Indigenous Land Rights In Mesoamerica

Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forest: 48% of the most important reserves of Central America are located in their territories

In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) presented the map ‘Indigenous peoples, protected areas and natural ecosystems of Central America’, the study corroborates the fundamental relationship between indigenous peoples and the conservation of forests, mangroves , wetlands and corals of the Central American region. The study shows with scientific evidence that close to 50% of protected forests in the area overlap with indigenous territories.

Indigenous peoples uniquely protect forests and biodiversity through their traditional practices and way of life. Mesoamerica is a living example of the ways in which the respect or violation of indigenous land tenure rights make a difference between socioeconomic welfare and environmental devastation.

Photo by Stuart Buttler for lonelyplanet

Millions of monarch butterflies travel each year from Canada and the United States to the forests of Michoacán in Mexico, these forests are protected by local communities who struggle with minimal state support to preserve them. As if that were not enough, these forests also protect important aquifers that supply millions of people in both rural and urban areas.

Carmelita community member, Photo courtesy of ACOFOP

With an area of ​​2 million hectares the Mayan Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is one of the lungs of Central America: a vast reservoir of carbon, rich in biodiversity.

Biosphere reserves are an international protected area category, applied to large forest areas, in which the needs for reconciliation between land use and conservation are met

The MBR allows the development of productive activities, diversified forest management, nature tourism, small-scale agriculture for self-consumption and agroforestry, as well as other activities that help stabilize and increase forest coverage. Petén has implemented Community Forest Concessions, a model that has been led by the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) a reference body on issues related to collective action for sustainable management of natural resources.

Despite the success of the communal forestry concessions in the preservation of forests, the communities live in a constant legal insecurity as they do not know for sure whether the concessions will be extended or not.

Photos from and Imakjak

After living an intense revolution in 1925, the town of Guna Yala won the recognition of regional autonomy -which they have defended ever since- and which has allowed them to gain various rights from the Panamanian State and the ability to defend against private companies. However, this autonomy is threatened today by the Panamanian government policies that threaten to change the maritime boundaries of the region, undermining their autonomy. Guna Yala is a clear reminder that even acquired rights can be threatened at any time.

Photos by Nicanet and Wikimedia

The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, with an area of ​​over 1,500 km2, is considered another one of the lungs of Central America, and one of the largest water reservoirs in Nicaragua. Bosawás is also an area where every day 150 hectares of forest are lost, a region marked by social conflicts related to land tenure.

Despite having land titles for more than 400 years, titles which are recognized by the Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua, the Mayagna and Miskito peoples suffer constant violations of their human rights, autonomy and territoriality by third parties.

The international campaign If Not Us, Then Who? Which has portrayed the struggle of dozens of indigenous peoples around the world, created an exceptional video on the situation of the Mayagna people and the specific case of Charlie Taylor, assassinated forest defender.

For more information about the project visit

In some cases the benefits of ensuring land tenure in indigenous territories exceed a trillion dollars

Mesoamerica possesses large expanses of richly bio diverse forest that generate a major impact on global efforts to halt the advance of global warming and climate change. Investing in the conservation of these areas makes economic sense.

According to data from the World Research Institute (WRI) the benefits of ensuring land tenure in indigenous territories outweigh the costs. WRI found in a recent study that the territories in which the land rights of indigenous peoples are secured generate billions of dollars in benefits, including access to clean water sources, reducing environmental pollution and carbon fixation.

To continue its efforts to protect forests and biodiversity, indigenous peoples must obtain title rights that are truly respected, both nationally and internationally. Without this legal instrument the communities will continue to face all kinds of obstacles to defend the forests, jungles, swamps and wetlands, which in turn safeguard the resources on which all of humankind depends.

A breaking point has been reached, it is necessary to rethink the way in which the great Mesoamerican forest areas are managed. Creating and maintaining the conditions needed in order for the best guardians of forests and biodiversity to continue their work -generating both economic and social welfare- is a sustainable solution to the serious environmental problems that we face as a species.

References: UICN Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Natural Ecosystems in Central America Map / World Research Institute Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs Report

Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques

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Somos un espacio de coordinación e intercambio entre autoridades territoriales que influyen sobre las principales masas boscosas de Mesoamérica.