- Indigenous communities in northeastern Nicaragua continue to suffer from violent attacks by land invaders looking to exploit the area for cattle ranching and gold mining.
- Environmental defenders are increasingly struggling to denounce the violence as President Daniel Ortega targets government critics ahead of elections scheduled for November.
- Many advocates of the Mayangna and Miskito communities have received threats from the government or felt pressure to shut down their organizations.
There is a sacred hill in Nicaragua known as Kiwakumbaih, where the ancestors of the Indigenous Mayangna people would go to hold important annual events. To this day, it continues to be a popular site for weddings, funerals, debates and festivals.
But this year, Kiwakumbaih became the site of a massacre.
More than a dozen Mayangna and Miskito had gathered on the hill one afternoon when a group of armed men approached with guns and machetes. They raped several of the women, according to community members who asked to remain anonymous. The armed men put their gun barrels in people’s mouths and fired, execution-style, and hanged others from trees.
Between nine and 13 people were killed in what the government has called an “inter-ethnic” conflict between Indigenous communities, but which residents say was actually carried out by colonos, or colonists, who have been forcing their way onto protected territory for years. The country’s media noted this was not the first time that colonos had killed locals at Kiwakumbaih, although it had never been on this scale.
Family members of the victims have called for a more thorough investigation into the Aug. 23 massacre. They say they want to locate the remains of loved ones and carry out a proper burial.
But investigating land-grabbing disputes has become even more complicated in 2021. The government is arresting critics of President Daniel Ortega and escalating police force ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November.
“We are in a state of censorship,” María*, an environmental defender, told Mongabay. “The rights of freedom of expression are not guaranteed, so there is a lot of fear in the communities to file complaints.”
Ortega, who has held office since 2007, after previously ruling from 1979 to 1990, has passed several laws this year to further empower his office. His government has carried out arrests of activists, journalists and candidates running against him. The charges, which include treason, inciting hatred, and conspiracy to overthrow the government, have sparked an international outcry against Ortega.
Equally concerning to the international community, more than 50 NGOs have been shuttered, 45 of them in August. One group in northeastern Nicaragua, which asked to remain anonymous, hasn’t been shut down yet but did receive a strongly worded letter condemning its activities. It was also sent to the NGO’s international partners.
Nicaragua’s Ministry of Government did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment about accusations of repression.
Earlier this month, local activist Osmin* told Mongabay in an interview that authorities arbitrarily detained and questioned him, then confiscated his passport. Other environmental defenders have left their organizations or stopped showing up to their offices, Osmin said, out of concern that they will be persecuted. Some offices have been closed, but only temporarily.
“It’s a very complicated situation,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we stop documenting cases.”
Osmin said that every election cycle brings on a new wave of colonos to protected areas, especially the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. The 2-million-hectare (4.9-million-acre) area sits on the border of Honduras’s Patuka National Park, Tawahka Biological Reserve and Río Plátano Biological Reserve, which together make up the largest protected forest in Central America.
The reserve also sits next to Nicaragua’s Northern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Zone, which the 1987 Constitution established to facilitate self-government, land ownership and protection of language and culture for the area’s Indigenous communities. Despite these concessions, the government has steadily undermined the area’s autonomy by granting large-scale mining contracts to international companies.
The area’s economic potential has attracted people from other parts of Nicaragua who are looking to take advantage of artisanal mining and illegal cattle ranching. Over the years, Mongabay has reported on large sections of cleared forest appearing in the reserve, as well as polluted rivers. Mercury used in mineral extraction has contaminated the fish that many residents still rely on for food, María told Mongabay.
Now that the government is shifting some of its law enforcement presence from rural areas to the cities, even more colonos are entering the area uncontested.
“There is a concentration of security focused on the electoral process,” said Amaru Ruiz, head of Fundación Del Río, an organization that monitors land invasions and environmental issues in Nicaragua’s reserves and autonomous zones. “There aren’t as many people to carry out patrols, and that has obviously escalated the conflict.”
A month after the massacre at Kiwakumbaih hill, two colonos allegedly shot an Indigenous resident of the Sangnilaya community in Twi Yahbra because he refused to sell them cigarettes on credit, according to María.
“We are not going to continue tolerating the criminalization, assassinations and territorial dispossession that has occurred in our territory,” the Mayagna Sauni As territorial government said in a statement this month. “We will not allow them to drive our extinction.”
*The names and genders of environmental defenders have been changed to protect their identities.
Banner image: A river in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Image by Alam Ramírez Zelaya via Flickr.
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