We have to expand our thinking to understand the conflicts on the coast
This researcher into the rural—particularly indigenous—world
and facilitator of organizational innovation and development processes
shares his unique perspective and reflections on the cultural aspects
of the North Caribbean Coast’s indigenous and mestizo populations
that underlie the land conflicts reaching a boiling point there
René Mendoza Vidaurre
I have visited the Caribbean Coast region many times during the 1980s and 90s and more recently through my work with a research team from the Central American University’s Nitlapan Institute, which has been in Bilwi, capital of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, since 2007. A few months ago we spent a number of days in the Mayangna community of Awas Tingni, talking to the people there, then crossed the Río Coco, which forms Nicaragua’s eastern border with Honduras, to talk to the mestizo peasant communities on the other side of that river. We also visited the Miskitu community of Saupuka on Nicaragua’s side of the same river, again crossing into Honduras to talk to the mestizos in Olancho.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Caribbean coast, but I’ve learned things in all these trips. My goal here is to contribute my grain of sand to the understanding of the situation there, particularly in the north, and to the search for long-term solutions to the current conflict over land.
Some pertinent background
First let’s look at some relevant dates in recent coast history starting with 1987, when the autonomy law was approved for the region. It was the best law that had ever been passed for indigenous peoples in Latin America and was an inspiration for many of them.
Then between 1991 and 1995, during the Violeta Chamorro government, lumber companies began coming in to exploit forests in various parts of the coast. Among them was Solcarsa, a Korean company that had been given a 60,000-hectare concession to extract lumber in territory that the Mayangna indigenous community of Awas Tingni considered its own, causing the community to file suit against the State of Nicaragua with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On August 31, 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Awas Tingni and ordered the State to delimit, demarcate and title that community’s lands and adopt legislative, administrative and any other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism for delimiting, demarcating and titling the property of the other indigenous communities, in accordance with their customary law, values, customs and mores. That decision set an important juridical precedent favoring the territorial demands of indigenous peoples throughout Latin America.
The next important date, then, was December of the following year, when Nicaragua’s National Assembly bowed to that decision by approving Law 445 on the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Atlantic Coast Autonomous Communities of Nicaragua and the Rivers Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz, setting another juridical precedent for the continent’s indigenous peoples. But while the law went into effect in January 2003, it was effectively ignored. February of the following year saw the firstviolent conflict between Miskitu community of Layasiksa and mestizos who had settled in their territory in the 1990s. Forty mestizo families were forcibly expelled, their houses burned down, their crops razed and people even wounded and killed.
The titling of indigenous lands finally got underway in 2005, with the first title covering five Mayangna territories within the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Finally, between 2008 and 2015, 37,252 square kilometers of indigenous lands were demarcated and titled in what is now legally and more accurately called the Caribbean coast. That vast expanse of land, larger than El Salvador’s total area of 20,742 square kilometers, covers 31% of Nicaragua’s national territory. In those same years many of those same territories were being declared “protected areas.”
Then came the hard part
After the demarcation and titling came the final phase, which the law terms saneamiento, or title clearance. This is the most complex part because it involves assuring that the titled territory ends up fully in the hands of its indigenous owners. The law establishes that some agreement must be reached with “third parties,” defined in four categories: those who have titles, never “possessed” their property but have “intended” to live on it since 1987; those holding an agrarian title—largely army and contra veterans demobilized after the war ended in 1990; those with titles of any kind that have some defect and are thus illegal; and those who simply settled on land with no title whatever. The law briefly laid out the parameters of the agreement for each category.
Parallel to the prolonged legal demarcation process, new mestizo peasant families continued to move into the indigenous territories, pushing the agricultural frontier further and further into the coast region. Some came over the northern mountain passes of Mulukukú and El Naranjo in the north of the country, then through what is known as the Mining Triangle (the three old mining towns of Bonanza, Rosita and Siuna), while others came through El Ayote and Nueva Guinea in the south. Each individual case must be resolved in line with the law’s guidelines in order for the indigenous people to effectively be the owners of their territories. And if those multitudinous individual cases weren’t enough, over the years more lumber companies have also come in with their machinery as have international cooperation agencies with their projects. In this tense situation, there has been no shortage of violent conflicts between indigenous people and mestizos.
Mestizos now outnumber indigenous people
Two devastating results of this complex dynamic are enormous deforestation of indigenous lands and the fact that the majority of indigenous territories are today occupied by mestizo families. Just one example of this is the emblematic community of Awas Tingni, whose successful case with the IACHR kicked off this whole titling process and whose 733 square kilometers makes it the largest community of what is now known as the Amasau Territory. In 2001, when it won its case and the right to demarcation, 95% of that territory was in Mayangna hands. But by last year, according to declarations to La Prensa by Awas Tingni leader Larry Salomón Pedro on July 25, the situation was reversed, with 92% now settled by mestizo families. When we visited there we could see the figure was only slightly exaggerated. We calculated a more realistic 80%-85%, still a very alarming and complex situation.
There are various explanations for the recent acts of violence on the coast, particularly in the north, as well as others that have been occurring for a very long time. I would like to discuss three, not to throw more fuel on the fire, but rather in the hope of contributing to the thinking on this issue, to open our minds to the search for long-term solutions since it’s very difficult to see any in the near future. We need to look to the future, but naturally understanding that it necessarily begins now…
The local explanation
The first explanation for the conflictiveness between indigenous people and mestizo settlers in the coast region is the one we hear constantly from the media, state officials, religious authorities and members of civil city. It reduces the causes to the local setting and attributes responsibility for the conflict exclusively to the two sides involved. It’s an interpretation very similar to the ones heard in Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico… in fact in all countries with indigenous populations. It’s also found in academia and in Robert Kaplan’s bookThe Ends of the Earth.
It’s commonly said that the settlers are looking for land to work and are fighting over it with indigenous families defined as lazy and unable and unwilling to work. The conflicts are equally commonly blamed on the determinism of historically warring groups trapped in their past, unable to shake it off without outside intervention that can ”save them” from themselves. This explanation flirts with racism, assuming that both the indigenous people and the peasant settlers are born violent, genetically predisposed to violence. Reducing the conflict to the local territory and the culture that defines them condemns them to be conflictive.
The land trade
Everything in this interpretation suggests that the immediate detonator of the conflict has been and is the land trade. Those who hold to this simplistic view insist that the solution is to punish the “sellers”—those who gave out the agrarian land titles for indigenous land or the lawyers who drew up illegal deeds for coast lands clearly defined in the laws as communal and inalienable—then proceed withthe title clearance process, understood as ordering the mestizo families to pack their bags and agree to be relocated elsewhere, with due compensation if they were swindled by unscrupulous lawyers. All those who interpret the situation from this legalistic perspective believe it’s the State’s responsibility to resolve it, and if it doesn’t then it’s simply part of the problem, not the solution.
Is this a correct perspective? It certainly seems neat enough. The indigenous peoples are the owners and the rest have to leave. But it’s not remotely that simple. It’s not even clear that the settlers’ departure will benefit the indigenous peoples.
A lot of third parties to expel…
A study called “Estudio Especial Sector Agropecuario en la Costa del Caribe Nicaragua” (Special Study of the Agricultural Sector in the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast), done in 2013 by the very respected Caribbean Coast brothers Dennis and Marcos Williamson together with Edwin Taylor, notes that the total estimated coast population as of June 31, 2010, was 759,383 people, 77% of them mestizo. Of the remaining 23%, they list 17.8% as Miskito and 1.1% as Mayangna, mainly residing in the North Caribbean, and 3% Creole in the South Caribbean. The other 1.1% is made up of two other small groups, exclusively in the south: the Afro-Caribbean Garífunas, whose population is mainly concentrated in Honduras and Belize, and the Ramas, the coast’s third indigenous people. Can you imagine ridding such extensive territories of even a good part of the mestizo population, which is close to 585,000 people?
I say a “good part” because Article 36 of Law 445 says: “Third parties holding an Agrarian Title on Indigenous Lands who have occupied and possessed the land protected under this title have the right to continue possessing it as a matter of law. In case they intend to alienate the property, they shall sell the improvements to the community.” Okay then, a new mental exercise: is it possible to evict even the 50% of the mestizo population that doesn’t fall within that category defined in the law? To throw some 300,000 people off their lands? It might have been possible to move this number of people to new “national lands” 70, 50, perhaps even 40 years ago, but not anymore, because Nicaragua doesn’t have the land to keep extending the agricultural frontier. Those who have been continuing to push it in recent years have now reached the sea. There’s no more land for them to go to that isn’t already owned.
…and a lot of compensation to pay
And what about all those who received defective or illegal titles? The law says ”they will be compensated in order for them to return the lands to the affected indigenous communities.” Is it possible to compensate so many people? Let’s suppose that half of the 37,000 square kilometers—some 16,000—that have been demarcated and titled have to be indemnified. That amounts to 1.6 million hectares. If those who paid lawyers for bum titles are compensated at a conservative $200 per hectare, the operation would cost the State $320 million. Is that manageable? And if it were, would all the evicted families accept that amount and leave their farms with a smile on their face, giving up the houses they built, the improvements they made in pasture land and crops, leaving their churches, their friends, their lives?
And even if all that were viable, can we reasonably assume that so many other landless families “in line” for some place to settle wouldn’t move in to fill those “empty” territories?
The transnational explanation
A second interpretation of the conflicts taking place on the coast is that the problem is as global as it is local and that its causes are transnational, transcending borders. We are in fact currently seeing similar problems of conflict and violence all over Latin America because transnational corporations want to extract the resources in indigenous territories and the governments are granting them permits to do so.
The coast’s early taste of transnationalism
Nicaragua’s “Mosquitia,” as the region was known during colonial times, was historically autonomous. It wasn’t conquered by Spain and was a protectorate of Great Britain under its indirect rule until the British government and the recently independent Nicaraguan government signed a treaty in 1860 in which the former recognized Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the coast. It renounced its protectorate in exchange for the autonomy of the Mosquitia territory (drawn much smaller and redefined as a Reserve) and respect for the Mosquito monarchy Britain had created nearly two centuries earlier. In 1894 that Reserve was invaded by troops from Managua and officially annexed. Its days of autonomy were over. Great Britain relinquished its last claims there in the 1905 Harrison Altamirano Treaty, which guaranteed the native populations exemption from taxes and military service and the right to live in their ancestral territories and villages according to their own customs.
The British and then US interest in maintaining economic enclaves in the coast had a geopolitical aspect. Of course, all world powers still have geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic interests in all territories where natural resources abound. The megaprojects and huge mining or lumbering investments we’re seeing all over Latin America today are a continuation of what Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast experienced from the late 1700s until the revolution, first with British mahogany operations and later with North American mining, pine lumbering and shellfish exporting…
Colonizing is an informal means of conquest…
So if the coast conflict isn’t only local or even national, but also transnational, the solution isn’t limited to the use of formal diplomatic means or even of wars between States, because there are also informal paths of conquest. When the United States conquered a good part of Mexican territory in what is today southwest USA, it first sent many settlers to slowly take over lands and make life difficult for the Mexicans for years. Not until 1846 did the US government initiate war with Mexico as the formal means of conquest. In the case of Nicaragua’s Caribbean region, mestizos began migrating after 1894 to take the job posts opened up by the ”incorporation” of the coast into the national structures.
…and so are market mechanisms
Today we know that another informal route of conquest is via market mechanisms. And this raises the question of why so many mestizos from the Pacific and central parts of Nicaragua have been migrating toward the Coast in such massive numbers in recent decades…
Starting in 1990, Nicaragua experienced harsh structural adjustment policies, like the rest of our continent’s countries: the State’s role was reduced, public services were privatized and the role of social movements was annulled. There was no credit for small-scale production, technical assistance to the rural population was privatized, and even today the bulk of the agricultural credit portfolio, be it of the private commercial banks or micro-financing institutions, goes mainly to develop extensive cattle ranching, a model still based on multiplying the herd not with more efficient practices but rather through “second farms”: buying land from small farmers or pushing them off their lands and cutting down one forest after another. The logic has been the same all over Latin America, whether for growing crops or for raising cattle: increase production by increasing the areas exploited.
With credit canceled for small farmers, the structural adjustment programs caused our poorest rural population to experience what Pope Francis denounced in his UN speech as the “abuse or usury” applied to the poor countries. The pope explained that the international financing institutions (IFIs) have credit systems that punish countries with “oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.” But it’s not only the IFIs; the policies of the private commercial banks asphyxiate the poor as well. We’ve seen it in Nicaragua and we’re still seeing it.
Beef for export, not grains to eat
The structural adjustment programs didn’t stimulate the production of basic foods. To the contrary, they made export products the motor of the economy, with a special focus on cattle. In all Central American countries, cattle became the privileged category for credits by both the IFIs and the private national banks to increase beef exports to the north.
This was analyzed as early as 1981 by environmental researcher Norman Myers in his study “The Hamburger Connection: How Central America’s Forests Became North America’s Hamburgers.” With fast food the answer to the quick lunch imposed in the United States to increase workers’ productivity and performance, the hamburger was the ideal meal. Myers documented a 50% increase in the annual average consumption of beef in the United States between 1960 and 1976, at a time when Central America began to export cheaper beef to the north. Caribbean forests were converted into pasture land to raise cattle for hamburgers… From this transnational vision it’s only a small leap to thinking we all have something to do with the conflict in the coast.
IFIs such as the World Bank financed the development of extensive cattle ranching in Central America, which benefited from an estimated 60% of the credit granted to the region’s governments between 1960 and 1983. The market set the demand and Central America provided the supply. It’s curious that only a few years later these same IFIs have appeared defending the titling of indigenous territories and the conservation of the forests… Are we to believe they changed?
Cattle pushed peasants off their land
These structural adjustment policies led half a million impoverished Nicaraguans to leave their lands and emigrate to Costa Rica while an important number of families preferred to push Nicaragua’s agricultural frontier ever further eastward, occupying or “buying” lands from other peasant families or settling in indigenous territories.
The global market’s trends expel not only families, but also entire communities. Seeing how profitable cattle can be, ranchers decide to multiply the lands dedicated to them. They push into new areas, buying second and third farms that will later be first farms for their sons (hardly ever their daughters), who will in turn seek their own second farms. This global market dynamic provokes situations like the one I describe below.
The bankrupting dynamic of big business
With the market demand for beef, the market for dairy products also develops, and when it opens new roads so the big dairy companies’ trucks can reach the communities of small farmers to collect their milk, those communities paradoxically end up going broke. Here’s a typical dynamic: the community’s cheesemaker, who gets her milk from locals who raise a few cows as well as pigs and also plant maize and beans and other crops, goes broke because the large companies coming in on the new road pay more for the milk than she can, so of course the small farmers no longer sell to her. But with the cheesemaker out of business they no longer get whey from her to feed their pigs and when they have an emergency they can’t turn to her for a loan because she no longer has any money. It’s a dynamic that has repeated itself in rural district after rural district.
Little by little the community economy erodes and finally they all start selling their land, going further and further into the mountains to start again on different land. They fell all the trees to create pastureland so they can raise cattle because they know that will make them money, unlike the forest, and they also know they can get immediate credit for cattle, again unlike for the forest or for cacao… It’s a domino effect that starts with cattle and ends with the hamburger connection and beyond…
So goes this world. In the 1970s Muy Muy was a major mountain pass and therefore a center of commerce. In the 90s that commerce moved to Matiguás, and Muy Muy began to decline. The next decade Río Blanco was the up-and-coming trade center, and since 2010 Mulukukú and Siuna have been emerging as the important mountain passes for trade with those living deep in the hills. That dynamic has also been seen on the eastern side of the northern mountain range: in the 1970s El Tuma was a power, in the 90s it was La Dahlia, in the first decade of the new century it was Waslala and now we’re seeing growth in El Naranjo, on the route to the Mining Triangle.
The same thing happens to families
What happens to places also happens to families. The peasant families from the center of the country called settlers, many of them also of indigenous heritage, explain that they are “like rocks tumbling downhill.” And it’s true: they bounce from farm to farm, each one on less fertile land. One told me: “My grandfather had a little farm in Matiguás, my parents had one in Mulukukú, I have one in Rosita and now my children are in Awas Tingni.”
What can stop those rocks tumbling one after another in an avalanche on a downward slope—not only in Nicaragua but in all countries—because of the market mechanisms accompanied by technology, publicity, research… And these market mechanisms aren’t just pushing cattle-raising; they’re also pushing the cultivation of coca in the TIPNIS territory in Bolivia and soybeans in Brazil’s Amazonia, the extraction of petroleum in Ecuador’s Amazonia… And behind the coca, the soy, the petroleum, the gold and the lumber are actors who are as local as they are global and policies that are as national as they are transnational.
Each locality is a globality
What can stop this? Does anybody really think that getting a good part of the settlers out of the coast will halt that avalanche on its way to the bottom? We’ve already begun to see that the way this world is going now, no actors are acting alone; we’re all interlinked and each locality is a globality.
Cattle ranching interweaves actors from Waspám in the Caribbean Coast to Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. Much of the cacao cultivated in Rama for the German chocolate company Ritter Sport is interwoven with local and global actors. And the same can be said of the gold being extracted in Bonanza or the lumber again coming out of Awas Tingni.
Forests up for grabs?
I can still hear the words of one of those who in the early 1990s were promoting the declaring of ”protected areas” in Nicaragua: “After declaring Bosawás a reserve, we realized there were indigenous populations living inside it that we’d forgotten all about.” But since those were the years of greater consciousness of the value of Latin American’s indigenous people due to the quincentennial celebration/commemoration of the Conquest, had the indigenous people really been forgotten? I don’t think so. The dominant conservationist ideology assumes the forest is the natural result of self-regulation, the same concept conventional economists have about the market. And consonant with that rationale, there’s no reason whatever to consult the indigenous people, since it assumes that indigenous people didn’t produce the forest and don’t belong to it. If that mentality were to recognize that the forests have owners, the market would have problems patenting medicines based on the plants found in them, for example.
Very similar forestry and environmental laws started popping up from Latin America to Africa. Sheer coincidence? Hardly. These laws obey policies that are both national and transnational, allowing the global and national markets to appropriate vast extensions of land and natural resources. With these laws, rivers and forests, even protected areas with already-titled lands are being privatized. These same laws, however, make it very difficult for either indigenous people or peasant families to request permits to exploit lumber. Those who get the permits are the big lumber companies from developed countries that extract quantities of timber with one hand while supporting “development,” “governance,” “gender equity” and “sustainability” projects with the other… So goes the world, provoking an undetainable avalanche of ”rocks.”
The heterogeneous interpretation
Now let’s look at the third interpretation of the causes of the conflicts in the Caribbean Coast. This one takes into account the heterogeneity of the indigenous populations inhabiting that area of the country and their world visions, which are incompatible with market logic. It is very simplistic to see indigenous peoples as a mass, quoting Marx’s reference to the great mass of the French nation, one “formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes,” all equal, all alike.
It’s very important to take into account that there have historically been tensions among the different indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean coast. The relations between certain Mayangna and Miskitu groups, for example, have traditionally been tense and charged with suffering, with the Mayangnas generally getting the worst of it, expelled by British-armed Miskitus from their original territories over the centuries and pushed to distant places. While that inter-indigenous tension has been ongoing, it doesn’t involve all Miskitus or all Mayangnas.
When the community of Awas Tingni sued the State of Nicaragua for having let Solcarsa into its territory, it did so after a Miskitu group from a neighboring community made a deal with that lumber company, allowing it to enter a territory that wasn’t Miskitu. Seeing their territory in danger, the Mayangnas filed suit with support from international cooperation. Then in 2009, a year after the titling of the Mayangna territory named Amasau, a group of Miskitus tried to take over part of it. Awas Tingni responded by seeking support from the mestizo families settled there to act as “human boundary markers” and impede the Miskitu advance. Thus the Mayangnas defended their territory with mestizo help. When the following year the MPINICSA lumber company began to extract lumber from Awas Tingni through an agreement with Miskitu groups, the Mayangnas again resisted.
According to one Mayangna leader, all those tensions have created a feeling in the community that “the land isn’t worth it”; that “sooner or later they’re going to take it away from us.” That has accelerated the sale of Mayangna lands to mestizos. As we can see, the recent tensions have their antecedents in tensions experienced both recently and centuries ago that still carry weight today.
The churches undervalued cultural practices
The relations between the Creole and Miskitu populations have also been difficult and explain many of the existing tensions, including in the universities and the churches. Because they speak a brand of English, the Creoles have had an advantage over the Miskitus by relating more easily to the companies and churches that came to the coast in the last century and have now linked up better with the international cooperation projects.
The Moravian Church in Bilwi was originally for both Creoles and Miskitus, but their different cultural identities grew stronger and further apart until they went their separate ways and now there are separate Moravian churches for the two groups. Reynaldo Figueroa, vice rector of the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University admits that the churches and their authorities didn’t know how to accompany and take into account these two different cultures. It was as if being Christian meant ceasing to be Miskitu or Creole. Given the recent conflicts it’s important that the religious sectors call for dialogue and do it well. No one knows better than they how difficult dialogue is, as they have at times ended up divided themselves.
The churches have had to learn to take the indigenous peoples’ cultures into consideration. One example is the sukias, the wise traditional healers who are very deeply rooted in the culture and organization of the indigenous peoples. Considering them diabolic “sorcerers,” the churches, particularly the Moravian Church, opposed them to such a degree that they drove them underground and today it is debated whether sukias even exist in the communities anymore. The churches censured many of the most cherished celebrations in the Miskitu culture, and took a long time to come around to valuing those traditions. Can you imagine a foreign religion coming in, obliging you to renounce your religion, maligning your symbols and spiritual practices? Again, though, we need to remember that nothing is ever black and white. As recently as 30-40 years ago, when the coast was still mainly occupied by its traditional indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant groups, they considered the Moravian Church the coast’s “national church” due to its steadfast defense of the inhabitants against assimilation efforts by the succession of central governments.
Interplay between groups and individuals
But just as the situation on the coast shouldn’t be seen as a single and simple problem with an easy situation, neither should we see each human group living there as a separate sack of potatoes. Not all Miskitus are homogenous, nor are all Mayangnas, Creoles, mestizos, Ramas or Garífunas. There are Miskitu cattle ranchers as well as mestizo cattle ranchers; some Mayangnas are involved in the trade in wild animals as are some mestizo families; there are Mayangna and Miskitu families that live separately on their little farms just as mestizo families do, and there are Miskitus and Mayangnas who live in communities. Independent of their cultural origin, cattle ranchers respond to the logic of the market, where what matters is money. The cattle rancher doesn’t see trees, he sees cows, and he wants as many “as there are stars in the sky,” as the famous hacendado Señorito Malta was fond of saying in the Brazilian TV serial play “Roque Santeiro.”
That, however, is not to say that cultural self-identities and perspectives don’t distinguish the groups that cohabit the Caribbean coast. While the different cosmovisions and cultural patterns on the coast are ever more permeated, they are still strong.
The mestizo culture is agri-culture
The logic of a mestizo family that has come from communities in the center of the country, albeit not necessarily in a single bound, and has claimed less than 50 hectares of land, is to make improvements on that land, which it sees as its own possession. This newly arrived family starts by planting maize and beans then within three or four years turns that land, once covered in forests and not very apt for crops, into natural grassland and begins to graze cattle on it, clearing still more land for basic grains or plantains. Its mentality is to diversify its crops for self-subsistence and have a few large and small livestock, so it’s never without its pigs and hens. Its dream is to turn that plot into a farm and its strategy is to live there and improve it with the sweat of the family labor. For mestizos, the value of the land resides in how many improvements and investments they can make in it. Their culture is agri-culture.
The Mayangna culture is forest-culture
In general Mayangna families live in communities and value the forest, water and land as the space that gives them everything in life: food, medicines and material for their houses and canoes. Many of their communities are located in the mountainous mining triangle, near rivers, which are for fishing, recreation, bathing and washing their clothes. Inside the forest they have areas where they plant beans, cassava and other root crops, plantains, etc. They also diversify crops and move from one place to another to cultivate, but without affecting either the forest or the water. Their sense of land ownership isn’t the same as that of the mestizos. Their culture is forest-culture.
The Miskitu culture is
sweet-, salt- and plains-culture
The culture of the Miskitus, who occupy a much larger area in the northern Caribbean coast, is more nuanced than that of the Mayangnas, influenced by the lifestyle evolved over time where they live. Although like the Ramas and Mayangnas they understand land as communal territory, not an individual plot, they themselves define three distinct sub-cultures: those who live in fishing communities along the seacoast (“salt”) or the rivers (“sweet”) or in agricultural communities in the largely treeless plains north of Bilwi and south of Waspam.
The Afro-Caribbean culture is water-culture
The Creole and Garífuna populations came to the Caribbean coast in ships as slaves. They came by sea and still today find economic and cultural solutions in the sea. The rural Garífuna and Creole communities in the south Caribbean region have always been tied to fishing in the sea or lagoons, which is ever harder now given the voracious globalization of fishing and its wasteful techniques. Urban Creoles have always forged relations with transnational fishing companies or cruise ships, facilitated by their English skills, be it Creole or “standard” English, depending on their schooling. Many young Creoles, both men and women, dream of “shipping out” for months at a time, doing whatever job they can get. Those from Bluefields and the Corn Islands have always felt very close to the population of the Caribbean islands, and communication between them has always been very fluid. Their culture is water-culture.
Different values for different peoples
Figuratively, we can see the Creoles moving in ships by sea, the coast’s three indigenous peoples in canoes by river through the forests, and the mestizos on horseback over their farms. Creoles without water, indigenous peoples without forests and peasants without land are beings without a soul. What has value for the coast’s indigenous peoples is the forest and what it contains; while for the cattle ranchers it’s their herd roaming the cleared land; for the peasants, the improvements they’ve made on their plot; and for Afro-Caribbeans the seas and lagoons teeming with fish. In short, very different visions of the same region and its uses.
You are what you eat
The mestizo peasants are children of corn. The Miskitus and Mayangnas are children of wabul, a sort of porridge made of mashed plantain or peach palm with fish or coconut oil. And the Afro-descendants are children of rondon or rundown, a fish soup with root vegetables cooked in coconut milk.
The superstructure is getting top-heavy
while community organization gets weaker
Something that needs to be kept very much in mind when interpreting what’s happening in the Caribbean Coast and visualizing the difficulties of a short-term solution is the erosion suffered by the organization of all the peoples on the coast, be they indigenous, Afro-descendant or mestizo peasant. In formal terms, there are more laws, more regulations and more authorities for the indigenous peoples, layers upon layers of power: at the community level there are the wihtas (judges) and the síndicos (in charge of dealing with local resource and environmental issues); then moving upward are the municipal governments, the new territorial governments, the two regional governments, and of course the powerful national government. With respect to political or socio-cultural representation, there are also the Council of Elders, the regional indigenous party Yatama and the churches.
Many of these structures came in with the autonomy, while the traditional local organizations and authorities in the communities have eroded and their functions have changed. The Councils of Elders, síndicos and wihtas must now respond more outside of their communities and territories, while the control mechanisms of their own communities have been weakened.
Among other things this weakening presupposes that the communities can’t pressure as strongly for transparent accountability over the income entering from agreements on their resources. Sadly, the families seem to have made their peace with that by rotating síndicos in many communities: “We change them each year so others can grab something too.” Over time the reason for organizing has shifted from the need to resolve shared difficulties to having posts to benefit from, giving people the vision that even community organization has more to do with money than anything else.
Their own traditional forms of organization, including the sukias and other local authorities, and the standards ruling the communities over the past two centuries have all suffered the same erosion. Many cultures in the world have taken advantage of ideas and resources from national and international organizations to strengthen their own culture and organization, but in the coast, money; the imposition of the cross, particularly with the new churches that have come in; thecaciquismo of the past 70 years; and the decade-long war of the eighties, displacing whole communities, dividing families and causing tens of thousands of refugees in neighboring countries have all weakened and unbalanced these populations, shattering their traditional sense of cultural, physical and communal harmony. We shouldn’t find it strange that indigenous leaders are currently being charged with selling legally unsaleable indigenous lands, or with participating in lumber businesses that are devastating the forests. They aren’t just individual crimes; we need to understand that their roots extend backwards beyond the present and are linked to both national and transnational social irresponsibility.
Obstacles to civilization…
or is “civilization” an obstacle?
If we don’t take all this into account, we’ll continue reading the conflict in erroneous ways. Centuries ago it was thought that indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples were not very civilized, to say the least, and were enemies of progress. Many of those on Nicaragua’s Pacific side, for example, still see the Caribbean coast populations as “backward,” still in pre-development phases far from modernity, a view frequently found throughout Latin America. Peru’s Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa, a modern liberal intellectual, takes that thinking to another level when he says indigenous peoples aren’t only “backward” but actually an “obstacle” to civilization, harking back to the 19th-century thinking of Argentina’s Sarmiento, who believed the indigenous population of his country would have to be eliminated if Argentina was to develop.
There’s a theory in the academic literature called “path dependence.” It holds that once a path is decided upon there’s no turning back and that any claims, demands or protests strengthen rather than change the initial decision… until at some moment another crossroads is reached that opens new options, and a new decision has to be made.
We could apply this theory to our old and deeply rooted ideas to understand the coast’s indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant populations. But people criticizing and questioning that outmoded viewpoint only reinforced it. Laws were passed all over Central America to promote coffee and cattle that involved expropriating indigenous lands and obliging its historical owners to work for free, otherwise they were considered shirkers and jailed. As this viewpoint persists even today, we continue hearing what the market currently tells us: “The indigenous peoples will disappear, as will the peasantry; history cannot be stopped” …unless, that is, we are now coming up to another crossroads and are capable of breaking that thinking, expanding our view and changing mentalities.
Let’s try putting ourselves in their shoes
Those of us who like to call ourselves friends of indigenous peoples must revise our thinking. Academics and consultants acting in solidarity with indigenous peoples are doing studies with them full of ideas about “gender,” “payment for environmental services,” “governance,” “resilience,” “sustainable livelihoods,” “land tenure” or “empowerment,” all of which are theories invented outside their reality, although backed with resources. We’re studying their reality on the go, without ever stopping to listen to them.
To decide what has to be done to start resolving the tensions on the Caribbean coast, let’s put ourselves for a moment in the place of its indigenous families. They’ve seen their forest areas shrunk, the animals in the forest disappear, the water levels in the rivers fluctuate, the fish and shellfish catches dwindle, and more and more international cooperation projects depart. They know the lumber business has dropped somewhat and the soil fertility isn’t what it used to be or doesn’t yield what it used to, yet they’re seeing ever more people living in their territory. In short, they have less food, less money and less land with which to make ends meet. Obviously their desperation is mounting. But on the other hand, if all the mestizo communities leave the territory, where will they get the cash to buy salt, sugar, clothes…?
Now let’s try to think like them. We, for example, are comfortable with the concept of “land tenure,” but it doesn’t even exist in the indigenous vocabulary; they don’t conceive of someone “owning” a piece of land… The concept means nothing to them because it assumes that land equals individual ownership, with marking posts and deeds, even if written on wrinkled paper with a few signatures. They can understand owning a piece of paper, but not the land.
Do the majority of the indigenous communities have individual plots of land? Of what I’ve understood from being among them, land is at the same time communal and individual, tangible and intangible. The concept of land isn’t just the ground, but includes forest and water. It’s not just a place; it’s life itself. In Managua we talk about “my property” whereas indigenous families say “our territory,” and in so doing their sense of possession is different than ours, which is very influenced by market logic. Our way of seeing separates land from forest, land from life, communities from their surroundings. Certainly for the indigenous communities, also for the rural-based Afro-descendants, and I’d even go so far as to say for peasant families, market logic doesn’t explain everything, nor is it what most moves them.
Understanding the indigenous peoples requires expanding our view. It means submerging ourselves. It means putting ourselves in the shoes of a Mayangna or Miskitu community. With few exceptions they’ve never experienced individual property enclosed with barbed wire or cord fences.
As families they’ve always worked on a little area for three or four years then moved to another so the first one can regenerate, always back and forth within the same territory, to plant, to exist. They’ve heard the words “manzana” or “hectare” of land and know they refer to land measurements, but they’ve never used them because they’ve never needed them. Nor do they use the words “buy” and “sell” in relation to land, because they’ve never bought land nor has it entered their heads to sell what they have. When the mestizo families came and told them they wanted to buy land and the indigenous people agreed to sell them some, they didn’t believe it meant “take over ownership” of that land. They thought it meant the peasants were paying to be able to plant there for two or three years, like they do. And they didn’t know that 20 or 50 hectares was something quite so big or that the mestizos were going to pound in border markers and not allow them into that big area anymore to hunt or look for medicinal herbs… So now what are they supposed to do? As you can see, a lot of misunderstandings underlie these conflicts.
Build bridges of dialogue
What’s the way out of the coast conflict? In my view, the first thing we have to do is recognize the complexity of that reality. It isn’t any one of the three interpretations I described above; it’s some of all of them and more. A dialogue needs to be proposed, one that starts at home, in the hope we’ll know how to listen to each other and that the universities and churches will be self-critical. The universities need to review their curricula and the churches need to recognize the existence of multiple spiritualties and surmount their own divisions. Only by accepting the complexity and being self-critical can they help build bridges of dialogue.
Speaking to the US Congress, Pope Francis pointed out to the legislators that “your duty is to build bridges.” We have to build some to understand what’s happening in the Caribbean coast. I think one bridge has to be built that reduces both the economic and cultural inequalities among all in Nicaragua. Despite the deforestation and the advance of the cane or peanut haciendas, immense spaces where there are no trees, there are trees on peasant farms. I believe we have to build a bridge between peasant families and indigenous communities based on environmental care in order to address climate change.
Building bridges to complete the title clearance stage established in Law 445 could involve a land rental project. If it were established that non-indigenous people cannot have more than 50 hectares of land in indigenous territories, we might just find the beginning of a solution, because the big cattle ranchers who want 500, 1,000 or even 3,000 hectares won’t want to be there. If a maximum of 50 hectares could be agreed on and the peasant families had to pay an annual rent per hectare, this could be a bridge; it would give land to the mestizos and money to the indigenous communities. But for this to provide a solution, the indigenous organizations would have to strengthen themselves so the rent money they receive from the mestizos would be transparently administered and there would be at least minimum social auditing by the community. Unless the indigenous organizations improve, any resource coming in would only endanger the communities.
A land rental project, which is contemplated in Law 445, would be compatible with the peasant families diversifying their crops and combining annuals with perennials large and small livestock with patches of forest. By the same token, if some indigenous families want to diversify their own productive activities, they shouldn’t need more than 50 hectares per family in addition to the communal patches of forest and receiving incentives for maintaining them, being paid for their “environmental services” in line with the Sustainable Development Objectives the United Nations just approved as the 2030 Agenda. That would produce a bridge, an alliance of indigenous peoples, peasants and Afro-descendants.
Adversity can bring opportunity
There are conflicts in the coast, but the word conflict has two sides: confrontation and cooperation. Bridges are built looking at the cooperation side. There are always opportunities behind adversities and I believe the current conflict on the coast is an opportunity to learn and to change.
The solutions to the coast’s problems can’t be black and white. We have to find creative ways to get out from under this tension. There have to be social arrangements that allow some bridges. Only societies that organize themselves manage to advance and get laws that really improve their lives. But in the 1980s the revolution taught us that without communities that claim and demand their rights, without women and men who help build their own destiny, the approval of the best laws and application of the fairest measures mean nothing. Bringing in resources will serve for naught. The history of struggle of so many peoples has taught us that there’s no point fighting for good laws if afterwards we don’t participate in their application. The current dynamic on the coast is an opportunity to learn. And the more we learn, the more we’ll be able to change.
It helps to recall the old idea of stewardship: of being aware that we have a short life in this world and therefore have to work for our society and our planet in those few years; we have to give the best of ourselves to sow more and better life. And to do that well, the most urgent thing is to learn. Metanoia is the translation of the Greek word for both learn and change. It’s also a word that appears in the Gospel as a synonym for conversion, for change of heart.
Time to learn; time to change
To learn is to change. And to learn something you have to get to the bottom of it, to investigate, scrutinize, analyze, discern it. The market and its power today is a human project and that means we can change it. Uruguay has succeeded in increasing its production of dairy products by more than 50% without deforesting. How did they do it? By changing with the knowledge that makes us change.
We will only change with human communities and organizations that learn. It isn’t right to defend “indigenous culture” blindly against the market, nor is it honest to defend “the market” at the cost of indigenous cultures. Something combined and creative has to emerge. We must produce something new as a fruit of this conflict and so many others happening all over the world. It’s time to learn; time to change.
René Mendoza Vidaurre (email@example.com) is a research associate of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute, (Nicaragua) and works with the Wind of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/). He specializes in facilitating organizational innovation and development processes.