Land disputes trigger old racial tensions on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

An indigenous community took 12 non-indigenous people hostage, claiming they won't release these 'colonists' until their land is returned to them.

An eastward push by Nicaraguan cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers looking for cheap land has suddenly met an unexpected hurdle. The country’s marginalized indigenous groups, who have populated the remote Caribbean “Mosquito Coast” long before Nicaragua was even a country, are taking a stand, and calling for respect of autonomy and indigenous rights to land.

Tensions over indigenous property rights have been heating to a slow boil for years, but finally shook the kettle Feb. 9 when the indigenous Miskito community of Lapan (see map here) rose up and captured 12 non-indigenous outsiders, including six volunteer policemen. The indigenous community says it won’t release the hostages until some 600 “colonist” families (non-indigenous Nicaraguans, or Mestizos) leave this land the indigenous see as their own.

The hostage situation has exacerbated racial tensions and stirred memories of a violent past. In the early 1980s, the Sandinistas’ “Red Christmas” massacre and forced relocation of indigenous communities near the Honduran border sparked a bloody Miskito uprising led by an indigenous group known as The Children of the Mother Earth, or YATAMA.

While the recent indigenous push-back against outsiders is nothing on the scale of the Miskito rebellion in the early ‘80s, local leaders warn it has the potential to quickly spiral into violence because the issues are similar.

“This is a time bomb,” Miskito leader Reynaldo Francis, the regional YATAMA leader said in a phone conversation from Bilwi, the capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region on the Caribbean coast.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” Mr. Francis says. “The Nicaraguan government has to respond quickly to this situation because it could get out of hand fast.”

The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is home to roughly 15 percent of the country’s population, but represents 46 percent of its natural territory. Those natural resource are key to many of the Sandinista government’s long-term economic development projects, including logging operations, the construction of an inter-oceanic canal, a 253-megawatt hydroelectric dam, and a deepwater port on the southern Caribbean coast.

The government of President Daniel Ortega has not addressed the Caribbean confrontation, and in the Sandinistas’ vertically structured government, rarely do politicians speak out until President Ortega or his wife address an issue first.

“The state needs to pay attention to this situation,” says Francis.

The recent hostage situation prompted the non-indigenous Mestizos living on the Caribbean coast to take action. They created a series of roadblocks, cutting off land transportation to and from Bilwi. Police finally convinced the protesters to allow trucks through the roadblocks early Tuesday morning, in order to prevent food and gas shortages. Still, the community of Lapan refuses to release its hostages.

The combination of Mestizo encroachment and Sandinista megaprojects has many of the country’s indigenous doubting that the promise of autonomy institutionalized in the 1987 Law of Autonomy for the Atlantic Coast, will ever be fully realized. Though the law is considered an exemplary progressive piece of legislation – it set up autonomous regional government councils that grant land-use concessions – like many Nicaragua laws, its existence on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. Critics claim autonomy has been corrupted by political parties that have bought allies, infiltrated the regional councils and divided the indigenous populations to prevent genuine self-governance.

For many, the long-stated promise of autonomy is something that should be pursued more aggressively, and has played a role in the Mestizo-Miskito tensions in Lapan.

“Our people have been too pacified by religion and a leave-it-to-God attitude,” says Gilberto Joseph, a Creole activist in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region who sells revolutionary T-shirts demanding “Autonomy Now for the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast.”

“Autonomy of our people is freedom and self-determination,” Joseph says in Creole. “For the government, that’s a no-no, and so they try to break us up … [But] people fight for less than that!”

On Feb. 25, the indigenous community’s traditional Council of Elders, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia, jumped in the fray by calling on all indigenous communities to “organize against the aggression and neutralize the actions of invasion, occupation, destruction of forests, land sales, and illegal concession that the State of Nicaragua is promoting as a new form of neo-colonialization.”

The Council of Elders is suspicious that the “outside interests” reach all the way to Venezuela. The ancestral group is denouncing the “powerful business interests of the Venezuelan ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas group] of Hugo Chávez that is claiming ownership of our natural resources.”

“The mestizos are invading and destroying our land; they want to turn it into a desert like they’ve done on the Pacific coast,” says Rev. Hector Williams, the Wihta Tara, or great judge, of the ancestral Communitarian Nation of the Mosquita, referring to the felling of trees in the region. “This is causing the people to rise up,” Reverend Williams says.   

Francis, the YATAMA leader, says an ugly racial conflict is a threat, as non-indigenous continue to stake claims on indigenous land.

“They keep advancing on our lands and cutting our trees. They already have us pushed up against the ocean, and now they want to put us in the ocean,” Francis says. “But we are not fish to live in the ocean.” 

– A version of this article first ran on the author’s website, The Nicaragua Dispatch.

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