• Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua

    Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua

    There are seven indigenous peoples of Nicaragua. Nicaragua has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2010.

Indigenous World 2019: Nicaragua

The seven indigenous peoples of Nicaragua are distributed, historically and culturally, between the Pacific coast, central and northern  Nicaragua  –  inhabited  by  the  Chorotega (221,000), Cacaopera or Matagalpa (97,500), Ocanxiu or Sutiaba (49,000) and Nahoa or Náhuatl (20,000) peoples – and the Caribbean (or Atlantic) coast, inhabited by the Mískitu (150,000), Sumu-Mayangna (27,000) and Rama (2,000) peoples.

Other peoples who have collective rights under the Constitution of Nicaragua (1987) are the Afro-descendants, referred to as “ethnic communities” in the national legislation. They include the Creoles or Kriols (43,000) and the Garífunas (2,500).

In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) came into power in Nicaragua, and later had to face an armed front supported by the United States. The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coast, principally the Mískitus, participated in the armed opposition to the FSLN. In 1987, in order to put an end to the indigenous resistance, the FSLN created the Northern and Southern Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean (Atlantic) Coast (RACCN/RACCS), based on a New Constitution and an Autonomy Statute (Law 28). As a result of the judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of the Mayangna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community vs. Nicaragua in 2001, Law 445 was enacted on the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and of the Bocay, Coco, Indio, and Maíz Rivers. That law, as of 2003, also clarified the right to self-governance in the communities and created a procedure for the granting of title to the territories. As of 2005, the state initiated the title-granting process for the 23 indigenous and afro-descendant territories in the Autonomous Regions, culminating with delivery of the ownership titles in the year 2013. In addition, the General Education Act of 2006 recognized a Regional Autonomous Educational System (SEAR). In 2007, Nicaragua voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and in 2010 it ratified ILO Convention 169.

Political turmoil

Nicaragua has been suffering from social and political unrest since 18 April 2018. The state maintains in this regard that: “These were not peaceful marches, they weren’t protests, it was a coup d’état.” In a report published on 21 December 2018, however, Amnesty International, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHCR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Independent Panel of Experts (IACHR) all point to the government’s involvement at the highest level in committing crimes against humanity in the country.1

The background to the crisis can be found in the abuse, discrimination and dismantling of the democratic institutions that has been undertaken by President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo’s government since coming to power in 2007.

The first abuses were committed in rural areas against peasant farmers and indigenous peoples. These were not reported by the international media either because there was no local reporting or because these actions were taking place in areas far from the country’s capital. There was also, however, some self-censorship on the part of journalists who feared clashing with the state machinery, under the control of Rosario Murillo, Government Spokesperson, Coordinator of the Communication and Citizenship Cabinet since 2007, and Vice-President of the Republic since 2016.

Initially, the Ortega-Murillo government built alliances with those who had been their adversaries during Daniel Ortega’s first term of office in the 1980s; different denominations of the Nicaraguan church, and big money, represented by the Higher Council of Private Business (Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada/COSEP). It also maintained the economic policies established by neoliberal governments since the 1990s and adopted an extractivist policy that exacerbated individual and collective human rights violations of the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.2

The clash with YATAMA

A lack of access to public information has facilitated the encroachment upon and withholding of the fundamental right to free, prior and informed consultation which indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples should enjoy in relation to all issues affecting them. Given the government’s interest in obtaining the natural resources on indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, this has resulted in a severe and systematic deficit in the protection of these peoples’ human rights and of their participation in the country’s political decisions generally, and in those of their territories specifically, as stated by the IACHR in the case of YATAMA vs Nicaragua.

In 2010, in line with commitments made to the indigenous YATAMA party (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka/Children of Mother Earth), the Ortega-Murillo government titled most of the indigenous territories of the Caribbean Coast.3 This was a process initiated by the neoliberal government of Enrique Bolaños in application of Law No. 4454 deriving from the IACHR’s ruling on the case of the Mayangna (Sumo) Community of Awas Tingni vs Nicaragua.

The political alliance between YATAMA and the Ortega-Murillo government subsequently deteriorated, however, due to protests and the complaints of fraud that YATAMA submitted against the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). These protests were severely repressed by the Sandinista Youth, paramilitaries and the National Police during the 2008 and 2017 municipal elections, and also the 2014 regional and 2016 national elections. The split was evident in 2015 when YATAMA began to support the indigenous communities being invaded by armed settlers; this only worsened with the intervention of the FSLN, Police and Army riot squads against YATAMA’s leaders, culminating in the unlawful removal of Brooklyn Rivera, leader and founder of YATAMA, as elected member of the National Assembly. Despite this, Brooklyn Rivera was again successful in winning election to this post in the 2016 national elections.5

During the 2017 elections, many YATAMA candidates were also unlawfully arrested and imprisoned. In 2018, YATAMA continued to denounce the main regional and national government leaders linked to the FSLN.6 In August, eight people died in Bilwi at the hands of riot squads. Even so, YATAMA is still preparing to participate “under protest” in the 2019 regional elections.

The government already had a clear intention in 2011 to centralise the political power of the municipalities, autonomous regions and territorial authorities in the 23 territories of the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. These latter control 55% of the autonomous regions following the states recognition of their ownership and dominion of the lands they historically claim, through Law No. 445. The mechanism used to achieve such centralisation was party activism among the indigenous population, and the co-opting of authorities to ensure loyalty to the interests of the Ortega-Murillo government. Given various failures in implementing this strategy, however, they then chose to impose parallel government structures from within the party, known as Councils and Cabinets of Popular Power (CPC and GPC).7 These were in many cases controlled by public officials, thus undermining the stated self-determination of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

Added to the deteriorating alliance with YATAMA, the above resulted in substantial changes in the government policies which had, up until then, included YATAMA in the process of demarcating and titling the indigenous territories of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast. Since that point, however, the Ortega-Murillo government has refused to undertake the regularisation (saneamiento) as set out in Law No. 445, which involves establishing if there are third party legal titles superimposed on the titled indigenous and Afro-descendant territories.

Land encroachment on indigenous and Afro-descendant communities

Once the institutions of indigenous and Afro-descendant leadership had been neutralised within the communities, it became easier to grab the land and its natural resources. The relationship between these peoples and their environment has thus been eroded due to the deforestation and logging being undertaken by the Alba-Forestal company; the monocropping, for example of African palm (Elaeis guineensis),8 together with the expansion of the agricultural frontier and extensive cattle farming;9 the increase in mining activity, with the approval of the Nicaraguan Mining Company (ENIMINAS);10 and the imposition of the Grand Nicaraguan Inter-Oceanic Canal megaproject (GCIN) in 2013. The GCIN nonetheless attracted the attention of the international media and they also began to cover the peasant and indigenous resistance to the megaproject.

The Indigenous Black Creole community of Bluefields and the indigenous Rama people denounced the grabbing of their traditional lands and the forced displacement of the communities of Bangkukuk Taik (the last speakers of the Rama language)11 and Monkey Point to make way for the GCIN route, 52% of which runs through their traditional territories as titled by the state.12 Given the lack of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) or legal protection in relation to the project, these peoples lodged a case with the IACHR, with the support and legal representation of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Legal Assistance (Centro de Asistencia Legal a Pueblos Indígenas/CALPI). This centre’s coordinator has since, together with various indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders, been threatened by the state13 and is now living in exile with her family, as is one of the Rama leaders.

From 2015 on, the state interest in the land for its extractivist potential and the ensuing concentration of power thus resulted in an increased number of attacks by armed settlers and third parties against indigenous Mayangna and Mískitu communities in the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve and the Wangki (Coco) River basin.1415 These have led to the forced displacement of a number of communities to the Republic of Honduras. These cases are under the jurisdiction of the IACHR, which has issued precautionary and provisional measures, respectively, in favour of these peoples and their leaders in order to protect their lives and physical and territorial integrity,16 as well as to protect the members of the Centre for Justice and Human Rights of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast (Centro por la Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua/CEJUDHCAN) from the constant death threats they are receiving due to their support for the communities involved in these complaints.17 Nicaragua nonetheless continues to fail to comply with these measures and, worse still, despite irrefutable evidence, denies the validity of the complaints.

In 2015, the authorities and leaders of the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of Nicaragua decided to establish the Nicaraguan Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples (Alianza de los Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes de Nicaragua/APIAN) with the aim of encouraging a space for reflection and action on their traditional and ancestral territories. At the start of 2018, they produced a report on the situation of the territorial rights of Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.18

Alongside the above, the forest fire that lasted ten days and destroyed 6,000 hectares of forest in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, 80% of which is located on the Rama and Kriol Territory, gave rise to student protests at the government’s failure to act in the face of this disaster. The government’s response was to prevent independent journalists from entering the area to cover the news. The River Foundation (Fundación del Río /FdR), which has been working with the Rama and Kriol peoples to protect the reserve since 1990, nevertheless ensured that up-to-date information was available. After receiving direct and public attacks from two National Assembly deputies, however, on 13 December, together with another eight organisations, including the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos/CENIDH), the FdR’s legal status was removed and their assets confiscated.19 At the end of December, the FdR’s director explained through social media that he was now in exile in Costa Rica, having been warned by government officials that he would be arrested, held and subsequently prosecuted for the alleged crime of “terrorism”.

On 20 April 2018, the journalist Ángel Eduardo Gahona López was murdered during popular protests in Bluefields. The state has accused two Afro-descendant youths in the case. The criminal proceedings were flawed, however, and local journalists who witnessed the murder called for a prompt and independent investigation stating, as did the family of Gahona López, that the youths accused were innocent and that the crime had been committed by members of the National Police. Some of these journalists have now been forced into exile and the family’s and defendants’ lawyers have received death threats.20

The Pacific Coast

On Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, popular uprising in the indigenous districts of Monimbó, Masaya, and Sutiaba, León, calling for Ortega and Murillo’s resignations was suppressed by the combined forces of the police, Sandinista Youth and paramilitaries. During the subsequent “clean-up operation” conducted by the government, some were arrested and others harassed, forcing many to leave the country. They have largely gone to Costa Rica where, according to the IACHR, as of September there were already more than 52,000 Nicaraguans, some of whom are covered by the 143 precautionary measures that the IACHR had granted to those fearing for their lives and physical and moral integrity in Nicaragua during 2018.

Faced with this social and political crisis, the state created the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission with responsibility for investigating the deaths and damage caused during the protests that began on 18 April 2018. This Commission has not, however, played an effective role.21


Nicaragua’s position in the face of the social and political crisis that is shaking the country has been similar to its position over the last decade with regard to indigenous and afro-descendant peoples: categorically deny that the events are happening; blame the victims, discredit and criminalise the work of those denouncing the events – particularly through harassment and persecution of the staff of human rights NGOs that have supported indigenous and Afro-descendant demands, such as the CEJUDHCAN and the CALPI, and cancel their legal status as in the case of the FdR and the CENIDH. Internationally, it has tried to discredit institutions such as the IACHR, the OAS or the OHCHR, calling them “biased” with resolutions “issued by North American imperialism”. Nationally, most of the members of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia) who participated in the National Dialogue with the government in search of a solution to the current crisis are now in exile or in prison and the few who do remain at liberty in the country are constantly threatened. Furthermore, bishops from the Catholic Church, which participated as a witness in the National Dialogue, have been discredited, threatened and, together with the Apostolic Nuncio, physically attacked.

Independent journalism in Nicaragua has become one of the victims of the government’s lack of tolerance and openness to criticism (far less self-criticism). Dozens of journalists accused of “promoting hate” have been unlawfully imprisoned and exiled and, meanwhile, a prolonged attempt to fabricate an “alternative truth” is ongoing, simply exacerbating the current crisis.

The indigenous peoples are continuing their resistance, the rest of the population are on the alert, and the diaspora is active abroad making known the country’s internal situation and approaching international bodies such as the European Parliament, the OAS and the UN in search of support for a negotiated and diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Notes and references

  1. Informe sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos entre el 18 de abril y el 30 de mayo de 2018. GIEI, available at http://bit.ly/2T2lOiS
  2. On 23 April, 2013, the indigenous Mayanga Elías Charles Taylory was killed and other leaders who accompanied him were injured, the incident occurred while the Indians patrolled their territory in the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve in response to a complaint that squatter colonists were cutting down the forest. Arriving at the site and confronting the intruders on their indigenous land, the intruders responded with gunshots. Confidential. Carlos Salinas Maldonado, 27 April, 2014, available at http://bit.ly/2T85wVX and http://bit.ly/2T85vkR
  3. Comandante-Presidente Daniel entrega títulos comunitarios a pueblos originarios de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua. El 19 Digital, 29 October 2016, available at http://bit.ly/2T3T6y8
  4. Law on the System of Communal Property of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast and Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz Rivers, published in the Official Journal No. 16 dated 23 January
  5. Crónica de la revista Nacla sobre la resistencia indígena en la RAAN en las elecciones. Rivera regresa al parlamento por la “puerta grande”. Available at http://bit.ly/2T65ddU
  6. Denuncia presentada por la Dra. Elizabeth Enríquez sobre de la situación de los pueblos indígenas de la Moskitia nicaragüense y la organización CENIDH. Available at http://bit.ly/2T1udTL
  7. The Councils and Cabinets of Popular Power (CPC and GPC) form an alternative model of participation to that established in the Law on Citizen Participation; in addition, they were created by presidential decree in 2007 with the aim of getting the Nicaraguan population to organise and participate directly in support of the President of the Republic’s plans and policies through the FSLN (government party) structures; they therefore also fulfil a role of social monitoring and
  8. Empresa de palma violó normativas Availabe at http://bit. ly/2T29hMz
  9. Nicaragua: ¿a dónde va el ganado que introducen en la Reserva Indio Maíz? Series de Mongabay: Ganadería en Centroamérica. Duyerling Ríos y Cristopher Available at: http://bit.ly/2T6neci
  10. Crean por Ley Empresa Nicaragüense de Minas, Available at: http://bit.ly/2T3d2B3
  11. La Construcción del Canal de Nicaragua Amenaza las Vidas y Sustentos de Pueblos Indígenas. Cultural Survival. Available at http://bit.ly/2T3SV5P
  12. CIDH abre el Caso del Canal Interoceánico de Available at http://bit. ly/2T4RRPh
  13. María Luisa Acosta, coordinator of CALPI, started being detained at border posts from November 2017 on, without any explanation, despite being involved in ensuring compliance with the judgment of the IACHR in the case of Acosta and others vs Nicaragua, 2017.
  14. Nicaragua: CIDH amplía protección a comunidades miskitas por riesgo inminente de ataques. Available at http://bit.ly/2T2mNj4
  15. Desplazados/Refugiados de las comunidades de Rio Coco por la invasión de los Colonos/Terceros. Available at http://bit.ly/2T2nnxg (video)
  16. Resolution of the IACHR of 23 August 2018 on Extending Provisional Measures with Regard to Nicaragua. Members of the Indigenous Miskitu People of the North Caribbean Coast, available at: http://bit.ly/2T2o3CO
  17. CENIDH condena amenazas de muerte contra defensoras/es de Availabe at http://bit.ly/2T2oDAu
  18. The APIAN report is available at http://bit.ly/2T25Ghe
  19. Ministerio de Gobernación confisca bienes de ONG que fueron despojadas de su personería jurídica. La Prensa. Martha Vásquez Larios y Cinthya Tórrez García, 15 December 2018, available at http://bit.ly/2T1SYzc
  20. El asesinato de Ángel Gahona en la impunidad. Brandon Lovo y Glenn Slate son los primeros presos políticos condenados por una dictadura que les imputa la muerte de las víctimas de su propia masacre. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T4SoRh
  21. La Comisión presenta segundo informe preliminar ante la Asamblea Nacional detallando información sobre los 269 fallecidos durante la violencia desatada en el país entre abril y julio de 2018, debido al fallido intento de Golpe de La Voz del Sandinismo, 18 October 2018, available at http://bit.ly/2T4SqbR and http://bit.ly/2T9PTNK

This article was produced by Dr. María Luisa Acosta, a Nicaraguan attorney and coordinator of the Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI), on the basis of the Report on the Situation of the Territorial Rights of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples of Nicaragua prepared by the Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples of Nicaragua (APIAN).



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