I am driven to connect land rights to human rights

Cristina Coc led a historic movement to secure the land rights of the Maya people of southern Belize. Today she’s helping develop a sustainable Maya economy from an indigenous way of life, inspiring communities worldwide.

Historic victory for indigenous peoples

Cristina Coc
“This has never been about acquiring territory. My communities have lived and depended on these lands for over seven generations. What we’re fighting for is our self-determination.” Cristina Coc, alumna Click to tweet

The untimely death of Julian Cho in 1998 was a blow to the Maya people of southern Belize. He had been leading their struggle for rights to lands they had lived on from time immemorial.

The death devastated the young Cristina Coc. Cho was her high school teacher and her brother-in-law. Friends encouraged her to study abroad to gain insight about the world.

She chose the University of Minnesota Duluth

At UMD Coc majored in biology and chemistry. She also immersed herself in local social-justice organizations to learn how to serve her people’s cause when she returned home.

In 2004, she founded the Julian Cho Society, uniting the Maya communities for a decade of historic court battles. Finally, in 2015, the Maya people won full recognition of their rights to their lands and resources from the highest appellate court for Belize.

Community leadership for the good of all

Today, the Maya people have created a consultative and sustainable development framework with the government of Belize. The framework provides full recognition of the Maya’s traditional form of governance.

Three core concepts of the Maya’s traditional form of governance


Togetherness. A Maya family can have a house built in a couple of days. The community will simply come and build the house.


Reciprocity. The Maya believe that I am for you, and you are for me. Without you, I can’t exist.


Self-identity. The Maya call themselves “children of the Earth.” They believe they must protect the well-being of each community member and the natural environment.

Why the University of Minnesota?

portrait of Cristina Coc

“None of this work would have been possible had it not been for the investment that many have made in my life, including my professors at UMD. What I’ve learned, even in the scientific discipline, helped inspire and order my work to become a key player in the social justice movement.”