Inter-American Court Recognizes Rights to Food, Water, Healthy Environment, and Cultural Identity in Lhaka Honhat Case

Publish Date: 
Friday, August 28, 2020

In Lhaka Honhat v. Argentina, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that Argentina violated its obligations under Article 1.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights and related Articles 2, 8.1, 21, 23.1, 25.1, and 26, by denying the Indigenous communities their right to communal property, a healthy environment, adequate food, water, cultural identity, and judicial protection within a reasonable time. The ruling marked the first time the Court found violations of Article 26 of the Convention regarding the rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, water, and cultural identity.

The communities, united under the association Lhaka Honhat (“our land”), contain over 10,000, and began their struggle for their ancestral lands in 1984. The international case was litigated by member Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales for over 20 years.

Indigenous community members from the Lhaka Honhat Association sued Argentina on behalf of 132 Indigenous communities belonging to the Wichí (Mataco), Iyjwaja (Chorote), Komlek (Toba), Niwackle (Chulupí), and Tapy'y (Tapiete) peoples who live on lots with the cadastral registrations 175 and 5557 in the Province of Salta (previously known as and referred to in the case as lots 14 and 55). The Indigenous communities sued Argentina for violating their right to communal property by failing to provide legal security to their territory and allowing Creole settlers to reside on their lands; they also sued to protect their rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, participation in cultural life, and judicial protection.

For the first time, the Court analyzed the rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, water, and cultural identity under Article 26 of the Convention. The Court found that activities like illegal logging carried out by the Creole settlers detrimentally affected the Indigenous communities’ way of life and access to water, food, and a healthy environment. The detrimental effect on the communities’ traditional diet and lifestyle impacted the cultural way of life and the Indigenous communities’ cultural identities. The State was aware of these harmful activities and their impact on Indigenous way of life and did not effectively stop them. Because the detrimental activities were not consensual, as the Indigenous communities did not permit them, Argentina failed to guarantee the Indigenous communities the right to determine activities done on their property and violated Article 26 and 1.1 in connection with the rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, water, and cultural identity.

Eight members—the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, Amnesty International, Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente, Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Dejusticia, FIAN International, International Women’s Rights Action Watch - Asia Pacific, and Minority Rights Group International—filed an amicus to the Court discussing the derivation, adjudication, and content of the rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, water, and cultural identity. Member Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) also presented, along with several allies, an amicus concerning “international standards and comparative jurisprudence on the demarcation of indigenous territories and economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.”

This case both expands and clarifies State obligations under Article 26 of the American Convention on Human Rights to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and emphasizes that States must take measures to protect against infringements of Indigenous rights by non-Indigenous settlers. By ordering the resettlement of the Creole populations, the Court laid out the importance of Indigenous lands to their cultural survival, leading the way to address other non-Indigenous populations currently detrimentally affecting and residing on Indigenous lands.