Zimbabwe’s indigenous population was dispossessed of their traditional lands during British colonialization (1888-1980). Approximately 6000 white farmers controlled 15 million hectares of the country’s agricultural land. In independent Zimbabwe, land redistribution was widely accepted as a social and political imperative, but progress was slow. In 2000, amid mounting social unrest, the government accelerated its land reform program by expropriating land owned by white farmers without legal compensation.
Border Timbers Limited (BTL), a company owned by European investors, challenged the Zimbabwe government’s expropriation of its timber plantations in national and international forums. Indigenous communities, supported by ECCHR, have tried to assert their rights in these proceedings. If the Zimbabwe government returns the land to BTL, these indigenous communities will be evicted from their ancestral lands.
In July 2015, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a World Bank tribunal that deals with disputes under international investment treaties, ruled that Zimbabwe must restitute or pay compensation for BTL’s land. Zimbabwe lost an attempt to annul the ruling in November 2018.
The chiefs of four indigenous communities in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, and ECCHR petitioned to be amici curiae in the ICSID Border Timbers Limited arbitration, arguing that the tribunal must take the communities’ property and consultation rights into account. The tribunal rejected the petition.
Following the tribunal’s decision in favor of the timber company, the Makomo e Chimanimani Community Trust filed a class action suit in July 2015 against BTL and Zimbabwe before the High Court in Harare, asking it to recognize the community’s traditional land rights, right to consultation, and use and enjoyment of the land. ECCHR supported the communities by petitioning to be an amicus curiae, reminding the High Court of its duty to respect international human rights. ECCHR’s submission was rejected and the organization was fined. The High Court dismissed the case in September 2016. The indigenous communities are appealing to the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe.
Indigenous peoples have a special historic and cultural connection to their land. At the same time, they are often discriminated against, oppressed and denied their rights. This is why international law – like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – regards them as especially vulnerable. ECCHR also supports indigenous communities in cases in Western Sahara and Mexico.