Document Type


Publication Date

January 2002


The people of Awas Tingni did not set about to forge an international legal precedent with implications for indigenous peoples throughout the world, yet that is what they have done. Awas Tingni is one of numerous Mayagna, or Sumo, indigenous communities in the isolated Atlantic Coast region of Nicaragua. The Community has sought simply, but doggedly, to be secure in the peaceful possession of traditional lands. It has achieved a major step toward that end, and more. The Community's identity in the minds of outsiders is now merged with that of a landmark case, The Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on August 31, 2001.In this case the Court held that the international human right to enjoy the benefits of property, particularly as affirmed in the American Convention on Human Rights, includes the right of indigenous peoples to the protection of their customary land and resource tenure. The Court held that the State of Nicaragua violated the property rights of the Awas Tingni Community by granting to a foreign company a concession to log within the Community's traditional lands and by failing to otherwise provide adequate recognition and protection of theCommunity's customary tenure. It was not enough that the Nicaraguan constitution and laws recognize in general terms the rights of indigenous peoples to the lands they traditionally use and occupy. The Court admonished thatNicaragua must secure the effective enjoyment of those rights, which it had not done for Awas Tingni nor for the vast majority of indigenous communities of the Atlantic Coast region of Nicaragua. Like Awas Tingni, most of the indigenous communities of the Atlantic Coast are without specific government recognition of their traditional lands in the form of a land title or other official document. In the absence of such specific government recognition, Nicaraguan authorities had treated the untitled traditional indigenous lands-or substantial parts of them-asstate lands, as they had done in granting concessions for logging in the Awas Tingni area. The Court ordered Nicaragua to demarcate and title Awas Tingni's traditional lands in accordance with its customary land and resource tenure patterns, to refrain from any action that might undermine the Community's interests in those lands, and to establish an adequate mechanism to secure the land rights of all indigenous communities of the country.This is the first legally binding decision by an international tribunal to uphold the collective land and resource rights of indigenous peoples in the face of a state's failure to do so. It strengthens a contemporary trend in the processes of international law that helps to empower indigenous peoples as they press their demands for self-determination as distinct groups with secure territorial rights.

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