Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 212 | Marzo 1999



A Plea from Prinzapolka

Four US businessmen are trying to appropriate the traditional lands corresponding to 12 Miskito communities in Prinzapolka. It is one of the most serious property conflicts currently rocking Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast region, a conflict between a legality that lacks legitimacy and the age-old traditions of the land of Tulu Walpa, which still lack legality.

Jorge Matamoros

Prinzapolka is the name of many things in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN): a major river, the municipality through which that river cuts, and the village on the Caribbean seashore at the river's mouth. As the locals have recently discovered, it also seems to be a real estate concept backed by a properly notarized piece of paper. But whatever that piece of paper may say, the locals know, even if the rest of Nicaragua doesn't, that Prinzapolka is also a cultural value.

Twelve Miskito communities in the upriver part of the municipality have been on alert since September 1998, when they found themselves embroiled in a legal battle against four US businessmen without precedent in local history. As one of the most serious of the property conflicts currently sending shock waves through Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast, it should put the rest of Nicaragua on alert as well. It is a conflict between legality without legitimacy on one side, and legitimacy denied legality on the other. The legitimacy is rooted in the age-old traditions of the land of Tulu Walpa, which means the "land of the golden oriole's rock" in Miskito.

Home of the Prinzu

After the Coco, or Wanky as Miskitos have always called it, the Prinzapolka is the region's most important river. It runs 370 kilometers before emptying into the Caribbean, not counting any of the major tributaries that flow into it from the Pis Pis mountain range, including the Bambana, Yahoya and Wani. Between the 1920s and 1960s, these converging currents churned with activity. Those were the years when Canadian and US companies were mercilessly exploiting the gold and other precious minerals in the mountainous mining enclaves of Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita, from whence these rivers spring. The areas were called enclaves because the economic activities that took place in them were closed systems: no profits were reinvested in the region's economic or social improvement, and even provisions for the "company stores" were imported from abroad. Now these areas are reduced to enclaves of poverty and abandonment.

Prinzapolka's cultural value is expressed in its very name, which originates with the historical indigenous community located at the mouth of the river. As local elders tell the story, the community was founded well before the arrival of the whites by the Prinzu, one of the autochthonous groups from which the Miskito are directly descended and from whom they inherited their native language.

From the judicial-administrative angle, Prinzapolka refers to the new 5,719-km2 municipality bearing that same name, which comprises some 32 communities with a total of 11,000 inhabitants. Ethnically speaking, Prinzapolka is a predominantly Miskito municipality, though Mayangna and mestizo families are found in some communities. In the past three decades, however, a number of communities made up entirely of extended mestizo families have sprung up thanks to what official lingo describes as the "advance" of the agricultural frontier. While that euphemistic term makes the phenomenon sound natural or inadvertent, it is actually the result of a state policy that promotes the migration of mestizo populations from the Pacific ever further into indigenous lands to ultimately eliminate the ethnic identity of the communal structures.

Then there is the political angle. Prinzapolka began the task of establishing itself as an autonomous municipality barely two years ago, after having been historically subordinated to the municipalities of Rosita and Puerto Cabezas. The new municipal seat is the upriver community of Alamikamban.
Prinzapolka's economic potential is immense. The territory has a wealth of biodiversity in both flora and fauna. Many different species of broad-leaf and conifer trees abound, together with a variety of forest animals. There are also grasslands and forests apt for agriculture, livestock and/or ecotourism.

A massacre of forests and communities

In the span of the region's economic history that falls roughly between 1924 and 1940, Prinzapolka was a major source of precious woods, rubber and bananas from local plantations for export. The Benjamín Zeledón Port, adjacent to the seaside town of Prinzapolka, was the bustling site for loading the area's wealth onto boats for export and offloading the supplies going to the mining towns and lumber camps upriver.
World War II and the creation of synthetic alternatives put an end to intensive rubber extraction, while the export of bananas ended even a bit earlier due, among other things, to a serious banana disease. But the clear-cutting of lumber continued, albeit on a lesser scale, until the end of 1980. By that time deforestation had made lumber extraction unappealingly expensive and the Somoza government had been overthrown, so most foreign exploiters and exporters pulled out. In addition, relations between the new Sandinista government and the coast peoples were going downhill fast. As the war in the 1980s intensified, economic activity in the region fell to near zero.

Since the early 1990s there has been a new boom in the logging business, based as before on irrational exploitation. Both the central and the autonomous regional governments have indiscriminately sold licenses to national and international lumber dealers of all sizes and turned a blind eye as they engaged in their depredatory businesses.
These official bodies grant such exploitation concessions without respecting their own moratoriums on cutting, without putting into effect their own forestry management requirements, and worst of all, without having any communal development plan in mind. Lumbering takes place with no control or monitoring to ensure either environmental protection or the socio-economic development of the communities on which the trees are found. In these conditions, lumber dealers have enjoyed a monthly average bounty of 2.8 million cubic feet of mahogany over the past few years. This means not only eliminating 5,000 trees from the shrinking forest each month, but also destroying the very roots of the communal infrastructure, which is based on the forests.

The distribution of the income generated by this activity is as irrational as the exploitation itself. Income from taxes and fines alone is estimated at the equivalent of over US$90,000 a month, not to mention the sizable initial fee for the exploitation license, but almost none of this money goes to the communities or to reforestation. And as one might imagine, the lumber dealers themselves are no less loath to share their profits with the communities than the governments are to share their income. Most lumber dealers ship whole logs out on trucks, without paying locals for even the most minimal processing. The result is a veritable massacre of the forest and of the traditional communities that depend on them.

The legality-legitimacy contradiction

The state's policy on indigenous communities is one of the main reasons that the enclave economy has succeeded since its earliest manifestations at the turn of last century. The policy was and is based on controlling and regulating traditional land tenure, starting with the premise that indigenous communities are not legal realities but socio-cultural ones. On that basis the indigenous communities' traditional lands were granted to foreign and national exploiters of their natural resources via numerous concessions.

The consequence of this policy is that at least six kinds of property can be found in Prinzapolka's land tenure structure today. There are properties based on 1) recently legalized suppletory titles; 2) deeds issued at the beginning of the century; 3) deeds granted by the National Agrarian Reform Institute to settlers or 4) to producers' cooperatives from outside the communities; 5) individual property titles of people considered community members, and 6) lands within the indigenous reserve that have been declared national property.

Every last one of these forms of property ownership have upset the indigenous communities' traditional land use, affecting the concept of communal rights, and affirming in its place the rights of individuals based on "legal" titles. The current conflicts are the result of all this. They pit the communities against outside claimants to the land, and pit one concept of land rights based on legal but not legitimate formalities against another based on a legitimate tradition that has no legal support. The two concepts also have their origins in different concepts of law.

A study of land use and tenure in the indigenous communities of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, done in 1997 by a group of consultants from the Central American and Caribbean Research Council (CACRC), went straight to the heart of this contradiction. "This assessment reveals a series of analytical and judicial problems in applying the key term `traditional' to the rights that the communities have to their lands," wrote the researchers. "More concretely, the problems arise in lands originally belonging to a particular community, but which the state later expropriated to exploit directly or to grant as concessions to third parties."
This, then, is the context of a denunciation made by a dozen Miskito communities in Prinzapolka. They charge that a group of US businessmen are trying to expropriate thousands of hectares of land traditionally belonging to the communities of Tungla, Tasba Pauni, Alamikamban, Klarindan, Ladricola, Buena Vista, Limbaikan, Galilea, Dos Amigos, Tuburus, Bethel and Auka-Mango.

In a judicial action unprecedented on the coast, a suit was filed locally in September 1998 against these communities on behalf of four businessmen with US nationality. Their names, according to the document, are Robert Edward Merrick Burlingson, Jossep Patten Brow Keller, Paulo Studer Morales and Richard Clearence Twist Giltner. According to sources familiar with the suit, Merrick currently lives in the United States and the other three in Guatemala. These men apparently exploited the area prior to leaving in 1974, and are now acting as a group or consortium to recover their access, using all the legal and illicit tricks at their command, including bribery.

The case is being handled in the Puerto Cabezas District Civil Court. It has been assigned to the local judge Fernando Saavedra, who, as the chronology of events below illustrates, is also acting in collusion with the businessmen, together with some prominent regional politicians of the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party. The conflict is typical of the land struggle in the RAAN in that it is evolving as an unequal confrontation between David and Goliath, with the diminutive David represented by the communal síndicos.

The authority of the síndicos

In Miskito tradition, síndicos are the maximum authority figures selected within the communities to deal with anything related to communal lands and the natural resources found in or on them. The síndico is responsible for safeguarding the community's natural resources, regulating the use of communal lands, resolving internal land disputes and representing the community to other communities, state institutions and third parties in issues pertaining to natural resources and, particularly, land.

This local figure is legally rooted in the 1905 Indigenous Communities Law and was instituted in the framework of the Harrison-Altamirano Treaty signed that same year between England and Nicaragua. Through the treaty, Nicaragua formally pledged to legalize the traditional communal lands in the erstwhile Miskito Reserve to compensate for the coast's military occupation by the government of Liberal General José Santos Zelaya in 1894. That military action culminated in what the government officially termed the Reincorporation of the Mosquitia but Miskitos call the annexation of the Land of Tulu Walpa. General Zelaya went so far as to name the "reincorporated" region after himself and rename the port village of Bilwi in the north for Rigoberto Cabezas, the military officer who led the occupation. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1987, when a law was passed granting certain aspects of autonomy to the coast, the vast department of Zelaya was formally divided into two parts and officially renamed the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS).

Chronology of the conflict

A joint effort by síndicos Andrés Sequeira Duarte of Alamikamban and Jonathan Espinoza of Tasba Pauni to reaffirm their communities' right to the threatened traditional lands triggered the escalation of the conflict to a judicial plane. The following is a brief chronology of that escalation.

January 1997: The síndicos find out that the four businessmen are on the move, alleged legal titles in hand, to claim ownership rights over communal lands.

February: Invoking traditional rights, the síndicos proceed to annul the titles through a judicial action, thus reestablishing community rights over the disputed land.

March-April: According to Andrés Sequeira's oral version, the businessmen then visit the community of Alamikamban to try to buy off the síndicos with $30,000.

May-June: The bribery attempts and pressures to withdraw their claims continue through foreign and local emissaries, among them regional political leaders and authorities of the Prinzapolka municipal mayor's office. Given Sequeira's unusually solid moral character and his identification with his community, the attempted bribery gets nowhere.

September 1998: After these attempts fail, the businessmen decide to try the judicial approach. The legal action begins with a visit to Alamikamban by Judge Fernando Saavedra, in the company of the claimant's legal proxy and a heavily armed military contingent. The entourage is there to notify the síndicos of a lawsuit filed against them, accusing them of annulling titles, falsifying verdicts and other illegal acts. Through that suit, the claimants hope to rescue their "titles" and prosecute the síndicos in the bargain.

In the six months since then, local leaders have organized into a Communal Commission of Local Authorities and begun to denounce the case at a regional and national level. Between October 1998 and January 1999 the commission presented the case before indigenous and human rights organizations, the media and universities. As a result, two support groups were created, one on the coast itself and the other in Managua. The one in Bilwi is called the Regional Coalition for Defense of the Territorial Rights of the Atlantic Coast Indigenous Communities and is coordinated by the Superintendence of the Moravian Church's Provincial Junta, headed by Reverend Fernando Colomer. In Managua, the support group is made up of the Moravian Church, Christian Medical Action, Oxfam-UK, the Humboldt Center and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH). Reverend Norman Bent, also of the Moravian Church, coordinates this coalition.

The local leaders are also preparing to defend their rights through a series of actions that range from judicial defense and political pressure all the way to direct resistance. As the communities' legal representative, Miskito lawyer Hazel Law, who has long experience as an indigenous rights activist, is in charge of the legal defense.

The communal authorities themselves—síndicos, local justices of the peace and the councils of elders—designed the strategy of direct resistance. If necessary, they will call for a massive uprising of the populations the businessmen would like to despoil of their lands, who will defend themselves with their traditional weapons: arrows, machetes and clubs. Alfredo Logan, former military chief of the indigenous movement in Alamikamban during the 1980s, eloquently warned that "the boundary markers of the communal lands have been painted with the red of our blood since 1980, and we are not communities that have only been around for a hundred years. We may have no legal titles, but we know how to resist and will not hesitate to do so."

A biased judge

According to the legal dossier on the suit, the businessmen purchased 58,894 hectares plus 5,914 square meters of land in 1974 from various non-indigenous owners for 3,339,176 córdobas, or approximately $330,000 at the time. The document identifies the first owner who sold to them as Albert Bell Fay, who sold 40,000 hectares. The second was the US-owned Caribbean Shipping and Development Corporation. In Hazel Law's opinion, the suit is questionable and can be contested since it contains various inconsistencies, contrary actions, murky connections and faulty reasoning.

In seeking to defend their rights, the local authorities of the affected communities have found some interlocutors who demonstrate comprehension and solidarity, but have also encountered bias in the judge and indifference in some regional and municipal government officials. Among the latter are the mayor of Prinzapolka, the regional governor Alba Rivera, and Miskito regional councilors Stedman Fagoth and Leonel Pantin, all of whom have allied with President Alemán's Liberal Constitutionalist Party over the past few years.

Judge Saavedra is acting with demonstrably premeditated bias and committing technical irregularities in the process, as various actions such as his visit to Alamikamban in the company of the claimants' lawyer and armed soldiers confirm. A reliable source says that Saavedra is a member of the same law office as the claimant's lawyer, and that he made his preliminary ruling on the suit ignoring objections by the defense lawyer. This resulted in an appeal by the defense, which forced the judge to wait until the appeals court and the Supreme Court of Justice either issue their own rulings or ratify his actions. Nonetheless he proceeded to hear evidence on the main suit, which was a biased decision on behalf of the claimants and ample evidence of his moral code. The suit is currently waiting for the Supreme Court to hand down its decision on the defense appeal.

The state is politically and morally inept

This conflict is but one among many that are endangering the land demarcation process for the indigenous communities of Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast. It is also a direct result of the role the Nicaraguan state has played continually from the moment that the Zelaya government claimed its sovereignty over the old Mosquitia in 1894. The state has been politically and morally unable to recognize the coast's distinct identity and include it within the nation's identity. The state, skewed by a history of ethnocentrism, has never designed political actions for the coast to benefit its peoples. On the contrary, the region's valuable potential is exploited simply to satisfy outside desires. The central government's policy on legalizing individual land tenure is evidence of this.

The Nicaraguan state has shirked its commitment to resolve the indigenous communities' land demarcation claims since 1905. Now, almost a century later, foreigners are showing up in Prinzapolka with legal titles for land that is far more extensive than that of any single indigenous community. The figures in the official registry indicate that in 94 years only 19 of Prinzapolka's 32 communities have succeeded in their fight to obtain legal title. The properties now legalized to the communities amount to approximately 15,000 hectares, averaging 789 hectares per community, which is a ridiculously small amount of what they traditionally considered communal lands. In contrast, several dozen individuals have acquired "legal" titles to an average of 40,000 hectares each. One title for 20,000 hectares is in the name of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the deceased former dictator of Nicaragua. While the communities have been left with barely enough land to sustain their populations, the properties owned by some individuals extend beyond the horizon.

With such precedents as these, the future is very worrying, particularly given the extremely restrictive plans for resolving the problem of traditional lands designed by President Arnoldo Alemán's Liberal government, a descendant of Zelaya's. The first draft of the government's new Indigenous Communities Law, circulated in January 1997, proposes to reduce the participation of the autonomous governments in the process of titling communal lands and concentrate the decision-making power for everything related to land titling in the central government agencies.

Two legally opposed principles

The property issue, including property in the Caribbean Coast, will have to be the centerpiece of any genuine national consensus in Nicaragua. But it is critical to understand that while solving the crisis on the coast depends on solving the property conflicts, just as it does in the Pacific, the people on the coast have a completely different proposal than the state. We are not seeking guarantees for individual private ownership as in the rest of the country, but rather the recognition and demarcation of the communities' traditional lands.

The CACRC study in 1997 reached important conclusions that satisfied coast expectations in the search for consensus around the land issue. It recognized that two opposed legal principles or categories exist in Nicaragua's legal framework regarding the rights of indigenous communities to the land and its natural resources. It suggests that the only way to find a just solution is to base it on both of these.

According to this analysis, the two principles at loggerheads are the system of integration on the one hand and norms of coexistence on the other. Integration originates in the exclusionary vision of the state as it attempts to incorporate everything into its own scheme. Coexistence is based on the necessary sharing of space between two totally different legal, political and cultural systems: the indigenous or coastal one and the one centered in the state. "There has never been an integral and coherent reconciliation of these two sets of legal principles," writes CACRC, "much less of the two sets of beliefs, attitudes and institutional practices that correspond to the two legal principles. The result of this is serious confusion, ambivalence and incoherence in fundamental issues related to the state's policy toward the land rights of the indigenous communities." The greatest risk now is that the new legislation on indigenous communities could be promulgated without achieving this integral and coherent reconciliation that the CACRC recommends.

From the indigenous communities' perspective, the goal for the 21st century will be to get beyond the policy that has denied them their territorial rights and their domain over the natural resources. Shaking off this policy would allow the possibility of conceiving of a regional development model within the nation. Legalizing and demarcating communal lands is the way forward to a practical solution to the problem, and no one on the coast is giving higher priority to anything else on the regional agenda. The concern is also growing that the current government will end up imposing its primitively anti-indigenous policy despite everything.

A century of state repression

In its conclusions, the CACRC study states that "the most convincing argument to emerge from the results of this assessment is also the most obvious: from the communities' perspective, no failure of local development models could be more disastrous than the consequences we see today of the development plans directed by the state for the past 100 years."
The Prinzapolka case is a first alarm bell, announcing conflicts of major proportions in the region. Communities are mobilizing to demand legalization and demarcation of the traditional indigenous communal lands, the lands of the Miskitos, Mayangnas, Creoles, Garífunas and Ramas. Their fundamental claims are based on a historic legal right that the Nicaraguan state has ignored for over a hundred years. As a result of the state's attitude, the communities and the region continue to sink into ever more extreme poverty.

If the fight against poverty is truly an objective of all Nicaraguans, it should be remembered that the determining factor of the poverty on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast has been the repressive state policy toward the indigenous communities, maintained consistently for over a century. Its most eloquent result has been a land tenure model based on the illegitimate distribution of the traditional lands. It is time to change this policy.

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