- Colonos, or colonists, have been pushing into rural parts of northern Nicaragua for decades, drawn to the potential for unregulated gold mining and cattle ranching.
- The area legally belongs to Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous communities, who have sustainably managed the area for crop cultivation.
- But many families have been driven away by the colonos’ threats of violence and destruction of the forests and water sources they depend on for sustenance.
- With nowhere to go, the Indigenous communities are now experiencing food insecurity and malnutrition as they attempt to grow crops on small plots of unclaimed land.
Many Indigenous communities in northern Nicaragua are struggling with hunger and malnutrition as increasing land invasions force them from ancestral forests that they once sustainably managed for crop cultivation.
Residents in and around the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve near the Caribbean coast, most of them part of Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous communities, don’t always have enough to eat after being displaced by outsiders who forcibly enter the area to mine for gold, graze cattle, and log the 2.2-million-hectare (5.4-million-acre) UNESCO-protected forest.
“On the one hand you have the violence and massacres. On the other, there’s the slow, painful, morbid situation that is being created when lands are taken away,” said Anuradha Mittal, director of the U.S.-based Oakland Institute, which has investigated human rights issues in Nicaragua. “As the time comes for people to plant beans, cassava, bananas, these communities are expelled or afraid to go to their farms, which results in hunger and malnutrition.”
Some displaced residents have complained of being underweight and losing their teeth, common symptoms of malnutrition. Older people have starved to death after refusing to eat processed foods that clash with the ancestral diets their bodies are accustomed to, community leaders told Mongabay. The processed foods are worse nutritionally and often include basic carbohydrates instead of natural plants and meats from the area.
“Families are not eating well and the diversity of food has decreased,” said Maria*, a local activist in the community. “The quantity, as well. And the frequency … There are people who eat once a day.”
Indigenous communities in and around the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, as well as international human rights defenders, say the ancestral land is being stolen by colonos, or colonists — mestizo Nicaraguans who come from other parts of the country in hopes of profiting from unregulated mining and agricultural activity, resulting in deforestation that makes it harder for locals to access traditional foods.
Gold mining and cattle ranching are two of the country’s largest industries, accounting for nearly $1 billion in annual exports despite international criticism that they contribute significantly to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
Between 1987 and 2010, the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve lost more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest. It lost another 92,000 hectares (227,000 acres) between 2012 and 2017. Mongabay has reported on the risks local ecosystems face there as deforestation spreads, including to more than 200 species of birds, 85 mammals and 200,000 insects, as well as nearly 400 plant species. Much of this biodiversity was sustainably managed by Indigenous communities before the colonos arrived.
Deforestation has damaged local watersheds as nearby foliage disappears and cattle ranches pollute rivers and streams. Fish populations have decreased, meaning the communities are losing access to a principal source of protein, activists said.
Nicaragua’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources didn’t respond to a request for comment. In previous statements, the government has said that violence in the area is due to interethnic fighting, not land invasions. However, human rights organizations like the Center for Justice and International Law accuse the state of being complicit in Indigenous peoples’ disappearance.
“Since the massive arrival of the colonos in our territory, livelihoods have changed radically,” said Osmin*, an Indigenous legal representative. “The livelihoods of Indigenous people, village communities, is traditionally from the river, the forest, the land. But the colonos have a dynamic that is very different from that of the Indigenous communities, so people are feeding themselves with different kinds of foods.”
Many of the colonos use violence and intimidation to drive the families from their land. This often includes the rape and killing of local residents who are trying to access fishing, hunting and fruit-gathering areas, according to a report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
Last September, colonos burned five homes in Sangnilaya agricultural areas, threatened rice farmers and kidnapped two people for around eight hours, according to Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders. The Sangnilaya are of Miskito ethnicity.
They were forced to retreat across the local Wawa river and live on a patch of land that is too small and infertile to produce sufficient food. “We traditionally plant yuca, corn, plantain, rice,” said Adolfo*, a Sangnilaya community leader. “But it’s been a year since we’ve grown anything.”
Some Sangnilaya residents have resorted to growing pine trees, which they cut down and turn into charcoal that they sell in the city of Puerta Cabezas around 65 km (40 miles) away. In addition to being an unhealthy profession — giving rise to respiratory problems and cancer — selling charcoal hasn’t proven a sustainable economic practice for many of them, as they still struggle to make enough money to buy food.
In early January, 50 Sangnilaya residents banded together to visit a 2,450-hectare (6,055-acre) territory in hopes of convincing some colonos to leave. February marks the start of preparations for spring planting. For many Sangnilaya residents, this was a last-ditch attempt to ensure there would be food for the rest of this year.
“We can’t cross the river,” Adolfo said, “we can’t work inside that area. That area was taken by them. So we enlisted a group to go and see who let them in, who authorized it.”
Walking deeper into the property, they said they started to hear gunshots overhead — a common intimidation tactic. Several armed colonos in camouflage appeared from behind trees and told the Sangnilaya to leave. Adolfo said he spoke with the leader of the group, trying to explain to him that the colonos were wrongfully occupying the territory and that all leasing and sales there were being carried out illegally.
The conversation was civil, according to Adolfo, but not necessarily productive. The two sides parted without violence or an agreement.
Later, community leaders reported that the police visited the area a day after the Sangnilaya left. However, no arrests were made. The police, who couldn’t be reached for a comment for this article, promised Sangnilaya leaders that they would take their complaints into consideration.
However, it’s a promise that Indigenous groups in the area have heard for years. “The government says, ‘We’re going to go see, we’re going to go check out what [the colonos] are doing,’” Adolfo said. “But that’s it.”
In the meantime, Adolfo said the Sangnilaya and other Indigenous communities in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve will continue to do what they can to feed themselves and make ends meet. They are determined to fix this issue and return to their ancestral land.
“We are going to die of hunger here or we are going to die as men,” he said of the community’s attitude moving forward. “We have to resolve this problem.”
*The identities of local sources have been changed for their protection.
Banner image: Untouched forest in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve near the Caribbean coast, where many Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous communities live. Photo via Wikimedia.
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