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Nicaragua failing to protect indigenous groups from land grabs: Report

Land trafficker in the protected area of Cerro Banacruz. Photo by Michelle Carrere

  • 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.

In 2006, Ortega and the Sandinistas regained power after an electoral campaign that included a pledge to work with indigenous communities on the Caribbean coast in finishing the process set out in the 2003 law. Twenty-three territories representing nearly a third of Nicaragua’s land mass were titled through that process, but indigenous rights advocates say the crucial fifth step has yet to be carried out.

That final step, known as saneamiento — literally “cleaning up” — has become a rallying cry for indigenous groups in the region seeking to reclaim control over their territory.

“This is not like other situations in Latin America where the land is not properly recognized or in dispute; the land in Nicaragua is demarcated and titled. The indigenous people are collectively the owners of this territory,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, an advocacy officer with the Center for Justice and International Law. “From the legal point of view, there should be no dispute on this issue.”

The Oakland Institute report says the influx of migrants from other parts of Nicaragua into indigenous coastal regions accelerated after Ortega’s election to the presidency. Fertile land along with the presence of gold and timber in the regions are an attractive draw in a country that has among the lowest per capita incomes in Central America; in some areas migrants now make up the majority of the population.

As those migrants poured into the region, conflicts over land use erupted, with indigenous groups often finding themselves outmatched and pushed aside by the well-armed newcomers. According to the report, government authorities looked the other way as those conflicts became deadly.

“What I heard over and over again during the field research was people are being killed,” Mittal said. “And the police will not make a report, there is not even an investigation.”

Mittal said large-scale operations by extractive industries are making the situation worse. In an effort to make Nicaragua more attractive to foreign investment, the Sandinista government has granted favorable terms to logging and mining companies operating in the region, drawing interest from across the world.

Canada’s Calibre Mining, for example, owns a gold concession that covers nearly 900 km2 (350 mi2) of the densely forested North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. According to the report, Calibre said it carried out consultations with indigenous communities there. But attorneys working with those communities say that in practice elites who are handpicked by the Nicaraguan government often dominate such consultations.

“What the government does is impose the leaders they want instead of certifying the leaders who are elected by the communities,” Cunningham said.

The presence of gold mining companies attracts migrant laborers, who often unwittingly purchase fraudulent land titles from corrupt local government officials, some of whom are themselves leaders of indigenous groups.

The report says the refusal of the Nicaraguan government to prevent migration onto indigenous land and crack down on the illegal trade in fraudulent land titles has created a volatile crisis that won’t be easily solved. Many of the migrants have built new lives in the region, and calls for saneamiento by indigenous groups have inflamed fears that they could lose their livelihoods.

“It’s a really complex situation,” Rodriguez said. “In some places 90% of the current inhabitants are colonos.”

Cunningham said that while she sympathizes with the migrants, the crisis won’t be resolved until the government steps in to prevent further bloodshed.

“You make agreements when you’re in a process of peace,” she said. “The problem we have now is there is increasing violence.”