5 Recent Rulings To Reclaim Ancestral Territories

Indigenous people fight against hundreds of extractive projects and colonial laws on a daily basis. However, these five recent rulings for Native nations across the Americas demonstrate that demanding justice is always worth it. 


Siekopai Nation In Ecuador

After 80 years, the Siekopai people are finally returning home to Pë’këya, their spiritual center of flooded rainforests and backwater lagoons along the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border. On November 24, 2023, an Ecuadorian appeals court ruled to return 42,360 hectares (104,670 acres) of land to the Siekopai, who were expelled from their lands in 1941, during the Peru-Ecuador War. Since then, the land has been held by the Ecuadorian government as a protected area. This ruling marks the first time the Ecuadorian government is allowing an Indigenous group to “possess a territory that has been declared a protected area.” There are about 720 Siekopai people residing in Ecuador, and 1000 more living in Peru. 

Siekopai people gathered together. Photo by Amazon Frontlines
Siekopai Nation celebrating historic #landback win, as Ecuador orders stolen land returned in the Amazon. (Source: Amazon Frontlines)

Hoopa Valley Tribe In Northern California

The Hoopa Valley Tribe bought 10,395 acres of their ancestral land back in Northern California on December 20, 2023. This marks the largest acquisition of land in the tribe’s history, who lost access to ⅔ of their ancestral land when they were moved to their reservation in 1964. The territory was formerly owned by New Forests, an Australia-based forestland manager, who put the land up for sale in 2022. With the help of the Conservation Fund, the Hoopa Valley Tribe raised $14.1 million for the purchase. The tribe plans to work on restoring the historic salmon run in Pine Creek and elk populations.


Ngabe Bugle People In Panama

An open-pit copper mine owned by Canadian firm First Quantum Minerals (FQM) must shut down in Panama due to pressure from environmental activists and Ngäbe Bugle peoples, who stated the mine would destroy their ancestral lands and waters with pollution. The Panama Supreme Court ruled the mine’s new 20-year contract unconstitutional because of governance issues; the mine had been operating between 2017 and 2023 while FQM was rewriting a new contract. In direct action protests, activists set up road blocks throughout the country and blocked seaports with boats in order to block supplies from arriving at the mine and slowing production. Many activists are currently pressuring the company to close down, and for the country to follow El Salvador’s lead and block all future mining projects to protect the lush forests and coasts.


Q’echi Pueblo In Guatemala

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the state of Guatemala violated the rights of the Q'echi' people by allowing the presence of the Fenix nickel mine in their ancestral territory. The mine comprises a total of 250,000 square kilometers next to Guatemala’s largest body of freshwater, Lake Izabal, where the Q’echi’ have lived since the 1800’s. On December 18, 2023, the Court ordered an immediate stop to mining activities and the creation of a development fund, and gave Guatemala six months to grant a land title to the Q’echi’. The state granted exploratory permits to a Canadian firm in 2009, who then passed the mine governance to Swiss-based Solway Investment Group (SIG) in 2011. The mine has covered up pollution, bribed community leaders for support, and paid off police and the military. Although SIG was not a party in the case, they have stated they agree with the ruling but stress the case doesn’t affect the company’s “right to mine outside of the Agua Caliente community.” The ruling is considered a once-in-a-generation win for Indigenous people, and the Q’echi’ are avidly watching to see how their government will treat the ruling in the coming months.

Nickel smelter, part of Solway's Fenix Mine Project. (Source: Solway)

Tonkawa Tribe In Texas 

The Tonkawa Tribe successfully purchased 60 acres of ancestral land that include Natan Samox, or Sugarloaf Mountain, which they consider to be the origin of their people. The Tonkawa roamed Central Texas for centuries until they were forced to migrate north to Oklahoma during the late 1800’s Trail of Tears, in which American settlers displaced around 100,000 Native Americans. Today, about 900 tribal members still live in Oklahoma, but the Tribe was able to purchase the land that was privately owned by the Herzog family. The nonprofit El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association will manage the land in the near future to conduct archaeological research and eventually convert the land into a public park with interpretive displays and educational activities.

(Photo by Heather Milton-Lightening/FLICKR)

Native Nations are reclaiming their land back piece by piece. While some still wait for the government to enforce rulings or the mines to stop operations, each tribe will soon be able to restore the land and water as the sovereign stewards of their ancestral territory.