Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Maya Ch’ortí are descendants of the people who inhabited the capital of the ancient Maya empire of Copán in Honduras, who now live in the departments of Copán and Ocotepeque. According to the 2013 census, Maya Ch’ortí number 33,256 people.
Historically, Maya Ch’ortí have lived in Ocotepeque, Copan, Cortes, and Santa Barbara.
In conjunction with the more numerous and well organized Lenca to the south, Maya Ch’ortí have for decades demanded that the central government return nearly 35,000 acres to indigenous people as was promised in an eighteenth-century agreement with the Spanish colonial government. This has put Maya Ch’ortí indigenous rights advocates at great risk, as evidenced by the assassination of two leaders, Cándido Amador and Ovidio Pérez, in 1997. The Maya Ch’ortí stated that both men were killed by order of local landowners. The Honduran police made arrests and laid criminal charges, but many observers believe justice has not been served and those really responsible have not been held accountable.
In 1997, in response to massive protests by indigenous community groups – including a blockade of the Maya ruins of Copán – the Honduran government signed a legal agreement with Maya Ch’ortí for the titling of 14,700 hectares of land but has since failed to deliver fully on that promise. According to a 2016 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, only 4,995 hectares have so far been registered with the community. Since 1997 the Chortis have blockaded the entrance to the ruins numerous times. In 2000, after a four-day blockade, the Honduran army tear-gassed protestors from a low-flying helicopter, despite an agreement to end the occupation. The injured, including those who were imprisoned, were denied medical treatment until a human rights lawyer effected their release. Meanwhile, private individuals have managed to secure titles and obtained judicial orders to evict Maya Ch’ortí from their ancestral lands.
Over the past decade, Maya Ch’ortí leaders have been advocating for a resurgence of traditional indigenous values. Since 2002, the National Council of Indigenous Maya Ch’ortí of Honduras (Consejo Nacional Indigena Maya Ch’ortí de Honduras, CONIMCHH) has also been working to revive the language by offering Ch’ortí language classes in several villages.
Updated May 2018
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