Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 329 | Diciembre 2008



Who Do the Coast Lands Belong to And Who Will Get Them?

The demarcation of lands claimed by the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities of Nicaragua’s long-ignored Caribbean Coast is finally underway after hundreds of years of conflict. Despite its limitations, obstacles and conflicts of all kinds, will this process provide the opportunity to consolidate coast autonomy?

Margarita Antonio

What used to be called the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and is now properly recognized as the Caribbean Coast is the historical home of three indigenous peoples, as well as two Afro-descendent groups that arrived during the colonial period. These different peoples and groups have coexisted with their different forms of social organization and different forms of land tenure and use. In the mid-1980s a form of autonomous government was designed in response to an uprising by the indigenous population and in 1987 an autonomy law was passed that divided the coast—nearly half of the national land mass—into two extensive autonomous regions. Today, the demarcation of these people’s lands into “territories” is interwoven with the need to reform both the autonomous regime and the electoral law. At what pace are they advancing?

A slow process full of obstacles

A variety of migrations from Europe, other Caribbean areas and the other side of Nicaragua have decisively influenced the coast’s ethnic and linguistic configuration over the centuries. But none has represented such a threat to the aspirations of the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities as the intense migratory invasion of Nicaraguan mestizos in the past two decades—a phenomenon known as the “advance of the agricultural frontier.”

The native populations find it increasingly hard to exercise their rights to the use, enjoyment and benefit of the coast’s resources, the free development of their organizational forms and communal property and other rights recognized by the Constitution and the Autonomy Statute. A look at Bluefields, the capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) and once recognized as a black Creole city, or at Bilwi, capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and originally a Miskitu indigenous village, is enough to demonstrate that these peoples are an ever smaller minority in their own lands.

The current land demarcation process, undertaken in compliance with Law 445, passed in 2002, is a mechanism to halt the advance of the agricultural frontier and deepen the coast peoples’ autonomy. Nonetheless, some sectors fear that this process is being implemented in such a way as to strengthen the hegemony of one group above all others. No one questions the urgency of demarcating and titling the coast lands, but there are multiple opinions about how it is being done and the seriousness of the problems bogging it down. The process is moving forward, but with many limitations and difficulties.

Many believe the demarcation process is finally happening thanks to the current FSLN government’s commitment to coast autonomy. This is referred to in the Alliance Agreement between the indigenous regional party called Yatama and the FSLN signed in May 2006, a month after those two parties came in first and second, respectively, in the last autonomous regional government election in the RAAN. Nonetheless, the Caribbean Coast is not just Yatama, and the political forces that dominate the rest of the country view coast autonomy as a strictly local issue, as do most Nicaraguans. They are a long way from understanding and assuming the autonomy process as one of the paths to full national integration, with a two-way integration of the Pacific and Caribbean sides, without it involving the annulment or disappearance of any people, culture or language.

The background to the current land rights

The Caribbean Coast wasn’t always part of Nicaragua. In a process of indirect British rule via a de facto protectorate system, the territory was known as the Mosquitia until 1860, when Great Britain recognized the by-then independent Nicaraguan state’s hegemony over it through the Treaty of Managua. It was an agreement in which the coast leaders and residents had no participation, despite being the object of the negotiation.

Even with the dissolution of the Mosquitia and the creation of a “Mosquito Reserve,” coast leaders continued to construct the region’s identity with attributes of a state, resisting Nicaragua’s pretensions to exercise control over the region. This was abruptly truncated with the military annexation of the coast in 1894, ordered during the Liberal revolution of General José Santos Zelaya.

When the current Council of Elders organization alludes to the “first autonomy” it is referring precisely to that period between 1860 and 1894, when the peoples of the Caribbean Coast worked together for the common good. All the lands within the Reserve were declared to be under the dominion of the “Government of the Mosquito Reserve and subject to its laws and regulations.”

After the military annexation, which until recently was referred to in school textbooks by the euphemism “reincorporation of the Mosquitia,” the three indigenous peoples (Miskitus, Sumu/Mayangnas and Ramas) and the two Afro-descended communities (Creoles and Garífunas) were the protagonists of negotiations, lobbying and confrontations with the nascent Nicaraguan state in an effort to obtain recognition of their territorial patrimony. The responses were almost always fraudulent, corrupt processes that sought to fragment the territorial unity.

Through the 1905 Harrison-Altamirano Treaty—again between Britain and Nicaragua without coast participation—some titles were granted that serve as support documents for a few of the territorial claims in today’s demarcation and titling process. In the following decades various protests and rebellions by indigenous peoples—like the legendary Sam Pitts, who is only now beginning to be researched—were not only repressed, but also hidden. They were never recognized as legitimate chapters in the history of the region, by then ceded out as an economic enclave to mainly US investors who intensively exploited its abundant natural resources—primarily gold, timber and shellfish—without reinvesting any of the profits locally.

The more recent territorial claims

More recent territorial claims arose with the organization of agricultural cooperatives on the Río Coco, whose communities are almost exclusively Miskitu. Those cooperatives were the forerunners of the first indigenous organizations: the Alliance for the Progress of the Miskitu and Sumu Peoples (Alpromisu) and Project Limón in the Sumu-Mayangna communities, an organization later known as Sukawala.

In the historic Fifth General Assembly of November 1979, only four months after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, Alpromisu was transformed into Misurasata, which stands for Miskitu, Sumu, Rama Sandinista Asla-takanka (Miskitu for united). The following year Misurasata led the indigenous mobilization for recognition of their territorial, cultural and social rights. Its violent repression triggered a war on the coast headed in the southern area by Misurasata and in the north by a split that took the name Misura. A successful attempt at the reunification of those two groups in 1988 led to the formation of Yatama.

That war revealed the need for profound structural changes in the Nicaraguan state to make recognition of the historic rights of the Caribbean Coast indigenous and Afro-descended people a reality. To the credit of the Sandinista government of the time, also engaged in a US-financed David & Goliath war in the other half of the country, it expressed this recognition in the Autonomy Statute passed into law in 1987. While its implementation was delayed by Hurricane Joan’s devastation the following year, the 1990 general elections also saw the election of the first Regional Governments and Councils in the newly created RAAN and RAAS, the latest names for what had originally been called the Mosquitia territory, then the Mosquito Reserve, then the department of Zelaya (named by and for the general who annexed it) and finally Special Zones 1 and 2 during the war of the eighties. The party that had recognized the coast population’s historic rights was voted out in those elections and the new government showed little genuine interest in the autonomy process despite signing an agreement with Yatama, by then back from war and converted into a regional social organization.

Despite the adverse national context, however, the existence of the Autonomy Statute made it possible to continue pushing the autonomy process. Each step since has required tremendous energy, organizational capacity, advocacy and lobbying of national authorities by the coast leadership, as documented by the international autonomy symposiums held in 1992, 1997 and 2004.

A historic sentence engenders a new law

On August 31, 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a historic sentence in the case of the Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua. The Court agreed to accept the case because Nicaragua had not demarcated the communal lands of the Awas Tingni community, had not taken effective measures to ensure the ownership rights of the community to its ancestral lands and natural resources, had granted a concession on community lands without its consent and has not guaranteed an effective means to respond to community’s claims to its ownership rights.”

In the sentence, the court not only resolved that the Nicaraguan state violated Awas Tingni’s rights, but also established that the state must adopt in its domestic law “the legislative, administrative, and any other measures required to create an effective mechanism for delimitation, demarcation, and titling of the property of indigenous communities, in accordance with their customary law, values, customs and mores.” It also resolved that “the state must carry out the delimitation, demarcation, and titling of the corresponding lands of the members of the Mayangna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community.”

This historic ruling made it possible for us to get Law 445 (the Law of the Communal Ownership Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and of the Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz Rivers) approved in the National Assembly on December 13, 2002, during the government of Enrique Bolaños. But obviously the court’s determination wasn’t all that was required. It also took organization and unity by the coast people to formulate a proposal that was closer to the indigenous people’s historical demands, countering the executive branch’s pretensions to fragment the territory and hand out individual titles to each indigenous community. The approval of the coast proposal occurred at a favorable moment, when a fleeting alliance of forces was forged to strip former President Arnoldo Alemán of his parliamentary immunity so he could stand trial on charges of embezzling state funds and laundering money.

Wan tasbaya: “Ours is a single territory”

The new law’s procedure regulates the state’s issuance of “community property titles corresponding to the lands and territories they have been occupying and possessing for a long time,” overriding the community elders’ notion of territory and property. For them wan tasbaya is the whole territory of the Mosquitia, the historical heritage of the indigenous and Afro-descended people. As Otis Lam, president of the regional Council of Elders, says, “Wan almukka wina wan tasbaya ba kumi sa.” (From our ancestors’ time, ours is a single territory). Other sectors, while sharing the elders’ view, have opted to join the demarcation process because at least they can achieve this.

The scant support of the Bolaños government (2001-2006) for the implementation of Law 445 was evidenced in the lack of political will on the part of the central government institutions. The mentality that has always prevailed in these institutions was succinctly expressed in then-Treasury Minister Eduardo Montealegre’s response to a proposal to speed up the titling of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve territories: “Why do so few people want so much land?”

The National Commission of Territorial Demarcation (CONADETI) and the Inter-sectoral Territorial Demarcation Commissions (CIDTs) were set up with resources from foreign-financed projects. In May 2005, President Bolaños made a big show of handing out the first five titles to territories belonging to the Bosawás Reserve area in the municipalities of Bonanza and Waspám, which had benefited from the work of organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Alistar. After that conflicts and tensions pushed CONADETI into an inoperative slump for nearly two years, during which the only products were a few self-assessment processes financed and accompanied by other organizations.

Demarcating by territorial blocs

The Alliance Agreement between Yatama and FSLN includes implementing autonomy and legislative reforms with respect to three themes: resumption of the demarcation and titling of indigenous and Afro-descendent communal lands; implementation of the Inter-American Court sentence of June 2005 on the case filed by Yatama against the Nicaraguan state for preventing its participation in the 2002 autonomous regional elections; and reforms to the Electoral Law.

In this context, CONADETTI began to function again once the current FSLN national government took office, with plans to conclude the demarcation and titling process by 2010, as was announced publicly by Carlos Alemán, president of the RAAN Regional Council and current CONADETI president. Over the course of 2008, it issued a title for the Awaltara Luhpia Nani Tasbaya Territory in the municipality of Desembocadura del Río Grande in the RAAS, while a “Special Development Regime Territory” was created in the northern region that brings together three already-titled indigenous territories in Jinotega: Miskitu Indian Tasbaika Kum, Mayangna Sauni Bu and Kipla Sait Tasbaika, located in the watershed of the upper Wangki (also known as Coco) and Bocay rivers. This special territory, created by special decree, is the direct responsibility of the executive branch and has its administrative seat in the community of San Andrés de Bocay. Before the end of the year, CONADETI hopes to issue at least three new titles: to the community of Awas Tingni, and to the Wangki Maya and Wangki Li Aubra Territories, the former in the lower Río Wangki and the latter close to Waspám in the Upper Río Wangki.

As explained by indigenous leaders and reaffirmed by CONADETI executive director Rufino Lucas, the decision to demarcate by territorial blocs is linked to the difficulty of going through the process with each individual community, given the time required to complete each of the stages mandated by Law 445. A lot of time is also required just to resolve the endless conflicts that would crop up among the different communities.

Bottlenecks resulting from
a pro-agrarian and civilist mentality

Lucas says that the main tension of the demarcation and titling process has been the lack of financing to cover each stage. He explains that the recent advances have been made thanks to CONADETTI’s own resources from its national budget allocation and contributions from the Property Planning Program (PRODEP), the Green Heart Project and the Property Intendance.

According to the operational plan prepared by CONADETI, this totaled some 27 million córdobas (under $1.4 million) for 2008, but one problem is that there’s no centralized execution of the resources, with each component handling its own funds according to its own norms. Another drag on CONADETTI’s budget is the number of officials on the monthly payroll who provide no effective service to the commission.
This amount does not include the significant contribution from different organizations and institutions that accompany the self-assessment of some territories, help with training and the dissemination of Law 445 and/or facilitate conflict resolution between territories.

Lottie Cunningham, director of the Atlantic Coast Justice and Human Rights Center (CEJUDHCAN), sees this assessment process as complicated by the Nicaraguan state’s pro-agrarian and civilest mentality. Including both a socioeconomic study and an ethnographic study in the demarcation process makes the procedure much more costly and difficult, as the communities have no experience preparing socioeconomic studies.

They are much more accustomed to their collective memory and the use of their territory, which they can describe in their own way and from their own knowledge. They also know how to ethnomap, describing the area from which they gather their natural herbal medicines, their housing area, their sacred sites, family planting areas and the shared areas that all indigenous communities have in their territory.

It is these shared areas, known as “complementary areas,” that generate the greatest conflict between communities and territories, as Cunningham explains: “It must be said that all the territories, without exception, have concentrated on the complementary areas, which extend beyond the area of current use and occupation.” This makes it difficult to construct solid arguments on indigenous rights to present to the state, when there is a need to demonstrate the status of the territory’s use and tenure from the indigenous cosmovision, which requires focusing on the struggle for collective rights and ethnic mapping.

Conflicting Interests

In the opinion of some, the interests of specific groups and sectors are being imposed on the rest of the communities in the creation of the territorial blocs. One example is the unification of the Tawira territory, located along the seaboard north of Puerto Cabezas. Under Sandy Bay’s leadership the limits were extended northward to include the communities of Bihmuna and Cabo Viejo at the mouth of the Río Wangki, which have traditionally considered themselves part of the Lower Río Wangki area—culturally river rather than ocean-front communities.

Members of these communities have admitted that their fishing activities relate them more closely to the Sandy Bay communities and that the market for their catch is in Puerto Cabezas, while the economic priorities of the other Wangki communities are related to commercializing their agricultural production and they only fish the rivers for their own consumption. Despite these explanations, some Bihmuna community members say that Sandy Bay leaders threatened to deny them access to the Miskitu Key fishing banks if they did not agree to become part of the Tawira Territory.

Another important conflict came up in the election of territorial leaders, this time caused by the influence of outside organizations and political parties in violation of the community and territorial assembly mechanism through which communities have traditionally elected their authorities. Law 445 established the Regional Councils’ participation in certifying the elected authorities, a process the parties are now using to impose their preferred candidates, who in turn have limited the progress of the demarcation process, sparking tensions between the communities and the Regional Council. Recent examples of this manipulation were evident in the elections of the grasslands territorial bloc known as Llano Sur and the community of Kamla in the municipality of Puerto Cabezas.

The insistence of a number of communities, including Kamla, Prata, Tuara and Kum, on demarcating their lands without joining territorial blocs also created tension because it contradicts the political decision to privilege territorial blocs made up of various communities. If they pursue this route, it could encourage new communities to formulate similar proposals. CONADETI has declared itself incapable of attending the communities in such an isolated manner.

Die for the land?

The announcement that the whole demarcation and titling process will finish in 2010 is seen as very positive, but it involves speeding up stages that could require more time. This is particularly likely with respect to resolving conflicts between territories and sorting out territories that are suffering an intensive land invasion and occupation by mestizo settlers from outside the coast.

In most cases the explosion of inter-community conflicts is largely due to latent, never-resolved conflicts that are now being re-energized. As Lottie Cunningham sees it, “The leaders need to act responsibly to reduce the conflict within the indigenous family, to try to dialogue and negotiate a solution.” Given the lack of such negotiation and/or mediation, some people are talking about “dying for the land,” especially due to the sudden yearning to grab everything, ignoring the traditional collective coexistence of indigenous peoples.

Reform of autonomy in sight:
Jinotega’s pilot experience

Prior to the official alliance between Yatama and the FSLN in May 2006, a group of indigenous and Afro-descended coast notables from the same two parties began meeting periodically to discuss and formulate a proposal to reform the autonomy law. Although there is still no clear consensus, the general aspects of the proposal are aimed at eliminating the old municipalities and forming Afro-descendant and indigenous territories, multiethnic districts (the urban centers) and individual Afro-descendant and indigenous communities.

This reform would fix the gap in the current law, because it would include the three indigenous territories located in Jinotega. As mentioned above, they now have the faculty to administer themselves as a single indigenous territorial government under what is called a Special Development Regime. That government, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with the rights, duties and actions corresponding to the special regime in accord with the presidential decree, is made up of the chief of each of the three indigenous territories; they in turn elect one of their number as the government chief.

This procedure is closer to indigenous peoples’ traditional election system and thus coincides with the reform of the electoral process in the Autonomous Regions required to comply with the Inter-American Court’s ruling on the case brought by Yatama. It mandates Nicaragua to reform the regulation of the requirements established in the Electoral Law, declared in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, and adopt within a reasonable period the necessary measures to allow the members of the indigenous and ethnic communities to effectively participate in electoral processes taking into account their traditions, uses and customs.

This incipient organizational structure in Jinotega is seen as a pilot for the expected evolution in the other territories being formed in the RAAN and RAAS, eventually replacing the current political-administrative division of the Autonomous Regions into municipalities. The reach of this new autonomy structure and its real capacity for free self-determination remain to be worked out.

Women are missing from this process

Women can be found in the coordination and technical consultancies of the demarcation process, but the communal and territorial arenas continue to be dominated by the men from the communities. The post of síndico, which the indigenous communities define as the person responsible for their territorial affairs and natural resources—is also still largely filled by a man in each community. The first woman síndico was elected only about ten years ago, in Sheran Sandy Bay, followed by two others in the RAAN more recently.

Human rights organizations such as CEJUDHCAN are making a conscious effort to work with women as well as men, but there is no clear strategy among those organizations responsible for heading up the process or in arenas where the principal decisions get adopted. The example of the authorities of the Wangki Li Aubra and Wangki Maya territories, where women’s participation is more visible, needs to be taken up in the other territories, developing strategies to promote their participation.

At the end of September this year more than 400 women attended the Forum of Indigenous Women of the Wangki, Caribbean Nicaragua, and the Moskitia of Honduras, held in Waspám. Referring to their territorial rights, they demanded access to training on Law 445 so they could find out how the demarcation and titling process is developing.

They declared that “we must have the guarantee that women are elected to the territorial authorities and are present with participation in the decisions being made.” One of their concrete demands is to have at least two women per territorial government.

“We women can work more and better”

Rosa Wilson, síndico of the Ten Communities Territory, is one example of territorial leadership by women. She’s the first woman to be elected to this post in this territory and has won two consecutive elections. “The first time,” she says, “the men didn’t want to accept that I had won and wouldn’t turn the position over to me. I had to compete in a new election to get them to recognize me.” Wilson believes that the historical territorial claim process needs to be explained to people in the community. They know they have rights, but aren’t very clear what they’re based on. She feels that a lot of work is still needed: “We need to explain a lot and grant more participation to women, because we can work more and better to overcome disagreements and conflicts.”

Indigenous women can stamp a new dynamism on the territorial demarcation process at a time in which inter-communal conflicts are growing, the agricultural frontier continues to advance and voracity for the region’s natural resources is on the rise.

Lessons for the political leaders and for Yatama

As a signatory to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007, the Nicaraguan state must respect its scope and contents, incorporating them into national legislation. It must also enforce its precepts in all processes involving indigenous peoples.

What the demarcation process most needs is to strengthen the capacity to resolve the current and latent conflicts among territories and communities in the Ten Communities, Prinsu, Tasba Pri and Wangki. This involves taking advantage of the reiterated willingness and commitment of entities such as the Economical Council of the Caribbean Coast Churches, CEJUDHCAN and the two Caribbean universities, which have so far played an important role in accompanying the demarcation and titling process.

The leaders who have expressed political willingness to accelerate and culminate this process are contributing to the unification of the communities in the territorial blocs, but they must stop hindering territories and peoples not under their political control. The leaders’ volition doesn’t always coincide with the aspirations of the inhabitants of the communities and territories. Yatama itself has two clear examples of this: the reaction to its signing of the alliance agreement with the FSLN and its decision to promote postponement of this year’s municipal elections in the RAAN. The former divided the indigenous organization and the second violated regional autonomy, making it easier for national parties to manipulate the conflict.

A lack of outreach and of democracy

None of the actions involved in the demarcation and titling has received much publicity to ensure transparency. The investment in outreach and communication activities is scant; the population should have greater access to information and the local and national media need to guide public opinion better. This should be one of the priorities for the CONADETI board, above all when interests of another sort are at play, such as the oil concessions recently approved in the Tawira Territory.

During the Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños governments there was little political will to contribute to coast autonomy. The Ortega government is framing things differently, but agrees with its predecessors on the need to create an intermediate structure between the autonomous regional authorities and the executive branch. All members of the newly created Caribbean Coast Development Council are coast people, but they weren’t elected to direct the affairs of each region. There’s a clear message in that for all government officials and for foreign cooperation: those who have the last word in coast affairs haven’t been elected by anybody.

Our dreams

The old aspiration of a Mosquitia united in its diversity, exploiting its wealth of resources for the welfare of its own children, making use of the right to self-determination of its peoples with their own culture, language and tradition, is still a dream. Reality obliges us to think with our feet on the ground. And in this context, territorial demarcation represents a historical opportunity to exercise that self-determination.

Nonetheless, demarcation alone will have no value if not accompanied by profound reforms to the Autonomy Statute and to the electoral system as a whole, which of course will involve constitutional reforms. Given the composition of the National Assembly, we coast people will require alliances to push those changes through and avoid annulling the recognitions achieved so far. Hopefully the political will of today’s decision-makers will prevent this dream of autonomy from being shattered.

One goal is to ensure that, instead of being just good ideas on paper, the new territories and their government’s have genuine decision-making capacity over the use and benefits of their still abundant natural resources. Another is to make sure the announced financing from foreign cooperation really is used to develop capacities that generate wellbeing for the coast people and all Nicaraguans.

Is the Yatama-FSLN alliance an opportunity?

We on the coast urgently need to return to consultation as a mechanism that allows the voices of young and adult men and women and of course the wisdom of our elders to flow freely. Ensuring a return to consultation as a valid mechanism in the leaders’ communication with men and women from the communities is still a pending task.

It is also vital to renew the force of community assemblies so the process can advance. As Lottie Cunningham insists, there is a need to consult more with the men and women of the communities, rather than just talking to their leaders, many of whom were appointed rather than elected.

The Yatama-FSLN agreements offer a historical opportunity to lay the foundations for coast development, which must be put before the interests of any single group or ethnicity.

Margarita Antonio is a Miskitu coast journalist.

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