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  Number 474 | Enero 2021
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Nicaragua

After the hurricanes, someone has to speak for the Caribbean Coast

This award-winning Miskitu human rights activist and lawyer describes the suffering of Nicaragua’s indigenous communities in the humanitarian crisis created by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated the North Caribbean Coast in early November. She explains how this tragedy has only added to the ongoing crises they are battling from invasions by armed mestizo settlers, COVID and centuries-long governmental neglect.

Lottie Cunningham Wren

As envío described in its last issue of 2020, Eta, the first of two powerful hurricanes that tore through northeastern Nicaragua this year, made landfall on November 3, US Election Day. Iota followed only 13 days later…. Category 4 Hurricane Eta’s 150-MPH winds swirled ferociously into Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean Coast, 15 miles south of the capital city of Bilwi, municipality of Puerto Cabezas…. Iota, whose winds had reached category 5, had lessened to 155 MPH by the time it hit Nicaragua only 15 miles south of Eta’s entry point. Nonetheless, it is considered the most powerful to hit Nicaragua in over a century.

* * *
On January 11 Nicaragua’s President announced that the reconstruction process on the Caribbean Coast had begun. This is not true. We haven’t seen the government doing any reconstruction. It has been rebuilding the public school here in Bilwi, the regional capital but there is no reconstruction in the communities, least of all the more remote ones.

A new regional hospital…?


We’ve also seen government authorities start earthmoving here in Bilwi, supposedly to build a regional hospital. We have observed several machines doing this work but the communities here are very skeptical because they do this every time elections come around: announcing that they are going to build us a hospital… but then they never do. It’s just empty promises. I hope they finally build it because that hospital is urgently needed. We live in the only region in Nicaragua that doesn’t have a regional hospital and now, with the COVID crisis and after the two major hurricanes, we need that hospital more than ever.

Those two hurricanes left our indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in an extremely perilous situation. The Caribbean Coast is experiencing an authentic humanitarian crisis. We know that natural disasters always affect individual and collective human rights and this is what has happened. The rights of the communities were already being compromised but this major disaster has now aggravated all the other crises that already existed.

From poverty to extreme poverty


For years, Nicaragua’s government authorities have relentlessly encouraged and promoted extractive activities, mining, logging, extensive cattle ranching, and monocropping, all of which have damaged the environment and polluted our rivers.

Indigenous communities have been steadily losing their lands and have been forced to move from them by invasions of armed settlers. For years there has been food insecurity on the Coast. Now, the devastation caused by the hurricanes has made things worse for everyone. With Eta’s passage starting on November 3, followed 13 days later by Iota, the North Caribbean Coast communities’ poverty suddenly became extreme.

They lost everything…


Since the historic territorial demarcation process began nearly two decades ago, 304 indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in the two Caribbean Coast autonomous regions have had their territories demarcated. Of those, the hurricanes affected approximately 260 in the North Caribbean Coast region, 54 of them seriously impacted, affecting approximately 130,000 people.

In those 54 communities that suffered the most, only one or two houses were left standing. Houses in communities close to the ocean were left in ruins and without roofs. Those in the Lower Wangki River [a.k.a. Río Coco] communities were completely inundated. The people in all these 54 communities were left without the basics for survival. They were left with nothing, absolutely nothing. The winds and rain swept away what little they had: all their tools, clothes, food... They even lost their spoons. Their crops of plantains and bananas were flattened and the cassava rotted in the rain-saturated soil.

Away when the hurricanes hit


I wasn’t here when the two hurricanes hit. I was abroad advocating for the Caribbean Coast people’s human rights given the repeated violations of them, and to make the situation visible to the international community. I also explained our concern about Nicaragua’s government authorities granting mining and logging concessions to corporations.

I was involved in this task when I was told, in October, that I had been awarded the 2020 Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, and that I had to receive it at an award ceremony in a Swedish embassy. So, I stayed to do this. After the ceremony I wanted to return but travel requirements due to the pandemic made it very difficult. I wasn’t able to get back until December 13, but continued to work online with my colleagues in the office [the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, CEJUDHCCAN, which she founded in 1997].

Assessing and helping
meet basic needs


On my return, I found total devastation in the city of Bilwi and in all the communities I began to visit and help with basic supplies, mainly food. We human rights defenders in CEJUDHCCAN have traveled to the different parts of our region to verify what happened and assess the needs.

We have been in communities by the ocean, in the Upper and Lower WangkiRiver, and those in Tasba Raya. The women’s testimonies are heartrending, “We packed up everything when we heard the hurricane was coming, and when it passed we went back to find we had nothing left. It took our clothes; it took everything, even our children’s birth certificates and our ID cards.”

The purpose of our visits wasn’t just to listen to the women, young people, elders and traditional authorities, we have also helped them with food, nails, hammers and saws; tools they urgently need to repair their houses. In other places we gave them seeds—beans, corn, vegetables—and shovels, machetes and files, so they can sow the land again.

Many communities
weren’t evacuated in time


The government wasn’t well prepared for this, even though there was enough information available about where the hurricanes would make landfall and their maximum destructive strength. Its authorities didn’t warn the population in time and the National Army only evacuated communities located close to the ocean in the city of Bilwi. Nobody went to the most remote communities—those we are supporting right now, the ones deep inland where the government never goes, where the only ones who go are armed settlers who go to take over their lands and the Army that goes to repress. No one went to warn these communities, the ones suffering the most. There nobody was evacuated; the wind and rain took away everything, not even leaving them soil to sow seeds in.

In some of these communities we have seen people still wandering from one place to another, over their empty lands, still traumatized by what happened to them. These are communities where the women had to walk far from their homes seeking higher ground so the wreckage of their houses, destroyed in the first hurricane, wouldn’t strike their children as it was swept along in the swirling water currents created by the second one. They told us that they protected their children like hens cover their chicks under their wings. They described how, during Iota (the second hurricane), they spent 12 to 20 hours fully exposed to the rain and wind with no protection because they no longer had anywhere to take shelter. Eta had already destroyed even the schools and left the churches without roofs, creating fear that the church walls would collapse on them.

Communities close
to the Honduran border


We have also visited communities around Bosawás [designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997], specifically along the Waspuk River in the municipality of Waspam. The hurricane devastated that area with massive floods and the winds. The “tails of the hurricane,” as my grandmother called them, were very strong and destroyed the fragile houses, built of wood and bamboo. There too they lost all their crops.

The rainy season had come came in heavy last year, so many people sowed their rice very late and were harvesting it when the hurricane hit. Sacks full of rice were carried away by the water currents. Indigenous communities always build small huts with palm leaf roofs to store the rice they are harvesting. They do it because of the distances between their plots of land and their community. Since no one warned them about the hurricane, they didn’t have time to take the rice out of the huts. One man told me that he had 13 sacks of rice and the floodwaters rotted everything.

Conditions in the shelters


The schools used as refuges in the communities where there was evacuation were already badly deteriorated before the hurricanes. They didn’t even have latrines. Imagine having 5,000 people in two or three schools! With 800 people per school, what were the conditions like without latrines, without water or food, without mattresses? The government didn’t offer even basic conditions, not even sufficient places to shelter so many people.

The closest communities gave food and water to those crowded in the shelters. Here in Bilwi there were about eight refuges, in schools and in churches too. From what I heard from some pastors and reverends, the government authorities took people to the refuges and never went back. That’s the truth.

Nor were protective measures taken to reduce possible transmission of COVID in these crammed shelters, and we are now seeing outbreaks of it in several places. The Bilwi hospital is almost overwhelmed and no longer receiving patients. Two or three people a week are dying from COVID-19, although government authorities say it’s not from COVID. They are still giving confusing information and the health posts and health centers that do exist in the communities have no medicines. They lack the most basic elements to attend an emergency—acetaminophen to bring down a fever, pain killers or anti-diarrhea pills—and some communities don’t have either a health post or health staff.

The international community refused entry


We are concerned that, in addition to not rebuilding anything in the communities, the government has not allowed the international community entry to rebuild. This is so different from what happened with hurricane Felix in 2007, when the same government gave permission for plane after plane and multiple boats to come to the Coast; a hospital ship even came to attend to the sick. This time, absolutely nothing. The international community is asking to come in but the government isn’t authorizing it.

A religious group bringing 800 sheets of zinc arrived after the hurricane and gave them to some families that hadn’t been given any by the government when it was handing them out. This religious group wanted to bring in a brigade of carpenters with construction materials to build houses in some communities, but they were refused permission. According to what we heard from the traditional authorities, the group went to ask for permission from the regional and central government but they haven’t returned and they told community members that if they didn’t return it was because they hadn’t been given permission.

Reconstructing communities not just schools


I think that government reconstruction shouldn’t just be rebuilding schools. The government of Nicaragua has the responsibility and obligation to reconstruct the indigenous communities and, from now on, should be making buildings that can also function as refuges because these hurricanes could reoccur. The government has a responsibility to improve housing in the indigenous communities, not just provide sheets of zinc for roofs. The communities have a right to decent housing; it’s a human right.

After the hurricanes had passed, a National Army plane came to Bilwi with soldiers and several Army trucks also arrived with sheets of zinc for the municipalities of Waspam and Puerto Cabezas. The people don’t know about any other assistance. With the ten or fifteen sheets of zinc they were given, people put a roof on their houses, nothing else. Others used the wreckage they were left with to put on a roof and protect their families from the rain and the sun, but nobody has been able to rebuild their house. The government should organize crews with foremen and carpenters, and bring them over to rebuild the communities and so create work for indigenous families that were left worse off. Even here in Bilwi there are still neighborhoods where people are living on the ground.

In the communities, we see houses where the roof is a mixture of old and new sheets of zinc and others where the roof is of zinc and black plastic. Many houses have black plastic walls. Some families use lumber they pick out from the debris in their yards. Others keep this lumber stored hoping for donations of nails and hammers so they can minimally improve their ruined homes.

This exclusion is a form
of racial discrimination


This is very hard, very sad. The government has left each of the indigenous communities to solve their own problems. This is nothing new. We have always seen that the Nicaraguan State, and particularly this government, keeps us in exclusion. The poverty that exists here is a form of racial discrimination; it is a way to make us invisible.

Unfortunately, this racial exclusion is institutionalized by the State. The Caribbean Coast has always been excluded from national development. We’ve always felt forgotten and neglected. They only use our land to over-exploit our natural resources with extractive activities: mining, fishing, logging, cattle ranching and monocropping, e.g. African palm, which harm the environment.

We have never been guaranteed our most fundamental human rights, to food, health, decent housing… which is why the communities say they have no hope that the government will come to help them rebuild their houses. So far, they have even been forbidden from making use of the wood from trees knocked down or deriously damaged by the hurricanes and because no lumber is being brought in either, community people are still living unnecessarily under precarious roofs. Many have relatives living in Bilwi who are only waiting for the word, ready to go back to their communities help them rebuild.

So, here we are, two months after the hurricanes, and the problem we still have in many communities are the most basic ones: lack of food and access to clean water, medicines or simple building materials.

Who is providing food?


Those who lost all their production have nothing to eat and are receiving food through the World Food Program (WFP). We are concerned that the WFP is only providing two or three products. We acknowledge the aid, but the indigenous families need to be helped in a more systematic way, every month, and with diverse food products, including beans, oats and milk, which provide protein. Some churches have also given aid in the form of food and clean water. Others, such as the US embassy, have also helped with food. The US ambassador himself visited some communities to give them food.

The Nicaraguan government, however, isn’t providing food; it has only given sheets of zinc, some nails and bean and corn seeds. Community members, both men and women, say the government’s handouts are electoral propaganda, already part of its electoral campaign. Given the communities’ precarious emergency situation, they shouldn’t be doing this.

Political party card
instead of voter/ID card


During our visits we learned that many people lost their identity cards in the hurricane. The authorities must ensure that voter/ID cards are delivered in the indigenous territories. When we were distributing assistance, we prioritized women, whether single or married, and were shocked to find that in all the areas we traveled through, most women didn’t have an ID card. What the government is giving them is its own political party ID card, as if they are militant members.

When people ask us whether or not they should take the card we tell them, “If you don’t take it, they won’t give you anything. They won’t give you seeds and your children must eat and survive.” Some people say, “I’d rather die from hunger than take it!” We tell them, “Why don’t you insist in the Regional Assembly that you be given an ID card? Tell them not to bring you that other card, to bring you an ID card. Tell them that we are Nicaraguans and have the same right to ID cards as every other Nicaraguan citizen! These are the things you have to demand.”

Our autonomy has been hijacked.


We haven’t had any autonomy with this government. Autonomy [a regional right won and legalized in 1987, during the then-revolutionary government] is a dead letter. Our autonomy rights are institutionally deteriorated; the two autonomous regional governments function without being able to respond to the public’s needs. These two hurricanes have shown us that those governments don’t decide anything; the central government makes all the decisions. It’s the party in power that decides on everything in the region and its administration lacks transparency. All this is a violation of the most basic autonomy of the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and the entire Coast population.

Single mothers
get the short straw


The central government authorities don’t give everyone sheets of zinc; many single mothers didn’t get any and neither did most of those who they identify as not being in agreement with the government’s political party. Some central government institutions have provided some communities with bean and corn seeds but, again, not all.

The government conducted a census in order to do this, but counting the number of houses standing isn’t the same as counting the families in need, because up to three families might live in one house in an indigenous community and that could be 18 people, or more.

There are households where eight people live headed by a single mother. But most single mothers in the affected communities are now living with their parents and are often not put on the census as beneficiaries to receive zinc. They say, “If they gave me zinc I would make my house, even if it was small, so as to live with my children.” The women tell me they want to be independent because domestic violence increases with poverty, extreme poverty and overcrowding.

NGOs guaranteeing clean water


As the government hasn’t done anything to guarantee water, the most essential need, we in the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have helped in this humanitarian crisis by guaranteeing water in the various communities where we have already been working. Our work has been to repair, rehabilitate and disinfect the wells. They were all polluted after the two hurricanes passed through and people began to suffer from thirst and diseases.

We learned that the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was going to deal with water and health care but what we see in the communities is NGOs working on water issues in addition to other tasks. We’ve been cleaning family wells and rehabilitating and installing hand pumps on communal wells. We have also given talks about how to store and keep clean water. We even wanted to measure the quality of the water from the rehabilitated wells, and looked for the tools to do it in the city’s health centers and polyclinics, but we couldn’t find an instrument for measuring water pollution.

In the first communities where we went to work, we cleaned 70 wells, 10 of them communal. Communal wells are more than twenty feet deep; they are lined in concrete and work with a hand pump. Family wells are smaller and the families worked with the technicians repairing them. We installed a washstand alongside each communal well. We formed a women’s commission and gave talks to teach them how to take care of the pumps and its accessories, and how to guarantee the cleanliness of both family and communal wells. In each community, these commissions will be made up of 18 to 22 women, who are committed to the task of supervising that the pump is used correctly and to guaranteeing the wells’ upkeep.

For us water was the most essential because people were going to die from a lack of good drinking water. That’s why, as human rights defenders, we took the initiative to prioritize water and food and we also helped with some building and planting tools and provided black plastic to be used for roofing or walls.

Empowering people
to take the initiative


Some communities asked us what could be done about their school, destroyed by the hurricanes. We advised them to ask the Education Ministry authorities to rebuild it and also insist that it rehabilitate the school’s well and latrine, because these were also ruined. The communities wanted us to rehabilitate the school’s well but we said no. We told them, “We want to empower you, for you to ask the government to accept its responsibility. It’s the government that has to come and repair the school, and also renovate the well and the latrine.”

Whenever we go to the communities, we always meet with the traditional authorities and also meet with the women. We are going to start meeting with the young people as well because we feel we have to start listening to the youth. Three years ago we began working with 395 women to teach them agro-ecological production methods. All the vegetable gardens they made were destroyed by the hurricanes, so now we’re starting over from scratch. We’ve already given them seeds and tools, and soon hope to see vegetables again. We do this because we want to create women’s productive independence and strengthen their leadership within the family so as to reduce domestic violence.

We’ve been supporting midwives, giving them some of the basics needed for taking care of pregnant women and attending childbirth. Midwives have told me that they are using traditional medicine. In one community I saw a boy picking a plant in a garden. I asked him, “Why that plant…?” He answered me: “My Mama is a midwife and she uses it.” I went to talk with the lady and she told me that since they haven’t had any help with medicines, they have tried to go back to growing the plants they use to cure diarrhea, fever and coughs. They are planting close to their houses, because the hurricane destroyed the forest and, with so many fallen trees, they can’t go more than half a mile inside.

Teaching ancestral ways
of dealing with hurricanes


There are those who are still looking in the bush to see if they can find their axe or machete swept away by the first hurricane. The women explained that they put all their things into sacks and drums, tying the sacks to the main timbers of the houses and tightly covering down the drums. When they returned, the hurricane had taken everything.

We are now giving them talks so they know how our ancestors defended themselves from hurricanes. I was born in Bilwaskarma, along the Wangki River, where we endured many hurricanes and, when a hurricane came, my grandmother would get a dozen of her grandchildren to dig a hole, five feet deep, then we would put what little we had into a sack—the pots, clothes, blankets,—and we dropped it into the hole. The hole was covered in old zinc and on top we put earth. Once everything was collected, we went to take shelter in the Bilwaskarma hospital, called the Ruth C.S. Thaeler Memorial Hospital, built of concrete by US Moravian missionaries. Once the hurricane had passed we would take our things out of the hole.

The indigenous women didn’t know about this way of safeguarding their things from a hurricane. They never thought that a well-covered bucket or even the corner post of their wood house would be swept away, leaving them with nothing. No-one had explained it to them and they had never experienced hurricanes of this nature. These strong hurricanes are caused by climate change.

Our communities have not been informed about what to do when faced with natural disasters. This work is the responsibility of the Nicaraguan government acting through the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response (SINAPRED), which should go and give talks and workshops in the furthest reaches of the country. But SINAPRED doesn’t leave the cities; it doesn’t go out into these communities. That’s why our schools haven’t been repaired or rebuilt for the last ten years.

The Caribbean Coast will survive


The Miskitu and Mayangna indigenous families also lost all their animals—cows, horses, chickens and ducks—and their dogs and cats, which for us are part of the family. One lady told me she had 87 hens, and when she returned from the refuge she found them all dead, piled up among the debris, only four survived. Her cows also died. Some people are still looking for their cows because they haven’t found them dead. Some saved their dogs by putting them under something, others were injured and they are trying to heal them.

Despite everything I’m describing, I haven’t found despair in the communities. I admire them because they’ve been very innovative, very resilient, without anyone’s help or even expecting any. I also admire all that has been done to restore fruit trees that didn’t fall, hoping not to lose whatever small harvest they can achieve. The communities lost all their bananas and plantains, but have already planted more. They have been innovative: they have used the debris to make small vegetable gardens, close to their homes,

People had already gone to their plantations before we arrived and, since the cassava had rotted from the rains, they took out cassava cuttings to keep them, and have now replanted them. The cassava will be ready to harvest in three months.

The hurricane flattened the coconut trees, and coconut is part of our culture: we have to see coconut trees in our communities and coconut oil is a major ingredient in our cooking. Some people from Bilwi, or from other communities where the hurricane caused less damage, are giving or selling them coconuts to plant, and many have already been planted. What they really want, what they ask for the most, are seeds and planting tools. They say, “We’re not going to wait for anyone; we’re going to do it ourselves.”

Although nothing will be as before, all these endeavors I’ve seen tell me that the Caribbean Coast will survive. When I hear the women, when I see the elderly, when I look at what the men have done to safeguard their little children, picking up everything that has fallen, the remnants of their homes, it gives me a lot of energy to continue my struggle in defense of human rights.

Breadfruit and fish


They lost important fruit trees: limes, oranges, breadfruit, peach palm [pejibaye in Spanish and supa in Miskitu, Mayangna and Creole English], and more. Breadfruit is very good; it’s nourishing and is a cultural food for both indigenous and Afro-descendant families. In times of hardship, many communities have survived on breadfruit and fish. Although there are fish in the lagoons, the water still doesn’t look clear; it hasn’t yet returned to normal.

There are several large lagoons in this region: Karatá, Haulover and Kukalaya. Even though their waters are muddied, people fish in all of them as well as in the sea. However, because the wind and the tides are higher in the dry season, they now go out into the lagoons in their small boats to fish at night, even though they get less fish there than in the sea.

A subsistence economy
for the next five to ten years…?


The problem everyone is starting to talk about most is that there’s no money circulating and there’s no work here. So, who buys what, from whom, and with what? The situation is serious. You say, Sure, I can go fishing but who’s going to buy fish from me if nobody has money? In this situation what people are prioritizing is planting for their own survival: beans, cassava, corn, which will give them a harvest in three months. Plantains take longer: some six months, others a year. In addition, of course, this humanitarian crisis is going to cause migration from the communities to the city, to Bilwi, in search of work. The young sons and daughters, especially those of single mothers, are going to migrate.

If we don’t have longer-term support from the international community or from the Nicaraguan government, I estimate that it will take five to ten years to see an improvement in the North Caribbean Coast.

Government complicity with
the invading mestizo settlers


My calculation does not ignore our continued subjection to violence by settlers from other parts of the country who have been invading our indigenous lands for years. We know they were also affected by the hurricanes but they haven’t left the areas they have already invaded; on the contrary, members of the less-damaged communities tell us they are looking for better indigenous lands. Some communities have been observing their movements, and the people are afraid because they are wandering about, always armed. They entered the communities saying they only came to take shelter from the hurricane but, on further investigation, they said that since the hurricane had destroyed where they lived, they were going to look for other, better lands, indifferent to the fact that all these lands are already titled to the indigenous peoples historically living on them. So, they’ll continue invading our lands with the complicity of Nicaragua’s state authorities. We haven’t been able to stop them because they are protected by impunity. We have far more cases in the courts than we can deal with.

At the beginning of this year, in conjunction with the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), the Center for Legal Assistance for Indigenous Peoples (CALPI) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, we in CEJUDHCAN presented a report that included a list of settler attacks on indigenous communities last year. Armed settlers invaded indigenous lands belonging to Mayangna people, killing thirteen of them, leaving eight wounded, kidnapping two and forcing an entire community to relocate. Two Miskitu girls were also attacked.

Between 2011 and 2020 CEJUDHCAN has counted 49 indigenous deaths, 49 wounded, 46 kidnapped and 4 missing, and about a thousand Miskitu people forced to leave their communities.

Without title clearance,
our legality is insecure


The January report argues that all this is due to the government’s “covert internal colonization policy.” While the traditional indigenous territories have already been demarcated and titled by the State, what now needs to be completed is the fifth and final stage: saneamiento, or title clearance. This stage concludes the demarcation and legalization of the lands, as established in Law 445, approved in 2003. The government has not complied with this step and appears unwilling to do so. Without it, what we have is legal insecurity and illegal land trafficking.

[The Nicaraguan government’s judicial branch offers the only https version Law 445 we were able to Google, but it appears to be incomplete. In it, Chapter XII, “Title Clearance Stage,” is easily the shortest chapter. It contains only one article, Art. 59, which says: Each one of the communities, once they have obtained their title, may initiate with the technical and material support of the Rural Titling Office (OTR), the stage of regulation of their lands, in relation to third parties that are within it (unofficial translation). In an October 2015 envío article on the difficulties of this process, however, René Mendoza Vidaurre had access to the full version. He writes that “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.”]

Energized by the award, the
communities and my colleagues


In the face of so much neglect by the State and so much poverty, the resilience I find in the communities gives me energy, as do my fellow human rights’ defenders, who inspire me with their dedication and courage. I always tell them that we can’t defend indigenous peoples’ human rights from a desk; we have to go out into the communities. We have to see, experience, feel, and sleep with their realities, eat what they eat with them… and when we go to the communities, seeing them so fragile but so strong, knowing how vulnerable they are and the great resilience they have, this nourishes us with energy.

The award they gave me has helped me a lot; it makes me feel more committed to this cause, to continue reporting on the situation of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

We will continue to accompany them, denouncing to the international human rights mechanisms and the international community what they are experiencing, in order to demand that the State of Nicaragua comply with its international commitments and finally implement the protection measures the Inter-American human rights system granted to the 12 most vulnerable indigenous communities.

Nicaragua is experiencing the worst human rights crisis in its history


For the outside world Nicaragua’s human rights crisis began in 2018; for the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of the Caribbean Coast it has always existed but until recently we weren’t believed. I remember in 2017, when I travelled to some European countries, they looked strangely at me when I told them about institutional deterioration in Nicaragua, that civil society spaces had closed, and when I commented that those of us who defend the land endure criminalization, many people doubted me and told me it was impossible that a leftist government would do that…

With the human rights crisis that all Nicaraguans are now facing, a crisis which has consequences in our lands, I feel honored with this award, this acknowledgement. It is an award that makes visible what is happening today to the people of Nicaragua. I do not accept this award in a personal capacity, I humbly accept it in the name of the whole of Nicaragua and in particular those who have given their lives defending Mother Earth and especially the indigenous and Afro-descendant women of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast.

We demand that the Nicaraguan State fulfills its responsibilities and obligations by clearing the land titles in the indigenous territories so that the communities can control and manage their lands and resources. We’re going to continue pressuring, denouncing and demanding. We want the world to know that we are capable of managing our autonomy without interference from political parties.

Fighting for all this comes at a cost and will continue doing so. We have received threats, intimidations, and harassment, I have even had death threats, but we will continue giving statements to the national and international media.

We will continue presenting reports to the international community until the Nicaraguan State complies. I can’t stay silent while my people are enduring so much injustice. I have to carry on no matter the risk. Someone has to speak out for the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.


Lottie Cunningham Wren is a Miskitu human rights defender who trained first as a nurse and subsequently as a lawyer. In 2020 she was one of four recipients of Sweden’s annual Right Livelihood Awards, often called the Alternative Nobel Prize, “for her ceaseless dedication to the protection of indigenous lands and communities from exploitation and plunder.”

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