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 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 [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 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 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 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.