Land conflicts lead to racial tensions on Caribbean coast

Part I in a two-part series on land conflicts in Nicaragua

The continuous wave of land invasions and outside encroachment into indigenous communal lands by non-indigenous Nicaraguans has sparked a Miskito uprising in one rural community and wider fears of growing racial tensions in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

“This is a time bomb,” Miskito leader Reynaldo Francis, the regional leader of the Yatama indigenous group, told The Nicaragua Dispatch Friday afternoon in a phone conversation from Bilwi, the regional capital of the RAAN.

“This is a very dangerous situation. We’ve never had a conflict like this before between the colonists and the indigenous. The Nicaraguan government has to respond quickly to this situation because it could get out of hand fast,” Francis stressed.

By “colonists” Francis is referring to non-indigenous Nicaraguans who, since the 1990s, have been encroaching on the lush indigenous land to raise cattle, grow crops or extract precious hardwoods.

The indigenous leader says several Miskito communities and Yatama ex-combatants are organizing to defend themselves in the northern communities of Waspam and Río Coco. If the situation is not dialed back quickly, it could become very dangerous, he warns.

“People are running out of patience,” Francis said. “Right now any crazy person could do something to provoke the other side.”

The crisis started Feb. 9, when six non-indigenous “volunteer policemen” wearing uniforms and armed with guns tried to arrest two indigenous community leaders in the rural Miskito village of Lapan, some 80 kilometers southwest of Bilwi.

The Miskito community, which was already suspicious of outsiders invading their lands, captured the six policemen and locked them up. A few days later, the community took six more prisoners, bringing the number of detained “colonists” to 12.

Lapan has since closed off its community to all outsiders, and insists it won’t release its prisoners until all the colonists leave their land.

The mestizo (Nicaraguan non-indigenous) population on the Caribbean coast quickly organized to defend their own. The mestizos, many of whom are affiliated with either the Sandinista Front or the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), used trucks and busses to block the main roads in and out of Bilwi, cutting off commerce and public transportation. The mestizo protesters say the roadblocks will continue until all the prisoners are released by their indigenous captures.

The roadblock, now in its second week, has reportedly led to the beginning of food shortages in the Bilwi market. It has also prevented people in the RAAN from traveling over land to Managua for medical attention or other business.

Francis warns that if the situation is not resolved quickly, the Miskito population in Bilwi could rise up against the mestizos, triggering an ugly racial conflict that will be hard to control once it starts.

“The Caribbean coast has become contaminated with mestizos,” Francis says. “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. But we are not fish to live in the ocean.”

Though Francis’ Yatama—an indigenous movement that rose up in arms against the first Sandinista government in the 1980s—is now allied with the Sandinistas on certain national political issues, he says the indigenous land issue is one that trumps their political alliance and unifies all Miskito people.

“This is our ancestral struggle,” Francis said. “Many young Miskito men fought and sacrificed their lives for this land.”

Titling indigenous land

Land conflicts are not new on the Caribbean coast, but they have flared again in recent years.

In 2003, the government of President Enrique Bolaños passed Law 445, legislation to demarcate indigenous land and give structure to Nicaragua’s 1987 Autonomy Law. The formalization of property titles and limitations has reinvigorated some older conflicts over land ownership and management.


The agricultural frontier continues to advance into Bosawas (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Indigenous populations claim the mestizos’ continued deforestation of their ancestral lands has reached a critical point. Even the Nicaraguan Army recently admitted that land invasions and deforestation has reached the very heart of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, considered the “lungs of Central America.”

“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 Willams, the Wihta Tara—or “great judge” of the ancestral Communitarian Nation of the Mosquita.

“This is causing the people to rise up,” the Wihta Tara told The Nicaragua Dispatch today in a phone interview from Bilwi. “The problem is big and it is serious.”

Wihta Tara says the current uprising in Lapan is a grassroots movement to defend the land. He insists he is not behind Lapan’s rebellion, though the cause of the community’s pushback is very similar to that of the separatists.

“Wihta Tara is not behind this,” he said. “They are defending their own land, because in the end, each community has to defend itself.”

Yatama’s Francis, meanwhile, thinks the central government is making a mistake by continuing to ignore the problem. He says the central government is so vertically structured that state authorities RAAN stand around with their arms folded until they receive orders from President Daniel Ortega, who has not commented on the situation after two weeks.

“Apparently they are more interested in the EU report about election fraud. But we are not interested in that,” Francis said.

The indigenous leader also questions why the state doesn’t give the same attention to indigenous’ land claims as they do to wealthy investors on the Pacific coast.

Francis says he finds it interesting that the Prosecutors’ Office has started talks with Punta Teonoste over the disputed territory claimed by the luxury eco-hotel, but has not given the indigenous people the same treatment when it comes to their claims about communal land.

“There they are negotiating over 20 manzanas of land that the state wants to give to Edén Pastora, but here they won’t listen to us and we’re talking about thousands and thousands of manzanas of land,” Francis said. “The state needs to pay attention to this situation.”


Next week: part II: Pacific coast problems