top of page

Legal and Linguistic Hurdles for Indigenous Communities in Purchasing Their Own Lands

Many indigenous communities lack legal representation in their native tongues. These communities are losing native speakers; both due to younger generations who have chosen to learn the dominant language of their country as opposed to their indigenous tongue and the passing away of elderly native speakers without proper linguistic preservation of their indigenous mother tongues. Indigenous language speakers may also feel ashamed to speak their mother tongue and therefore raise their children to speak the dominant language so they do not face racism and prejudice. As a result of the stigmatisation of these tongues, many people choose not to learn them and instead favour learning languages that are excellent for business, such as Chinese or German, or languages with a heavy literary and cultural background such as French.

All of this compounds to make it challenging for speakers of indigenous languages to hire external translators within the legal sector who have an accurate and thorough understanding of their mother tongues and can assist them in the necessary ways. Indigenous languages that are more widely spoken and integrated into public and private spheres are far easier to hire translators for, whereas indigenous languages with few speakers such as Chol, which spoken in parts of Southern Mexico, are met with more difficulties in hiring interpreters.

However, there are companies that aim to help resolve these issues. CIELO, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, is trying to bridge this gap between indigenous speakers and people who cannot communicate with them in their native tongue. CIELO was founded by Odilia Romero and they hold virtual trainings for interpreters of indigenous languages. Some sessions target the arduous task of translating “legal jargon” - an example of which is the phrase “legal alien.” This poses problems in Zapoteco as there is no direct translation of “alien” in this language. In 2021, CIELO organised for more than four thousand interpretation assignments within both the legal field and other areas to be conducted for clients in New York. However, there remain further obstacles for indigenous communities in the legal sector.

A language can open doors to new worlds, expand our horizons and minds and delve into the inner psyche of a nation. It can be viewed as a blessing to have a strong command of one’s own native tongue but also a curse in the possibility of being ostracised from wider society. Many indigenous groups experience racism and hate when speaking their mother tongues, and indigenous languages can further isolate speakers from other communities and make them feel separate from others in society.

Many of these communities have animistic beliefs, meaning they feel a powerful spiritual and emotional connection to the land they live on. Not only are their lands connected to their world view and human experience but lands can retain cultural memories and contain locations that may be used to carry out cultural rituals. These lands are the ancestral birthright of indigenous communities and people, significant in both the present and as a powerful, tangible link to their ancestors and their collective past.

It is therefore significant that one sector in which indigenous groups face translation problems is regarding land ownership and its legal battles. 2.5 billion people, including 370 million indigenous people, depend on land and natural resources. 50-65 percent of the world’s land is occupied and used by indigenous peoples, yet only 10 percent of this land is legally owned by indigenous peoples. Specific indigenous peoples and case studies will be considered to highlight this global issue.

In South America, many indigenous forest groups in Peru struggle to obtain legal permits for land. For them to claim the land as legally ‘theirs’ they must navigate 27 bureaucratic hurdles to obtain an official government permit. Not only is this an arduous process, but it can be financially challenging as well as these communities must pay for potentially costly interpreters.

The injustice in this system is clear. It took 12 years for the Alto Tamaya-Saweto social group to officially obtain a land title from the government. Four of their leaders were murdered over this matter. In juxtaposition to this, logging and mining companies can obtain permits within a couple of months and have a maximum of seven administrative steps in this process. The fact that these companies who obtain permits easily often carry out deforestation on indigenous lands puts greater pressure on indigenous communities to legally claim ownership of their land as quickly as possible.

The global nature of these injustices cannot be understated. In Australia, under the Native Title Act of 1993, Aboriginal peoples have to prove continued traditional laws and customs on the land since European settlement. The widespread urbanisation and agricultural developments in Australia can pose issues for these and other requirements of the Native Title Act. It can take up to three years for the government to look over connection reports, and these can take additional years to research.

There are roughly 250 to 363 indigenous languages in Australia and the differences in reach of these languages can also create problems for indigenous people as some find it easier to hire interpreters than others do. To resolve some of these disparities, bilingual communities are being successfully established in the North-East Arnhem Land: children are learning some Yolnu tongues, meaning that when they grow up they will have a command of their native tongue as well as Australian English, allowing them to better represent their communities to companies and government bodies when trying to legally purchase their own land under the Native Title Act.

Furthermore, there are numerous indigenous groups in the African continent that face legal barriers when applying for and getting land permits. In Tanzania, villages can outline their land, register their rights and then obtain certificates by proving these rights. This can all be done under the Village Land Act of 1999 but major financial and technical obstacles stand in their way as it can be expensive to survey land and draw up land management plans. Due to this, more than 14,000 villages lack certificates, and, as of 2009, 10,397 villages had been registered (but only 743 had been certified).

Many of these indigenous village communities also encounter linguistic difficulties when hiring interpreters to communicate with government bodies. While communities that speak Swahili, the official language of Tanzania, face fewer linguistic obstacles than communities who do not, all indigenous communities are required to have some way of communicating in English as this is the language used in higher courts. Indigenous communities that solely speak Swahili would need to hire an interpreter fluent in both Swahili and English to go to the courts and petition for their lands to be legally recognised as their own and the interpreter must have a thorough understanding of both English and Swahili that goes beyond primary level education.

There are significantly fewer interpreters for the other 124 languages spoken in Tanzania. For example, hunter-gatherer communities such as the Hadza and Sandawe speak using click consonants. For a non- native speaker, picking up these consonants can be highly challenging, and this results in a lack of interpreters that can accurately help these communities to legally possess their own lands.

However, there are organisations that are fighting for indigenous peoples to claim rights to their own lands by making this legal process easier all over the world. For example, the Land Right Now Movement aimed to double the amount of land recognised as owned or controlled by indigenous groups by 2020. This movement has successfully run into the present day and has helped to raise awareness of different indigenous groups’ legal plights through social media. It has also had success with a large number of petitions signed by people globally regarding the struggles of specific indigenous groups to legally purchase their lands. The campaign ceters around promoting sustainable development and protecting community lands by creating more streamlined processes. This remains a long and difficult process given the plethora of different tongues that are spoken by different indigenous communities, the majority of whom lack proper legal linguistic representation. Interpreters that speak their languages to a high level are rare due to linguistic difficulty and/or the lack of teaching resources of that language. An interpreter must speak the language they are translating to an incredibly high level when translating legal documents to the community and finding speakers who have a thorough and profound knowledge of that language can be an additional struggle for these communities.


bottom of page