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Devastating Hurricanes Threaten Years of Consequences for Indigenous Peoples amid Settler Invasion in Nicaragua

December 3, 2020
Aftermath of hurricanes in Nicaragua, Nov 2020.


December 3, 2020

Media Contact:
Anuradha Mittal
[email protected]
+1 510-530-5126

Oakland, CA — After northeastern Nicaragua took direct hits from two massive hurricanes in November, the full consequences for the Indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna communities are only now coming into view. Hurricanes Eta and Iota slammed into the area surrounding the regional capital of Bilwi on November 3 and 16, respectively, demolishing several coastal Miskitu communities and having devastating effects for many other communities throughout the region. High winds and flooding have cut off access to clean water and food, pointing to an acute humanitarian crisis that may result in the displacement of many Indigenous people. The Oakland Institute expresses solidarity with the victims and survivors of these storms, including our partners.

“These hurricanes struck northeastern Nicaragua’s Indigenous peoples at what was already a fraught moment,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute. “Our May 2020 report, Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution, documented the violent colonization and deforestation faced by Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. That report highlighted the Nicaraguan government’s failure to follow through on its legal obligations to protect Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and the role of forestry, cattle ranching, and mining interests in furthering those communities’ dispossession,” she continued.

Amid the ongoing devastation caused by the hurricanes, colonization continues unabated. Between the two hurricanes, the Mayangna People’s Union in Defense of Territory reported that on November 14, settlers ambushed a group of Mayangna leaders conducting a patrol of a piece of land they reclaimed from settlers several months earlier. Nacilio Macario, a 43-year-old father of five children, was killed in the attack. That adds up to a total of eight settler attacks on Mayangna communities in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve this year, according to the Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples. 12 people have been killed in these attacks. Since 2015, nearly 50 Indigenous people have been killed in settler attacks in Nicaragua.

Unfortunately, based on recent experience with hurricanes in Nicaragua, this is likely only the beginning of a years-long crisis for the affected Indigenous communities. In the wake of both Hurricanes Joan (1988) and Felix (2007), the government of Nicaragua took extraordinary steps to open affected areas to timber companies for the extraction of fallen lumber. After Felix, this included the corrupt maneuvering of parastatal company Alba Forestal, linked to the ruling Ortega family, which violated Law 445 and other Indigenous and Afro-descendant rights protections by extracting timber from communal lands without prior consultation or consent. In addition to illegally seizing timber, these operations created access roads that facilitated further colonization, including the insertion of cattle into newly cleared pastures. As shown in PBS coverage of the Institute’s research, surging Nicaraguan beef exports to the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic are driving the violent invasion of Indigenous lands in the region hit by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, placing the region at a particularly high risk if new access roads are built. Dr. Christopher Jordan of Global Wildlife Conservation has noted that these land grabs that convert forests into pastures in the aftermath of hurricanes pose a bigger ecological risk than hurricanes themselves.

“The months and years immediately following major hurricane damage pose immense, long-term risks and challenges for Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Nicaragua,” said Josh Mayer, a fellow at the Oakland Institute. “Aside from the immediate problems of access to food, clean water, and shelter, colonization only accelerates in moments of crisis like this. Almost all of the players in colonization — individual settlers, cattle ranchers, forestry companies, and complicit government officials — have used post-hurricane moments in years past to extract as much as they possibly can from communal lands. That makes it more important than ever for the Nicaraguan government and international lenders and corporations involved in the region to stop colonization and protect Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities,” Mayer continued.

In this context, it is essential that the Nicaraguan government:

  1. Provides Indigenous communities with clean water and food so that they do not need to leave their threatened homelands;

  2. Ensures that fallen timber extraction in protected areas is controlled by the Indigenous peoples who hold communal titles to those areas;

  3. Protects Indigenous communities from the ongoing onslaught of violent land-grabbing perpetrated by actors like cattle ranchers and forestry and mining companies; and

  4. Initiates the long-awaited process of Saneamiento — the final step of Nicaragua’s communal land titling law — which requires that the government clear Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories of settlers and corporations who live in or use the territories without a legal title or lease agreement with the communities.