Nicaragua’s Century-Old Dispute

January 2, 2017

Indigenous communities in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast are working to secure rights to broad "territories" based on traditional patterns of use and occupancy.  Nicaragua’s dispute over indigenous lands has claimed at least 30 lives since 2008. Two of those lives were lost[1] just a few weeks ago over this century-old dispute. The conflict has existed since the Mosquito Coast was annexed to Nicaragua more than 155 years ago.  The Miskitos were never conquered by the Spanish – for a long while, the region was a British protectorate.

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” goes the old saying. Eighteen years ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that Nicaragua had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni to property, by granting a concession to a company to carry out road construction work and logging without the consent of the Awas Tingni community.  Despite the native communities’ autonomy over the lands and preferential treatment under the law, a modern colonization-style land grab is underway as the Nicaraguan government looks the other way. The subsequent failure by the government to resolve the situation led to a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights[2] [PDF] in 2001, which confirmed the existence of the indigenous land rights in question, including the right of participation in matters affecting land rights and the requirement of the consultation with the Awas Tigni indigenous peoples.

But the law favors the indigenous. Perhaps the most important piece of legislation is  law 455[3] on the Communal Property System of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast and of the Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz Rivers which, from 2003 on, also stipulates the right to self-government in the titled communities and territories. The 2006 General Education Law[4] also recognizes a Regional Autonomous Education System (SEAR).  When the Sandinista National Liberation Front came to power in Nicaragua in 1979, they subsequently had to face an armed insurgency supported by the United States. Indigenous peoples from the Caribbean Coast, primarily the Miskitu, took part in this insurgency. In order to put an end to indigenous resistance, the Sandinista government created law 28[5] on the Autonomous Regions of the North and South Atlantic (RAAN/RAAS), on the basis of a New Political Constitution and the Autonomy Law.

Yet, despite the constitutional and statutory provisions upholding indigenous land rights and authority, the Nicaraguan government itself has taken no definitive steps toward demarcating indigenous lands. Under the Nicaraguan civil code, all lands not titled to private owners belong to the state. It appears then that the Nicaraguan government, particularly its agencies charged with natural resource development, has approached the issue of land grabbing from the indigenous primarily from the standpoint of a party interested in securing its own property interests in the resource-rich Atlantic Coast.

 

References:

[1] Robles, F. (2016, October 16). Nicaragua Dispute Over Indigenous Land Erupts in Wave of Killings. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/world/americas/nicaragua-dispute-over-...

[2] Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua (Inter-American Court of Human Rights April 3, 2009) (Http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/, Dist. file).

[3]Law of Communal Property Regime of The Indigenous People and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and of the Rivers Boca, Coco, Indio and Maiz, 16 L §§ 445-1-28 (La Gaceta 2003).

[4] Acosta, M. L. (2016). The Indigenous World[Scholarly project]. In International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from http://www.iwgia.org/images/stories/sections/regions/latin-america/docum... 

[5] Kjaerby, C. (n.d.). Update 2011 - Nicaragua. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from http://www.iwgia.org/regions/latin-america/nicaragua/44-eng-regions/lati...

About Author(s)

Marisapr
Marisa is a third-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing certificates in Health Law and in Latin American Studies. She is interested in gender and race issues and how they affect immigration and immigrant communities. She also does research in public health issues. She has been contributing with articles for Panoramas since 2015.