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Displaced and Deprived, Indigenous Communities Suffer From Hunger in Nicaragua

January 28, 2022

by Maxwell Radwin

  • Colonos, or colonists, have been pushing into rural parts of northern Nicaragua for decades, drawn to the potential for unregulated gold mining and cattle ranching.
  • The area legally belongs to Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous communities, who have sustainably managed the area for crop cultivation.
  • But many families have been driven away by the colonos’ threats of violence and destruction of the forests and water sources they depend on for sustenance.
  • With nowhere to go, the Indigenous communities are now experiencing food insecurity and malnutrition as they attempt to grow crops on small plots of unclaimed land.

Many Indigenous communities in northern Nicaragua are struggling with hunger and malnutrition as increasing land invasions force them from ancestral forests that they once sustainably managed for crop cultivation.

Residents in and around the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve near the Caribbean coast, most of them part of Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous communities, don’t always have enough to eat after being displaced by outsiders who forcibly enter the area to mine for gold, graze cattle, and log the 2.2-million-hectare (5.4-million-acre) UNESCO-protected forest.

“On the one hand you have the violence and massacres. On the other, there’s the slow, painful, morbid situation that is being created when lands are taken away,” said Anuradha Mittal, director of the U.S.-based Oakland Institute, which has investigated human rights issues in Nicaragua. “As the time comes for people to plant beans, cassava, bananas, these communities are expelled or afraid to go to their farms, which results in hunger and malnutrition.”

Some displaced residents have complained of being underweight and losing their teeth, common symptoms of malnutrition. Older people have starved to death after refusing to eat processed foods that clash with the ancestral diets their bodies are accustomed to, community leaders told Mongabay. The processed foods are worse nutritionally and often include basic carbohydrates instead of natural plants and meats from the area.

“Families are not eating well and the diversity of food has decreased,” said Maria*, a local activist in the community. “The quantity, as well. And the frequency … There are people who eat once a day.”

Indigenous communities in and around the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, as well as international human rights defenders, say the ancestral land is being stolen by colonos, or colonists — mestizo Nicaraguans who come from other parts of the country in hopes of profiting from unregulated mining and agricultural activity, resulting in deforestation that makes it harder for locals to access traditional foods.

Gold mining and cattle ranching are two of the country’s largest industries, accounting for nearly $1 billion in annual exports despite international criticism that they contribute significantly to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Between 1987 and 2010, the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve lost more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest. It lost another 92,000 hectares (227,000 acres) between 2012 and 2017. Mongabay has reported on the risks local ecosystems face there as deforestation spreads, including to more than 200 species of birds, 85 mammals and 200,000 insects, as well as nearly 400 plant species. Much of this biodiversity was sustainably managed by Indigenous communities before the colonos arrived.