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Amid the Political Crisis in Nicaragua, Foreign Gold Mining Companies Amplify the Repression

July 13, 2021
By: Josh Mayer and Anuradha Mittal
Life on the banks of Rio Coco.
The Oakland Institute's research team visiting impacted Miskitu communities living beside the Rio Coco River. Image: The Oakland Institute

Nicaragua’s deepening authoritarianism has made international headlines in recent weeks with the arrest of “26 political opponents and pro-democracy actors, including six presidential contenders, student activists, private sector leaders and other political actors” by the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. Media reports rightly note the collapse of any semblance of electoral democracy in the country; however, the role of North American and European gold mining companies in sustaining and exacerbating Nicaragua’s regime goes unreported.

The corrupt alliance between the Ortega government and mining companies has fueled the incessant violence faced by the Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in the country’s autonomous Caribbean Coast region. And yet it remains unnoticed in recent media accounts. At the very same time that the widely reported raids on the homes of the country’s political elites took place, Indigenous people and peasants in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region faced violence and forced displacement for the sake of the ever-expanding gold mining sector.

Gold Mining: A Key Driver of the Colonization of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Territories

As exposed by the Oakland Institute’s 2020 report Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution, gold mining — alongside the cattle and forestry sector — is a key driver of the colonization of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ territories on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Despite the recognition of these lands as autonomous territories by the country’s legislation, the Ortega government has heavily promoted gold mining since taking power in 2007 — both by its actions and omissions.

Nicaragua’s investment agency, ProNicaragua, advertises that over 7.1 million hectares of land — 60 percent of the country’s landmass — are available for mining concessions. In 2017, it approved a law that opened 1.5 million hectares for mining concessions when sought in partnership with the state mining company, ENIMINAS. Within a month of this new law, the amount of Nicaraguan territory under approved or solicited mining concessions more than doubled from 1.2 million to 2.6 million hectares. Furthermore, the government has allegedly issued concessions in titled Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories without consultation and consent of the communities whose lands are at stake — a flagrant violation of Nicaraguan and international law.

In the meantime, the value of Nicaragua's gold exports has increased dramatically in recent years — reflecting an expansion in production and rising prices. The entire mining sector, however, only provided less than one percent of formal employment, less than one percent of government revenues, and roughly five percent of GDP in 2020.

Increasing Violence and Dispossession

Most Nicaraguans see minimal economic benefits from gold mining. But the government continues to promote the industry — driving profits to its allies in the private sector and increasing revenues received by ENIMINAS, which are managed by senior figures in the ruling party — including two who have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. This has set the stage for an upswing in violence and dispossession against Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, all while the international and Nicaraguan businesses involved line their pockets.

Last month in Rosita, part of Nicaragua’s Mining Triangle region, 15 families accused the Santa Rita Mining Company and the Nicaraguan National Police of detaining and forcibly removing them from the land they had been working. A witness told Nicaragua Actual that the police arrived at the home of one of the people whose land was allegedly expropriated on June 12, 2021. “They beat him, threw him to the ground, put him in the patrol vehicle, and arrested him, taking away his cellphone,” the witness said. According to documents provided to Nicaragua Actual by the displaced families, this removal was carried out despite an agreement from the previous month in which the families, mining company, and Rosita municipal government pledged to negotiate on a solution. Kenia Romero, a city councilor in Rosita whose land was taken in the incident, told VosTV, “What we’re asking is for them to pay for the lands and stick to their word, because they’re not going to relocate us. We know that there are no more lands in Rosita, but they don’t want to do either of the two things: pay us or relocate all of us who have papers.” Romero continued, “There’s one young man … who lost 300 manzanas [roughly 175 acres] of land, and he’s still in jail.”

“Dictatorship steals land from peasants in Siuna for mining concession to Chinese.” Video: El Tranque Digital

Mining Without Consultation or Consent

Calibre Mining concession map, January 23, 2019.
Calibre Mining concession map, as of January 23, 2019. Source: Calibre Mining Corporation.

The Santa Rita Mining Company is a joint venture of Canadian mining companies Calibre Mining and Rosita Mining alongside the Chinese-owned Century Mining. Its 50-year mining concession was initially granted in 1994 to HEMCO, then a U.S.-owned mining company, and it was subsequently transferred to Calibre in 2007 and then to Santa Rita Mining Company in 2019. The concession partially falls within the Tuahka Territory, a group of 14 Mayangna communities that received a communal land title in 2009 and is in the immediate vicinity of the Mayangna Sauni Arungka (Matumbak) Territory. This series of changes in ownership of the concession is reflective of a broader pattern uncovered in Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution where mining companies repeatedly transferred concessions without informing, let alone consulting and receiving free, prior and informed consent from the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities whose lands are in or near the concession.

Ryan King, Vice President for Corporate Development and Investor Relations.
Source: Calibre Mining Corporation

“The country is very familiar with mining. It’s a very significant contributor to GDP. I believe it was somewhere between 3% and 4%. The gold helped the economy and growth in GDP. But the important aspect here is that they do follow their mining law very closely. For drilling, you need to go through consultation with community. You need to apply for permits for drilling. They need to come out and check the sites. We work with the communities, regulators, making sure that we’ve done all of our consultation work and CSR work. They do follow that very closely, and we think that’s great. We think that’s very important. Never at one time have we had any issues in-country with getting permits, renewing concessions, anything like this. We believe, so far, it’s been a good place for us to do mineral exploration.”

Ryan King, Vice President Corporate Development of Calibre Mining, Proven and Probable, Streetwise Reports(1/16/19). Image source: Calibre Mining Corporation

Complicity of International Mining Companies in Violence

“Citizen complaints landtakers protected by Ortheguist police robbery of their lands.” Video: El Tranque Digital

This latest case of dispossession demonstrates the complicity of international mining companies in the violence faced by Indigenous peoples and smallholders more broadly in Nicaragua. As the Oakland Institute warned in “Is Nicaragua for Sale? Foreign Mining Companies Are Eager to Buy,” North American mining companies have a track record of pushing peasants with insecure land tenure off their plots near Indigenous territories. Calibre’s Ryan King has stated that the company “can actually move [small-scale miners] around with the government …. [W]e use them to help find more gold.” These practices have fueled the violent colonization of nearby Indigenous Mayangna and Miskitu communities’ ancestral and legally recognized lands. Thirteen Indigenous people were killed in land conflicts in Nicaragua just in 2020, including four killed and two injured in Tuahka Territory. Calibre has also been accused of obtaining mining concessions in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region without the Indigenous communities having been consulted, as required under Nicaragua’s Law 445, and without having received their free, prior, and informed consent. Executives at Calibre did not respond to the Oakland Institute’s questions about these allegations and failed to keep a scheduled phone appointment.

Meanwhile, foreign mining companies are seeking an ever-larger piece of Nicaraguan territory for their exploratory and extractive activities. On June 21, 2021, the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region’s legislature, controlled by the FSLN, authorized five additional concessions to Calibre. Similarly, in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Indigenous community leaders complain of partial and inadequate consultation processes for Calibre concessions in a video published by the Prilaka Community Foundation. The proposed concessions are among the 46 concessions Calibre has been seeking since February 2020, when the company entered into a strategic partnership with the notorious Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, which has been accused of human rights, labor rights, and environmental harms worldwide over recent decades. Those concessions total 12.8 percent of Nicaragua’s landmass and will bring the total area of mining concessions to 33 percent of Nicaraguan territory.

Complicities in the Colonization of Indigenous Lands

Rose Cunningham, Mayor of Waspam in Santa Clara carrying out consultation for gold company.
Waspám mayor Rose Cunningham Kain, addresses a community meeting in Santa Clara on a proposed concession sought by Calibre Mining on April 22, 2021.

The Prilaka Community Foundation video also includes footage of the FSLN mayor of Waspám, Rose Cunningham Kain, refusing to address the colonization of Indigenous lands and instead alleging that community members are themselves to blame for illegally selling the land. Rose Cunningham Kain is the sister of Myrna Cunningham Kain, a prominent Miskitu politician who sits on the board of many international organizations and has been accused of covering up the Nicaraguan government’s complicity in the violent colonization of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ territories. Myrna Cunningham Kain’s son, Carlos Alemán Cunningham, a prominent politician currently serving as governor of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, has been accused of involvement in illegal sales of titled Indigenous lands to settlers.

Foreign mining corporations operating in Nicaragua must face accountability for their role in the violent dispossession of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. The United States, Canada, and European countries taking action against the government of Nicaragua must hold their own corporations accountable. If these countries are truly concerned with human rights abuses in Nicaragua, they must call out the complicity of these companies in the violence currently afflicting the people of Nicaragua under the Ortega-Murillo regime.