Nicaragua's Failed Revolution

On January 29, 2020, the Indigenous Alal community in the Mayangna Sauni As territory in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, was attacked by over 80 armed men connected to land grabbing in protected Indigenous land. Four people were reportedly killed, two injured, and 16 houses burned. In the weeks following the incident, locals remained under continuous threat and harassment, as they kept hearing guns fired in the air, near their villages. This is yet another episode in the war that has been raging for many years against the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Nicaragua.

A field investigation conducted in 2018 and 2019 by the Oakland Institute compiles dozens of first-hand testimonies from members of the communities—who have been subject to multiple murders, kidnappings, violence, and intimidation, linked to land invasions for mining, cattle ranching, and the exploitation of forests. Nicaragua is seen as exemplary in granting land rights to Indigenous communities through legal protections, such as the Law 28 (Statute of Autonomy) and Law 445. The government has failed to enforce these laws, and instead colludes with business interests and plays an active role in the colonization of the protected lands by outsiders. The Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions are particularly affected and targeted by settlers and land grabbers. Since 2015, 45 Indigenous People have been killed, dozens injured and kidnapped and some missing, in cases related to land invasions. Thousands have had to flee their homes. Displaced from the forests and the lands where they have farmed, hunted, and shed for generations, they now face hunger and disease.

Life on the banks of Rio Coco. Illustration: Abner Hauge

Exploiting Caribbean Coast Lands in Contravention to Laws

Yet, Nicaragua is often seen as a world leader in the granting of land rights to native peoples. The country has exemplary laws that have established the autonomy of Indigenous communities in the management of their land and natural resources and the protection of their rights. The 1987 Law 28, Statute of Autonomy of the Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, recognized the multiethnic nature of the people of Nicaragua and enshrined among other rights, the rights of ethnic communities to hold and transmit communal lands and to govern themselves in their communities without external interference. Law 28 also established that communal lands are inalienable—they cannot be donated, sold, taken over or taxed, and are imprescriptible—and that any decision over the use of natural resources in the autonomous regions must be made by these communities.

“Nicaragua is seen as exemplary in granting land rights to Indigenous communities through legal protections, such as the Law 28 (Statute of Autonomy) and Law 445. The government has failed to enforce these laws, and instead colludes with business interests and plays an active role in the colonization of the protected lands by outsiders.”

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, the Oakland Institute

But Law 28 was never respected. Successive governments advanced so-called development and resettlement programs that exploited the Caribbean coast’s lands and other natural resources, clearly violating the established protections. This involved the resettlement of thousands of ex-Contras and Sandinista ex-combatants into so-called “development poles” throughout the autonomous regions. Successive governments also encouraged massive logging and mining activities in the supposedly protected areas, without the approval of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

One of the logging concessions became the basis for a dramatic shift in the legal status of Indigenous and Afro-descendant lands in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America. The Mayangna community of Awas Tingni sued the Nicaraguan government over a logging concession in its traditional lands, and after years of litigation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decided in favor of Awas Tingni in a binding 2001 decision. The Court ordered Nicaragua to communally demarcate and title these lands.

As a result, Law 28 was soon complemented and reinforced by the 2003 Law of Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and of the Rivers Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maiz, known as Law 445. Its main purpose is to regulate the communal property regime of the Indigenous communities’ lands and to guarantee the full recognition of the rights of communal property, use, administration, management of traditional lands and their natural resources.

It also contained provisions for demarcation and titling of ancestral lands, and for Saneamiento—the last step of Law 445, which requires clearing the Indigenous territories of non-Indigenous settlers known as colonos as well as corporations, who are living and using the territories without a legal title or a lease agreement with the community.

Since the law was passed, the Sandinista government, led by Daniel Ortega in power since 2006, permitted the titling of 23 territories, representing approximately 31 percent of the national territory.

However, titles remain empty promises given the continuous land invasions and violence that communities face. The government has failed to provide protection to the local communities and to ensure and enforce Saneamiento. A constant stream of settlers, central government interventions, forestry and extractive industries, threaten their lands, economic well being, and political autonomy. This trend has been exacerbated in recent years with an increase in murders and kidnappings.

Life on the banks of Rio Coco. Illustration: Abner Hauge

Government Complicity in Exploitation of Protected Lands

The suffering and violence faced by the communities is not just due to the government’s failure to implement the law. The government actually plays an active role in encouraging the colonization of the protected lands by outsiders. For instance, it encourages a gold rush with its claim that over 7.1 million ha of land are available for mining concessions—representing nearly 60 percent of Nicaraguan territory. Yet, mining by colonos (settlers) and transnational corporations has been a cause of violence and displacement of Indigenous communities, while also causing serious health and environmental hazards. A handful of transnational corporations have taken control over the country’s vast mining concessions—key among them being Canadian firms such as B2Gold Corp, Calibre Mining Corp., Royal Road Minerals, and Golden Reign Resources; others include Australia’s Oro Verde, the UK’s Condor Gold, and Colombia’s Hemco Nicaragua S.A.. The promise of precious gold and silver in the remote rain-forested RACCN has lured thousands of colonos, further intensifying the Indigenous struggle for autonomy and communal property rights.

“In the autonomous regions, the government has found ways to by-pass the laws by forming parallel communal government bodies in cases where the local communities resisted dispossession.”

A 2017 law created ENIMINAS, the Nicaraguan Mining Company, and expanded State involvement in the mining business through joint ventures with private firms. Within a month of the new law, the total land under mining concession increased from about 1,200,000 ha to 2,600,000 ha—over 20 percent of the country. About 853,800 ha of this land is in the buffer zone of the Bosawás reserve.

The responsibility of the Nicaraguan government doesn’t stop at encouraging this exploitation and failing to protect Indigenous land rights as it should according to the protective laws 28 and 445. The Oakland Institute researchers have compiled a number of instances in which the government ordered repression and arrest by police forces of communities opposed to the expansion of industrial mining in recent years.

In addition to mining, logging and cattle ranching has also devastated the Indigenous land rights.

Ranching away Indigenous land rights. Illustration: Abner Hauge Life on the banks of Rio Coco. Illustration: Abner Hauge
Top: ranching away Indigenous land rights. Bottom: life on the banks of Rio Coco. Illustrations: Abner Hauge

With significant tax incentives offered to forestry projects, PRONicaragua—the state’s investment and export promotion agency—advertises Nicaragua as a country with nearly an endless supply of “suitable” land for forestry projects—with over 3.5 million ha available for use. Yet, the majority of Nicaragua’s primary forests are found within the autonomous regions, and play an inextricable role in Indigenous lives and livelihoods. Corporations, ranchers, and illegal settlers have been clear cutting precious rainforest to establish cattle ranches and lumber operations—devastating to the environment and the livelihoods of the Indigenous.

Nicaragua has the largest cattle-raising industry in Central America. The autonomous regions are the departments with the highest concentration of cattle and where most of the expansion has been happening. The forest cover in Nicaragua has dropped from 76 percent in 1969 to 25 percent today. President Ortega and his family have personal links to the forestry and logging business in autonomous regions through the Alba Forestal company.

A number of officials affiliated with the ruling FSLN (Frente Sandinista de LiberaciĆ³n Nacional) party have been involved in illegal land sales to settlers, and the illegal granting of land titles in various communities for the resettlement of ex-Sandinista and YATAMA combatants.

In the autonomous regions, the government has found ways to by-pass the laws by forming parallel communal government bodies in cases where the local communities resisted dispossession. The research identifies several instances in which these illegitimate state-sponsored local governments attempt to take control over Indigenous land by applying for land titles or by taking control over the issuance of land titles.

Villagers united in their demand for Saneamiento. Illustration: Abner Hauge

Demanding Saneamiento: A Collective Fight Against Dispossession

In 2015, for the first time in the country's history, all Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples in Nicaragua assembled to create a national alliance, the Nicaraguan Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples (APIAN). Today APIAN’s leaders are leveraging their unity to launch a collective fight against dispossession with their demand for Saneamiento, the final, crucial step of the land claims process established under Law 445. Without Saneamiento, titles remain empty promises to traditional lands that Nicaragua must guarantee its Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples.

Whereas widespread human rights suppression in Nicaragua has garnered international attention in recent years, violence faced by the Indigenous and the impunity granted to settlers by the national police and the government has gone largely ignored. The case against the Nicaraguan state stagnates in the Inter-American human rights system—the government failed to show up at the November 2019 meeting at the IA Commission in Ecuador. Meanwhile the Indigenous communities continue to face the seizure of their ancestral lands.