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Nicaragua Failing to Protect Indigenous Groups from Land Grabs: Report

May 4, 2020

by Ashoka Mukpo on 4 May 2020

  • While a 2003 law granted land rights to indigenous communities on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, the report says the government has failed to fully implement the law.
  • Forty indigenous people have been killed in clashes with migrants since 2015, and thousands more have fled their homes.
  • Large-scale gold mining, logging, and cattle ranching by powerful investors are worsening the threats against indigenous land, the report’s author says.

Indigenous groups in Nicaragua have faced years of land grabbing by mining companies, the cattle ranching industry, and migrants from other parts of the country, says a new report by the California-based Oakland Institute. The report accuses Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s ruling Sandinista party of failing to implement laws meant to protect the country’s indigenous minorities and turning a blind eye to increasingly violent attacks against them.

“Nicaraguan officials have been complicit not just in land sales and bringing in mining companies for resources that belong to indigenous people, but also in downplaying the crisis,” said Anuradha Mittal, the report’s author and founder of the Oakland Institute.

According to the report, 40 indigenous people have been killed in conflicts with migrants, known as colonos or “settlers,” since 2015, with thousands of others forced to flee to nearby cities and towns to escape the violence. Last year, Mongabay reported on clashes between Mayangna communities and migrants in the northeastern Bosawás Biosphere Reserve; in late January this year, an attack on one community in the reserve left four Mayangna dead.

“We have been facing a lot of threats from different companies and settlers doing land grabbing,” said Lottie Cunningham, an attorney with the Miskito indigenous community who has been involved in a long-running case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights over indigenous land rights in Nicaragua. “Every year is getting worse and worse.”

Many migrants are drawn by the prospect of fertile land that can be used for agriculture. Mittal said their presence benefits investors looking to exploit or convert that land, including Nicaragua’s powerful cattle ranching industry.

“We have to understand that the colonos are used by these big corporations so they can clear the land. When they move to another place, eventually it’s consolidated into large cattle ranches,” she said.

The bulk of Nicaragua’s indigenous groups — which include the Mayangna and Miskito, along with Afro-descended Kriol communities and others — live in two autonomous regions along the lush Caribbean coast. The two regions were carved out in the mid-1980s during the country’s brutal civil war and include some of the largest swaths of rainforest in Central America.

Tensions between Ortega’s Sandinistas and indigenous groups living in the two regions aren’t new. After the Sandinistas overthrew Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s, the party initially established friendly relations with the communities on the Caribbean coast. That changed once they tried to implement a Spanish-language literacy program and assert control of the land there in 1981.

The Miskito and other indigenous groups subsequently formed an alliance with forces loyal to the deposed Somoza regime, playing a major role in the U.S.-backed Contra war that claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 Nicaraguans.

“The Miskito were first allies of the Sandinistas because they were all poor, and it was a campesino poor people’s movement,” said Laura Herlihy, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Kansas University who’s written extensively about the region. “But as soon as the bilingual literacy brigade started and it was in Spanish and not Miskito and they felt that their lands were going to be nationalized in part, they pulled away.”

After years of heavy fighting, a peace process led to the establishment of the North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions in 1987. “Law 28,” which created the two regions, granted indigenous groups the right to semi-independent self-rule.

But in 1990, the Sandinistas lost national elections to their conservative opponents, who granted concessions to mining and logging companies in the two regions and encouraged demobilized soldiers to resettle there. After a 620-square-kilometer (239-square-mile) concession was granted to a South Korean logging company, Mayangna communities brought the government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled in their favor in 2001.

The court battle spurred the passage of another law in 2003 that set out a five-step process for indigenous and Afro-descendent communities to demarcate and obtain formal titles to their land. The fifth and final step in the process obligated the Nicaraguan government to remove migrants and companies from such titled land, willingly or not.