the state of Nicaragua to delimit, demark, and title the indigenous lands, and to adopt necessary measures to establish the legal mechanisms to demarcate the traditional lands of all of the indigenous communities of Nicaragua. Additionally, the Court sentenced the state of Nicaragua to pay for damages to the community as well as expenses incurred by the community for representation in the case.

The CEDHA-CIEL collaboration in the presentation of the Amicus Brief spawned a novel and unique approach to human rights and environmental protection and litigation. In fact, CEDHA came into existence following the Awas Tingni brief, fostering the mutual reinforcement and complimentary nature of human rights and the environment, in particular in cases where environmental degradation leads to human rights abuses. CIEL and CEDHA today are partners in a series of projects stressing this overlap and seeking ways to use existing human rights and environmental mechanisms to strengthen the links between the environment and our human rights.

Those interested in the Awas Tingni case and Court sentence, can access the complete text of the sentence at:

The text of the amicus curiae originally presented in the case by Romina Picolotti (CEDHA) and Owen Lynch (CIEL) is available at:

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights is an autonomous judicial institution of the Inter-American Human Rights System of the Organization of American States (OAS). Its objective is to apply and interpret the American Convention on Human Rights. Approximately 30 million indigenous community members are members of the OAS.

For more information contact:

Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA)

Romina Picolotti
Access to Justice Program Director
9 de Julio, 180 – 1B; Cordoba, 5000 Argentina
tel 54 351 425 6278


Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

1337 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20036
tel 1 202 785 8700