Land takeovers in the 2018 crisis and Nicaragua’s housing deficit
.How much land was taken over during
the national crisis that started in 2018?
Who did the taking and why?
This research by Techo International gives us
a broader view of the complexity of these events.
Amaru Ruiz Alemán
When I woke up in the morning, I heard that everyone was going house to house advising us to go out and see because outsiders and people from around our neighborhood were taking over the Agrarian University’s lands... Starting then, Agrarian University workers began to take over and tend to plots of land so they could be the beneficiaries of the land takeover... Those who didn’t work at the university were evicted and the workers stayed with their lands under a payment arrangement. Then there was another takeover in Los Sábalos. There too they took part of the haciendas, but they were removed...”
A woman from the Telémaco Talavera neighborhood, on the Agrarian University’s lands, told this story about events in May 2018, in the midst of the national crisis. A constant component in Nicaragua’s recent history, it was inevitable that land takeovers would be part of the situation opened by the April civic rebellion.
A complex truth
Although reports by the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua (UPANIC) presented the land takeovers that occurred throughout the country as actions directed by government agents in retaliation against the private sector for its political stance, the truth is much more complex than this one-sided image.
One of the conclusions of our research for Techo International was that the amount of land UPANIC reported taken in fact only represented 22% of all known cases. Our research consisted of compiling all information on this issue from the two national newspapers and two digital media (Confidencial and Onda Local) over a period of seven months, which enabled us to draw a timeline that verified the evolution of land takeovers. We also made six field trips to occupied lands or where the occupants had been evicted, in Chinandega, Managua and Masaya. During these visits we conducted 10 case interviews that enabled us to give examples of the interests and demands of those involved in the takeovers.
The cities’ expansion
The first takeovers took place on the National Agrarian University’s lands and those belonging to the municipality of Managua. At the beginning, lands belonging to government officials, former mayors and municipal projects run by the ruling party were also occupied. These occupations were widespread and undirected and affected very diverse owners although, given the critical cir¬cumstances during those months, the most publicized cases were those by people from the ruling party aimed at affecting well-known private businessmen.
The result of our investigation enables us to state that what took place was an intense process of urban expansion: people from poor neighborhoods went to occupy also poor areas on the urban periphery or vacant lots within the cities.
In Latin America, land takeovers are closely related to the growth of cities. Traditionally, abandoned public lands were occupied or a landowner’s property was invaded. Migration from the countryside to the city came later. In Lima, the first slums appeared in the 1960s, surrounding the city, and were where workers arriving from the countryside could rent makeshift homes. In Caracas, “cardboard houses” were already evident in the 1970s. The upsurge of favelas in various Brazilian cities took place in the early 1980s.
A constant in times of conflict
Land takeovers weren’t a new phenomenon in Nicaragua. They had been a constant in the country’s recent past and always had the same detonators.
The poorest families feel that opportunities unavailable at other times exist in times of conflict and social chaos to get something vital to them: their own land and a roof over their heads. According to the US sociologist and historian Mike Davis, the overthrow of dictators in Latin America has always created transient opportunities for invading lands. Rivalries between political parties and the revolutionary threat were also sporadic opportunities for urban emigrants to obtain land and infrastructure in exchange for votes.
The first of the most recent land takeovers took place when Nicaragua was in civil insurrection, with constant mass mobilizations. In April and May 2018 alone, 810 mobilizations were recorded. The attention of the general public and the mass media were focused on the civic mobilizations and the government’s repressive responses. All state institutions as well were monitoring grassroots activity and organizing their response. This favored the land takeovers.
Most of the families involved in the takeovers were living in overcrowded conditions or renting, with no hope of someday having a home of their own. To obtain a plot where they could build a house was their greatest desire. The information that triggered and accelerated the decision to go occupy lands was spread by word of mouth, assuring them that the government would legally recognize these lands and wasn’t going to evict anyone.
Unfulfilled postwar agreements
The unfulfilled agreements and commitments that had put an end to the 1980s civil war, signed at the time of pacification, also weighed in the recent land-takers’ decision. Many former combatants from both sides had not been recompensed by the different governments that followed the war. Empowered by agreements that were never complied with, they felt that taking the lands retu5rned to the public agenda claims that had been ignored.
The land tenure problem hasn’t been resolved in Nicaragua. It changed drastically when the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown and the revolution confiscated land from its supporters—or those suspected of being so—between 1979 and 1982 and then with its agrarian reform, which was the result of the rural population’s pressure and the intensification of the war in the countryside. Most of the land was occupied by the “reformed” cooperative and state sector.
When the revolution ended and the war between Sandinistas and the Resistance was concluded, land continued being the economic factor that caused the most social conflict in an already conflictive environment due to privatizations in the public sector, structural adjustment and the pacification process that characterized the 1990s. In those years, demobilized Sandinista and Resistance sectors once again took up arms, taking lands under the rallying cry of “Land, Roof and Work.”
Land takeovers were a predominant feature of the social conflict during this decade, reaching its zenith just after the war, in 1991 and 1992. After some years with less activity, land takeovers again increased after 1997.
“They played a dirty trick on us”
In the course of our research, we heard this testimony from a former Sandinista soldier: “They gave a plot of land to 66 of us who were in the Ministry of the Interior in the 1980s. After April many more people came looking for a plot to live on. They even made a market there, called La Placita. They told us things had to be done quickly. Many of us hurried in; many people came with their house boards and 4”x 4" posts to make shacks.
“Not until after the social commotion did I realize that this land belonged to a private company. When they took us off that land, I wasn’t going to be one of those fighting for it, because the way things are, you could be locked up for anything or forcibly disappeared... I thought they played a dirty trick on us, a bad joke, because I borrowed 10,000 (córdoas (a little over US$300) and we lost everything. It was unrecoverable.
“I wasn’t there when the police came to evict us, just my wife. They say the police told them: ‘Take your things away or we’ll rip them out.’ First they let people come in, they allowed it, then they threw us out... Is there a war between private enterprise and the FSLN? We don’t know, but they used us, the poor, the laborers, the working class...
“They used us to do those kinds of tactics: not just me because there were about 30,000 people there. From Las Jagüitas for about five miles to the south, it was all full of people. There were already buses and shops there; there were people who had already made walls, and people looking how to put in water and everything. It was a project that was mushrooming.
“And after they took us out? They said the government had a project called Bismarck Martínez and was giving plots on affordable terms. So I went to the mayor’s office to ask about the requirements and they told me to write a letter addressed to the President of the Republic, a document to say that I had been a soldier, photocopies, Sandinista militancy card, five photocopies, negative asset certificate... First came the shock of the eviction and then they play you so people don’t rail up… because this project came up immediately after the eviction. After this project, there was another, called Monte Nebo, where they’ve made 150 little houses to be paid for in 15 years. I had gone there already, but it was very expensive. You have to put down US$500 at the start and then pay 200 a month. This isn’t something for a laborer earning C$5,000 (US$161) every 15 days, and we are renting. That doesn’t work for us.”
It isn’t coincidental that those who took the lands were discharged and war-disabled from the Army and the Ministry of the Interior or the Nicaraguan Resistance who, 24 years earlier had not benefited from the unhonored agreements that ended the armed conflict in the 1980s. All this time they had been living in overcrowded conditions or paying rent, which is why, immediately after invading the land they built shacks and some even installed electricity and water, illegally in most cases.
A common reality
Many families are living without land or roofs. During the 1990s, medium-sized cities underwent accelerated growth linked to the establishment of informal settlements caused by land takeovers. In some cases they ended in evictions and in others in local councils being constrained to provide basic services and facilities. According to the census of urban settlements in Nicaragua’s Pacific region, conducted by Techo Nicaragua in 2015, “a large percentage of settlements in the Pacific region are less than 25 years old, 45% were formed between 1990 and 2006 and 18% between 2007 and 2012.”
One of the notable findings from the census is that “since the first informal urban settlements began to appear on the Pacific, the way families most usually access land has been through land takeover.” The census also states that “7 of every 10 settlements started as unauthorized occupations and 4 of every 7 land takeovers for housing purposes have developed spontaneously.” The latest government figures indicate that throughout the country there are some 528 “spontaneous human settlements,” 300 of them in Managua.
The first two takeovers
It is logical that the social chaos generated by the April rebellion favored land takeovers. The first two reported takeovers were on May 24 and 25 in the municipality of Managua, 40 days after the protests started. The first occurred in the area north of the international airport’s runway, on lands belonging to the National Agrarian University, the municipality of Managua and other owners. The second took place in the May 18 neighborhood, also in Managua, in an area declared uninhabitable in October 2014 when several hours of intense rainfall caused the collapse of the perimeter wall of a nearby residential development killing nine people.
Journalists reported 72 land takeovers between the start of the protests and December 31, when the repression had already silenced them and the police State has been consolidated. These occurrences took place in at least 23 of its 153 municipalities and in 12 of the country’s 14 departments, mostly in the more populated Pacific region: 43% of the country’s population is concentrated in the municipalities affected by the land takeovers, and 81% of the population in these municipalities is urban.
Facts and figures
After beginning in Managua, the land takeovers continued in northwestern Chinandega and later extended to the northern municipalities. Chinandega was the department where the most takeovers (21) were reported. Unofficially, we know there were more: 42. Managua was in second place with 17 reported takeovers.
Although there’s not much detail, most of the land was seized by people from the same municipality, with no massive flows of people from one municipality to another. In Managua and Chinandega, it was done by families from the poor neighborhoods of those two cities.
The takeovers began in May, at the end of the first phase of state repression. In the second repressive phase—“operation clean-up” to remove roadblocks and barricades—land invasions increased to properties owned by individuals linked to the ruling party and also municipal land.
The first death occurred in that phase, on June 30, resulting from conflicts generated by a coincidental eviction. The first official eviction occurred on August 23—when the third phase of more selective repression had already begun—but the land takeovers continued. Most of the evictions took place during the imposition of the police State, the fourth phase of the repression. Altogether, land takeovers left 5 dead and 16 wounded, all in Managua and under varying circumstances.
Based on journalists’ reports, this represented the mobilization of at least 7,856 families, who invaded about 6,000 acres of land. Most activity took place between June and August 2018, with the greatest number of takeovers in August.
UPANIC reported receiving allegations of 65 illegally occupied properties in 8 departments of the country encompassing a total of just over 17,000 acres. Of these properties 71% was used for agriculture, 20.5% for livestock, 5.5% for forestry, 2% for industry and 1% for other uses. A total of 53 owners were affected: 40 were Nicaraguans, 11 were from the US, 1 was Mexican and 1 was Canadian. UPANIC’s formal public request to the Army of Nicaragua to intervene and evict those occupying these lands may have brought about greater levels of social conflict.
According to journalists’ reports, among those taking over the lands were former soldiers from the Sandinista Popular Army, former members of the Nicaraguan Resistance, former members of the Ministry of the Interior, members of the Combatants of Nicaragua Foundation, members of Evangelical churches and families with no organizational affiliation. Those affected included companies, universities, municipalities, organizations, cooperatives and individual owners.
A human rights issue
The 2005 housing census showed a national shortage of 66,000 houses: 30,000 in Managua and 5,900 in Chinandega alone.
Having a home is a human right. Nicaragua has signed and ratified at least 18 international instruments (treaties, conventions, declarations and protocols) within the International Human Rights System. It has also ratified the two main Inter-American Human Rights System’s instruments: the Declaration and the Convention. In these various instruments 12 articles directly concern the economic and social human rights to housing, property and access to land.
fulfillment of this right
The government of Nicaragua has been constructing a national legal framework to guarantee rights and conditions that allow its citizens to attain an adequate standard of living and development. The families that invaded lands during the April crisis were seeking to see those rights realized.
The government has undeniably taken action on the demand for housing and access to land: the Special Law for the Promotion of Housing Construction and Access to Social Interest Housing (Law 677) passed in 2009 and its amendments in 2017; Plan Techo, providing free or subsidized sheets of zinc roofing for the most precarious housing; subsidized interest rates for mortgage loans and construction—with the private sector—of 57,859 new and renovated housing between 2014 and 2018. However, these actions have frequently favored the families of the ruling party’s supporters.
Nonetheless, it has not guaranteed all its citizens the right to decent housing, and Nicaragua continues to have one of Central America’s highest housing deficits in both quantitative and qualitative terms. The country needs about 20,000 new houses a year and more than half of the existing ones need renovation.
Nor has Nicaragua guaranteed its citizens the right to access to land. One of the most recent and dramatic examples is its failure to comply with the Law Creating the Fund for the Purchase of Land with Gender Equality for Rural Women (Law 717), passed in 2010 after many years of advocacy and petitioning… and due to a lack of funding, it has still not become reality.
In recent years, the country has undergone a land re-concentration and land-grabbing process by businesspeople, private investors and foreigners. Most of the land concentration has taken place in the Pacific region, precisely in the areas where the most land takeovers took place.
A little known right:
The right to the city
Among the rights that defend those who, out of necessity, took over lands was the “right to the city.” This little-known law was also accepted by the State of Nicaragua at Habitat 3, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held in Quito in October 2016.
The World Charter for the Right to the City defines this right as “the equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice. It is the collective right of the inhabitants of cities, in particular of the vulnerable and marginalized groups, that confers upon them legitimacy of action and organization, based on their uses and customs, with the objective to achieve full exercise of the right to free self-determination and an adequate standard of living.”
Although this new urban paradigm is in ongoing debate, the United Nations recognizes it as “the right of all inhabitants, present and future, to occupy, use and produce just, inclusive and sustainable cities” and defines it as “an essential common asset for the quality of life.”
Land takeovers will continue to take place in Nicaragua. Families will do it because it is their right, because they need land to build a house on and because, even if they don’t know it, they too have “a right to the city.”
Amaru Ruiz is an independent researcher and president of the River Foundation. This is a summary of research for Techo International called “An independent account of land-takeovers in the context of the Nicaraguan crisis.”