What does settler Catalino’s story tell us?
Mestizo settlers and indigenous people
are both pieces in a perverse chess game
between local and extra-regional power groups
in the Caribbean Coast.
We find scenes from this dispute in Bosawás.
When it comes to power there are no good guys and bad guys,
just useful and useless ones, depending on the moment’s interests.
The aim of this text’s author is to promote a critical debate
that more adequately describes who the settlers are,
as they are frequently pegged without nuance as
the bad guys.
Edwin Matamoros Chávez
I have lived among indigenous communities and mestizo settlements during various conflicts between the two and between them and the State since the eighties, in the times of Red Christmas  and the Tasba Pri settlement [where indigenous people from the Río Coco were moved in January 1982 following fighting between government troops and Miskitu opponents along the river in November-December the previous year]. I have seen how the official discourse has alternately labeled one group or the other heroes or villains, depending on the context. I have also seen how, under pressure, both indigenous and peasant leaders opted to flirt with the nearest power groups.
Based on all these experiences I have thought about and investigated them and have come to believe that it’s necessary to learn more about the settlers who have created communities in Bosawás, the 8,000 square kilometers UNESCO declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1997 that coverz six demarcated Miskitu and Mayangna territories.
Nature reserves and human beings
The creation of nature reserves as a model of ecological conservation and restoration has had some successes and has awakened hopes of being a way for us to protect important ecosystems all over the world. The presence of human beings in these reserves is an important element to take into account, and the projects that have avoided any human intervention in the reserves have failed to protect them as intended.
It is known that the evicted social groups were links in the complex cycle that sustained those ecosystems in certain protected reserve projects. In others, using the argument that indigenous peoples are traditional conservers of forests and should be allowed to remain, exaggerated restrictions were imposed on them regarding use of the natural resources. Realities such as this suggest that the formulators of reserve projects have not yet fully understood the relationship between human groups and the ecosystems they inhabit.
Political ecologists have gone beyond that, investigating the results of failed projects, and have inquired into the underlying interests in their formulation. In various cases they concluded that some of these projects sought to link up to economic plans and policies of national governments or of internatinal agencies. Or they sought to confirm the superiority of some ethnic groups over others. Or in still other cases they wanted to restore supposed ecosystems described in colonial legends and narratives as pristine.
Along this line of reflection, starting from the fact that the complexity of the situation in Bosawás transcends ecological aspects and goes beyond simply seeking victims and victimizers or expressing consternation for the environmental deterioration, it’s worth finding out who many of the settlers are who have put down roots there, how they got there, and what some of their micro-political initiatives and actions in networks are all about.
The dominant self-image must be revised
The self-image of the population in Nicaragua’s Pacific region includes the perception that a forceful mestizo front is advancing toward the Caribbean Coast, that this social phenomenon is provoking environmental deterioration and the colonization of ancestral lands of the indigenous communities, and that the mestizo peasants, the main promoters of the mowing down of the agricultural frontier are associated with lumber mafias and cattle hacienda owners. Do all these ideas correspond to reality?
In the Declaration of Bosawás as a Biosphere Reserve, consideration 3 notes “that the disorderly reactivation of the agricultural frontier and the exploitation of the forest resources would alter the ecological balance and the biological diversity of the zone.” The accelerated deterioration of the reserve today indicates that what Nicaragua’s parliament considered an undesirable scenario is now a proven fact.
According to the latest information, 70% of the Bosawás reserve has already been ravaged and the numerous voices that have been raised to demand a halt to its destruction blame the substantial increase of settlers in it and the negative impact of their productive practices on the area’s ecosystem for it.
I agree with their concern and consider that halting further deterioration of the reserve cannot be postponed, but to achieve it requires a critical vision of the entire project, including its formulation. Already in 2004, in envío’s pages and in his text “A deceitful mirror: images of the agricultural frontier,” researcher René Mendoza Vidaurre pointed out mistaken ideas integrated into the dominant environmental discourses, insisting that “we need to re-conceptualize our notion of agricultural frontier in Nicaragua with new elements.”
A critical reading of the underpinnings of the Declaration of the Bosawás Reserve reveals some concepts that are inconsistent with the reality that already existed in the area as of 2001. Consideration 3 uses the terms “frontier” and “would alter,” which suggests that an extensive territory under agricultural exploitation existed at that time and that if the reserve were not established it would move forward over a still pristine forest.
When did they come and how many are there?
The migration of mestizos toward what is today Bosawás began over a century ago, encouraged by the US enclaves established in the Caribbean Coast and promoted by the governments of the time with the idea of colonizing those regions and integrating them into the national economy.
A good number of those migrants formed communities around the foreign mining and lumber exploitations and others settled in forested areas, where they supplied agricultural products to those companies. This laid the logistical basis and created the social ties that have served as a bridge for the migration and natural reproduction of new waves of settlers.
In contrast to the majority of the current maps of the reserve, it can be demonstrated how the six indigenous territories and the Bosawás nucleus are surrounded by old mestizo population centers established in the buffer area. Among them, the old mining enclaves of Bonanza, Rosita and Siuna, now converted into municipal seats.
There are no reliable data on the total population of settlers in Bosawás. Municipal mayor’s offices and official and independent studies calculate them in the hundreds or thousands, depending on who’s doing the calculating. In 2005 the government conducted the eighth Population Census and fourth Housing Census, and in 2011 did the fourth National Agricultural Census. Technically these censuses should include the settlers, but given their legal situation with respect to the land they occupy, it is unlikely that they would have given real data to survey-takers from government institutions.
Information vacuum and stereotypes
Why not analyze more adequately who the settlers are? I’ve found people who dismiss the idea of studying them, arguing that they are simply harmful to the reserve and to indigenous rights. Their only proposal is to evict them all without quarter. I think that information vacuum might be undermining the very effectiveness of both the environmental policies and the defense of the indigenous peoples’ rights as well as those of the settlers. The vacuum also makes it impossible to understand the factors that have pushed the colonizing of the Caribbean Coast, a social and environmental context that transcends the specific problematic of Bosawás.
Studies about Bosawás refer to the settlers as mestizos, agricultural growers, economically displaced, associated with lumber mafias pitting them against the indigenous people who they describe as attached to their traditions, guardians of the forests and rooted to the lands of their ancestors.
Based on my experience with both settlers and indigenous peoples, I see both of these characterizations as stereotypes. To expand the perspective, I offer readers a settler. Like any other ethnographic narrative, this portrait doesn’t pretend to represent the totality of the settlers. And as in many such narratives, I’m using pseudonyms for the settler and where he lives.
I’m calling him Catalino and where he lives Tuluwás...
When I got out of the truck, my local guide and I headed down the rutted road to Tuluwás. As someone who knew the area well, my guide led me without fail through a multitude of paths that crossed in every direction. My GPS didn’t show them, but they were there. I had loaded up with publicly accessible information from the 1980s that was now out of date.
That apparatus was useless for guiding me, but over the long haul it was a lot of help. It caught the attention of the guide, who after some instructions began to figure out how to use it. Soon afterward he offered me his parents’ house to eat and spend the night. Once there, I decided to mark various points and routes that later helped me map out the site.
Eventually we made it to a peasant settlement located north of Siuna, inside the reserve’s nucleus area. A semi-forested area, the terrain is irregular, hot and rainy. It was there that I met Catalino, a man in his forties, originally from Waslala, southwest of Siuna...
Catalino’s history, war and violence
In the seventies, when he was just a kid, Catalino joined the Sandinista guerrilla movement. Once the dictatorship was overthrown, he became a member of the Sandinista Popular Army., and once the war of the eighties was over, he wanted to return to the life of a farmer, which he had left behind. But the new government [of Violeta Chamorro] established a development pole of ex-contras near his farm. Shortly his new neighbors worked out his political affiliation and with that the threats and sabotages of his farm and that of his brother began.
They decided to sell their lands to go live in a district closer to Siuna. Things weren’t good in their new home either. There were battles between the rearmed group [of angry Sandinistas] called the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC) and the Army, new renamed the Army of Nicaragua. The Army harassed Catalino and his brother on the assumption that they were collaborating with the FUAC.
Sick of all the violence, the brothers decided to continue their exodus. One fine day, Catalino headed off to look for new lands to live on. He caught a bus headed to Rosita [another mining town east of Siuna]. He had heard that there were lands for sale there. During the trip he ran into an old friend who commented to him that there were favorable lands in Tuluwás. They were selling lands cheap, “just like that,” with no property title. The lack of a title had never been a problem in that zone. He was also encouraged to learn that they were fertile lands, with good water.
The arrival at “the Promised Land”
A few days later the brothers sold their small farms and the money they got for them was enough to buy about seven hectares of land in Tuluwás. They kept two mules that they loaded with their few belongs, including the children, and headed off to their new home. After hours crossing hills and mires they arrived.
Those lands of lush forests, with no barbed wire fences, crossed by deep rivers, became the Promised Land for the families of Catalino and his brother. Today Catalino’s concerns are focused on his children’s future. At times he goes to Siuna, either on horseback or on foot. He prefers not to sleep there because it’s very expensive so even if night falls he returns to the little house he cobbled together. Despite the adversities he lives peacefully. Tuluwás is a calm place and there he has four cows, two mules, some pigs and a plot he’s planted. The lands aren’t as fertile as they told him, or very apt for cattle, but they provide a living. There’s land to cultivate and more than enough lumber, abundant water and few pests.
Only “inside and outside” and what they learned
When they arrived there were only two cardinal points: inside and outside. Inside was to walk west along the path into the mountains, where there was only forest and a few farms located hours away; some of them even days away. Outside was to walk heading east. Three hours away was a narrow dirt road, and twice a day a passenger truck would travel it between Siuna and the area. Unlike the indigenous people, peasants don’t travel by canoe on the big rivers running north-south, with water levels that make it difficult to cross by horse.
As soon as they arrived, both families immediately got to work. In the beginning only Catalino and his brother lived there, with no relatives to turn to if something happened to them. There were some farms in the surroundings, but they didn’t know anyone. With time they got familiar with what they had and didn’t have in Tuluwás. To buy the basics they went to the small stores along the main road. There they would find all sorts of things, from household products to herbicides for their crops. There was no school to send the kids to, nor a health center in case of emergency. For medical care, as minimal as it was, they had to go to Siuna. They knew there was a Mayanga community about an hour away, where there was a health post with two nurses. But they also knew that mestizos were not welcomed by indigenous people.
The main path ran about a hundred meters from Catalino’s farm, so every day they saw people come and go. Today they know a lot of those people they used to watch go by; most were like them: poor immigrant peasants immersed in building their houses, working their land and raising a few cattle. With the years they also got to know those who continued coming, who much like them ten years ago, come in by foot carrying their few belongings.
Build the chapel and sell the crops
As soon as they arrived in Tuluwás, Catalino, his brother and their families joined the Catholic parish. The construction of Christian churches tends to be a priority among settlers, followed by the construction and improvement of the roads.
In 2012, as I was finishing my field work in Siuna, the people in Tuluwás were reactivating an old bridge that would allow trucks to pull up closer to the settlement. They also built a multi-grade school.
To date, Catalino and his family go to the Catholic service celebrated by a local deacon every Sunday. The priest from Siuna comes to celebrate Mass only on special occasions. The small chapel, at the entrance to the settlement, has wooden walls, wooden floors on stilt and a tin roof. Attached is an office-kitchen-storage room, made of the same materials, but with a compacted dirt floor.
When the basic grains crops are ready, Catalino takes his harvest out by mule to the road like all other settlers. They either sell it to the stores along the road or to buyers who come around. During harvest time, these buyers come in trucks to a certain spot along the road. Generally, the settlers sell to them because to take their harvest all the way into town or store it while waiting for a better price offer is complicated and their families need the money immediately. Occasionally, pig buyers come all the way into Tuluwás, but the pigs are sold to them only in case of an urgent need or when the money from the harvest isn’t enough to cover the family’s expenses.
Catalino doesn’t have a deed for his property
Catalino’s house sits on top of a hill, about thirty meters above the big river’s water level. About two hundred meters separate his house from a ditch. When it rains for hours the horses can’t cross the river, so he and his neighbors have built a small raft to get across.
A creek runs next to his home where they get their drinking and bathing water and wash their clothes. They take their farm animals to the river for water. The river basin, surrounded by lush trees, is very fertile. Catalino’s fields feed off its water and aren’t so close as to have to cut the forest along its banks. He doesn’t fear flooding in the case of rising waters.
The “just like that” way Catalino became owner of the land he occupies in Tuluwás has been a regular practice in the central and eastern part of Nicaragua because the State has given Caribbean indigenous lands to national and foreign settlers for almost two centuries. That’s why Catalino hopes that someday the national government will issue him the deed for his property. Meanwhile, back at his ranch in the mountains, he’s not aware of the reactions his presence provokes among environmental defenders of Bosawás and among the indigenous communities that are the rightful owners of those lands.
Catalino’s story doesn’t suggest that all of Tuluwás’ settlers migrated for the same reasons as he and his brother. However, for whatever reason they did, once they reach their destiny they face very similar situations: they don’t have a deed to the land where they live and work, hardly have health and educational services, need income to cover their basic needs and are rejected by environmental authorities and indigenous communities. They’re also united by the fact that when they organize they all improve their lives inside the Reserve.
Networks and micro-politics: Survival strategies
I’ve found two concepts in contemporary literature that, articulated in a complementary way, interpret to a large extent the settler’s survival strategies in Bosawás: networks and micro-politics. According to their advocates, both are forms of resistance and of exercising power. Charles King, a US political scientist, defines micro-politics as ways of exercising power and resistance against policies that deny people certain rights. It’s distinguished from the politics of formally established organizations by its organizational flexibility and the identification of specific objectives. And Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar sustains that the networks of social movements allow subordinate groups to resist and even exercise some power over dominant groups.
The multi-grade school project built by the settlers in Tuluwás is an example that illustrates the settlers’ capacity to organize. Catalino’s son, born in Tuluwás, now studies in the little school, which wouldn’t exist if his father and other settlers hadn’t built that small wooden structure with a tin roof.
It was also the settlers who negotiated with the municipal authorities and got them to assign an elementary school teacher. Under the multi-grade model, in which all elementary grades are in one classroom with one teacher, children of several families of settlers are studying, and the families, in turn, guarantee the teacher room and board.
Among several power groups
The settlers who made the school a reality aren’t part of any committee. They organized exclusively to build the school and keep it running. It’s an example of micro-politics that challenges arrangements to promote their evacuation by depriving them of their basic services.
It’s very unlikely that this project would have taken form based exclusively on the perseverance of this group of settlers. As we now know, settlers count on the support of larger landowners, lumber dealers and traders who have economic interests in the Reserve’s natural resources.
More detailed observation reveals still other power groups in the Bosawás Reserve, whose weight and influence aren’t insignificant in the balance of local power. Among the most visible are the political parties, Christian churches, armed forces and NGOs.
The increasing numbers of settlers have attracted the proselytizing interests of some political parties and churches and currently, although to a lesser degree, also explain the presence and resources of several NGOs. Considering the isolated territories where they’ve settled, one can assume that the armed forces are also interested in collaboration with them to maintain social order.
All these power groups, including the large landowners and lumber dealers, have material resources and are part of networks that cover a larger area and revolve around other interests beyond direct exploitation of the Reserve’s natural resources. Their relationship with the settlers is based on a reciprocal interest.
These groups back the settlers’ work agendas so the settlers receive material returns and “connections,” i.e. direct or indirect social relationships with decision-makers they can turn to when needed and from whom some sort of prestige is always derived.
In this way, the settlers living in the Bosawás nucleus form a network of mutual collaboration among themselves. The local/municipal power groups with interests in the Reserve are their link to gain access to the municipality’s resources. In turn, those local/municipal power groups join with national/regional/departmental power groups, forming irregular networks.
Between fears and affinities
Due to the pressure from the indigenous communities and environmental policies, the settlers who occupied land “just like that” constantly feel fearful of getting evicted from Bosawás. And while it needs more research work, I believe that the current support given to the settlers by the different power groups helps them feel that their presence in the Reserve is institutionally accepted.
Undoubtedly, the shared mestizo cultural identity of the settlers and the members of the power groups helps shape those relationships. It’s also unarguable that the sharing of Spanish as their first language and similar notions about private property allows them more direct and fluid communication than the settlers achieve with indigenous people. In addition, the mestizos with generations on the Coast and those more recently arrived from the interior, though separated geographically, have more affinities between them than with the indigenous from the Coast.
Learn more about the settlers to defend Bosawás better
Despite their increasing protagonism in Bosawás, there is little accessible information about the settlers who live there. The studies about the reserve have ignored their capacity to establish roots there and hence the relationships they established with the different power groups with their different interests in the reserve.
My findings suggest that the settlers aren’t simply extensions of the lumber dealers or cattle ranchers, moved only by an interest in securing their family economy. They have a variety of interests that include education, health and security and are interested in legalizing their situation within the teserve.
From a political ecology approach, defending Bosawás demands less orthodox actions than the current ones. It demands a better understanding of the many Catalinos in Bosawás.
Edwin Matamoros Chávez, a social researcher since the 1980s, has worked in development initiatives and studied cultural conflicts on the Caribbean Coast and the agricultural frontier.