The Indigenous World 2022: Nicaragua
Nicaragua has seven Indigenous Peoples. The Chorotega (221,000), Cacaopera or Matagalpa (97,500), Ocanxiu or Sutiaba (49,000) and Nahoa or Nahuatl (20,000) live in the Pacific, centre and north of the country. The Caribbean (or Atlantic) coast is inhabited by the Miskitu (150,000), Sumu or Mayangna (27,000) and Rama (2,000) peoples. In addition, Afro-descendant populations (known as “ethnic communities” in national legislation) also enjoy collective rights according to the Political Constitution of Nicaragua (1987). These include the Creole or Kriol (43,000) and Garífuna (2,500). In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power in Nicaragua and were later opposed by the US-funded “Contras”.
Peasants from the Pacific and Indigenous Peoples from the Caribbean Coast participated in the Contras. In 1987, following the friendly settlement of the conflict through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and with the aim of bringing the Indigenous resistance to an end, the FSLN created the Autonomous Regions of the Northern Caribbean Coast (RACCN) and Southern Caribbean Coast (RACCS), based on a Statute of Autonomy (Law No. 28). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (IA Court) judgement in the case of the Mayangna (Sumo) Community of Awas Tingni v Nicaragua in 2001 led to the enactment of Law No. 445 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, among others. This law recognises the communities’ right to self-government and creates a procedure for the titling of territories. In 2005, the State began the titling process for the 23 Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories in the RACCN and RACCS, culminating in the issuing of property titles. In 2007, Nicaragua voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in 2010 ratified ILO Convention 169. The Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples of Nicaragua was formed in 2015.
Indigenous women in the crisis in Nicaragua
Indigenous women undoubtedly play a decisive role in their families and villages and, together with the elders, are responsible for transmitting their spiritual and cultural values as well as their language. In addition, Indigenous women have traditionally been involved in voluntary work through the churches and their children's schools in their communities.
Many Indigenous women are monolingual, which limits their actions outside of the communities to which they belong. However, they have set up groups in their communities where they meet to share and learn about health and nutrition issues, or to produce services or goods and thus generate an income.[i] The current situation of insecurity in the Indigenous communities has, nonetheless, limited these activities.
Some communities have also elected women to their structures of authority and we have seen them take a lead in defending their communities in times of crisis. Many women continue to be discriminated against, however, because of their Indigenous and Afro-descendant status: they are victims of structural violence and racism due to their language, culture, poverty and because they live in remote areas where public services are scarce, placing them at a disadvantage compared to other citizens.
And, because they are women, the resistance, accusations and aggression they face (and which is not investigated by the authorities) becomes even more evident when they take up community leadership positions generally, or when they fight to defend and preserve their lands, territories and access to natural resources in their communities.[ii]
This situation has worsened in Nicaragua since 2018 due to the profound human rights crisis. The report of the International Group of Independent Experts of the IACHR recommended in this regard that the Nicaraguan government: “Cease harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and other social leaders, and guarantee the conditions for them to fully develop their work and exercise their rights, in particular, freedom of expression, assembly and association.”[iii] Three years on, this has still not happened. This can be seen from the IACHR’s report published in October 2021 entitled Nicaragua: Concentration of power and the undermining of the Rule of Law, which states:
(...) A police state was also established to quell dissidence and close democratic forums through of [sic] arbitrary arrest and deprivation of liberty of those deemed dissidents, making public demonstrations illegal, and raiding and seizing the facilities of human rights organizations and independent media outlets, among others (...) primarily through violence and criminalisation of dissidence, manipulation of criminal law, lack of guarantees of judiciary independence and impartiality, and the impunity surrounding human rights violations.[iv]
The State has also failed to comply with the IA Court judgement issued in 2017 in the case of Acosta et al. v Nicaragua regarding the creation of protection mechanisms and investigation protocols to be used in cases of threats and danger to human rights defenders and their families.[v]
Women human rights defenders
2021 got off to a violent start for human rights defender, Dolene Miller. On 8 January, she found members of the National Police stationed outside her house preventing her from entering or leaving. Dolene told the media:
The national police decided to make my home a jail for five hours. Without a word, they restricted my movements and, the worst thing was, no one could help me to buy food. This kind of restriction indicates the escalating repression of citizens, with police officers being used by politicians to repress citizens, as if they were a criminal with a firm sentence against them. The police did not explain the reason for the action and it would therefore seem that it was simply intended to provoke and create a conflict so that they would have an excuse to beat up or imprison people.[vi]
Human rights defenders in Nicaragua, and Dolene Miller is no exception, are on tenterhooks in the face of the implementation of a series of restrictive laws passed between 2018 and 2021. They believe these will institutionalise the police state under which the country currently lives. Such laws are a clear expression of the current regime’s intolerance of any natural or legal person, peasant or Indigenous community, social group, human rights defender, or anyone who opposes public policies that violate the human rights of citizens.[vii]
Dolene Miller is an Afro-descendant woman and community leader and has been advocating for the rights of the Black Creole Indigenous Community of Bluefields for several decades. She has been a representative of the Afro-descendant peoples to the National Commission for Demarcation and Titling and has, together with other Indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders, led the struggle against encroachment of the Nicaraguan Grand Interoceanic Canal megaproject onto their traditional lands.[viii] This case is currently before the IA Court.
Because of State repression, any complaint filed at the national or international level is considered to be an attack on the State – on its sovereignty and self-determination. And, meanwhile, attacks against land and environmental defenders have soared in recent years.[ix]
The vast majority of Indigenous people are defenders of their way of life, spirituality, culture and worldview. According to the Observatory of the World Organisation Against Torture, “Latin America accounted for more than half of the land and environmental defenders killed around the world” in 2018.[x]
Indigenous women and girls and land encroachment
The State of Nicaragua has promoted the internal migration of non-indigenous people, mainly into the RACCN,[xi] leaving Indigenous Peoples a minority on their own territories. The State is thus facilitating the advance of the agricultural frontier and extensive cattle raising,[xii] promoting an unacceptable policy of internal colonisation. In addition, there has been increased violence against Indigenous Peoples over the last decade, and experts point to the presence of organised crime and drug trafficking in the area.[xiii]
An extractivist natural resource policy is furthermore being promoted, degrading the livelihoods and territories of Indigenous Peoples through logging generally (and that carried out by the Alba Forestal company in particular),[xiv] the expansion of monocultures such as African Palm (Elaeis guineensis),[xv] the increased mining activity by the State-owned Empresa Nicaragüense de Minas [Nicaraguan Mining Company],[xvi] and the mere announcement of the concession of the Grand Interoceanic Canal through Nicaragua.
The worst conditions are being suffered by the Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous communities in the RACCN, however. Since 2015, these communities have been the victims of systematic attacks perpetrated by non-indigenous men –referred to as settlers– bearing weapons in order to take over the Indigenous lands. The attacks intensified throughout 2020 and 2021 and have focused on the Mayangna Sauni As territory, located in the heart of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.
Women and children, who are responsible for collecting water and firewood, are increasingly exposed during these tasks since the territories are shrinking due to encroachment onto the land by armed settlers. The settlers have been encroaching onto land ever closer to the Indigenous hamlets or villages, repelling them by means of threats, kidnappings and gunfire.
The attacks leave homes burned, livestock killed, people wounded, raped, kidnapped and killed. Such was the attack on the Mayangna community of Alal the previous year.[xvii] This situation has resulted in forced internal displacements due to the physical and food insecurity that this encroachment onto their territory is causing. The women say: “We cannot sleep peacefully in our homes, every day we are afraid that the armed men might kill us.”[xviii]
The women are also burdened by their responsibility to care for children, disabled family members and the elderly, with whom they often have to flee and sleep in the forest in the face of settler threats to their communities. Moreover: “When they are displaced, the women bear the greater burden and lack of protection, many are even forced into prostitution to ensure some income with which to buy food.”[xix]
Mining, Indigenous women and the Kiwakumbaih massacre
Mining has increased hugely in Nicaragua recently, to the detriment of the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples since most of them have not been consulted before this activity commences on their territories, as denounced by the Indigenous women of the community of La Laguna, in San Ramón, Matagalpa.[xx]
On 23 August 2021, the Kiwakumbaih massacre occurred at a gold mine on Kiwakumbaih Hill (Devil's Rock in the Mayangna language), an historic hill considered sacred, as well as a traditional hunting and fishing ground in the Mayangna Sauni As territory.[xxi]
This was the fourth attack in 2021 in the Mayangna Sauni As territory. There is no certainty as to the number of victims as different sources give different figures. Most agree that between 13 and 18 Indigenous people were killed – including a child of around six years of age and a teenager, plus two Miskitu women, one of whom was mutilated. A Mayangna woman and her 14-year-old daughter, the wife and daughter of the man who operated the mine, were sexually assaulted by several of the attackers.
A statement from the Government of Mayangna Women of Nicaragua recalls the events as follows:
(…) at around 9 p.m., when the unsuspecting victims were at their mining work, they were surrounded by more than 100 well-armed mestizo encroachers who, with aggressive verbal language, started to kill the victims, some with guns, others with knives. Others took the local Mayangna woman who was working in the mine with her husband, and violently forced themselves upon her while others took the husband to witness the heinous crime of rape against his wife. The Mayangna wife was raped by more than 20 men and then they murdered her husband. Another group entered inside where the gold was being extracted and set off explosives, with people still inside the tunnel, resulting so far in a count of eighteen (18) dead (...). We strongly demand the fair administration of justice, including a thorough investigation into the massacre and we condemn all those responsible and who were involved in the detailed planning of such a massacre in which the lives of innocent people were lost, and we also demand JUSTICE for our young Mayangna brothers murdered so atrociously and for the rape of our Mayangna sister, in relation to the murderers, usurpers, landowners or illegal sellers of Mayangna land.[xxii]
The Kiwakumbaih massacre is a landmark case in several respects, above all in the number of women brutally murdered and sexually assaulted. Rape is a form of torture for women and a means to break the resistance of the Mayangna people because such abuses symbolise a form of power over the Indigenous people. The massacre also demonstrated a higher level of brutality than in previous attacks. The viciousness shown against the families of the Indigenous people who were operating the mine, in particular, was designed to send a clear message to scare the Mayangna away and take control of the mine.[xxiii]
Contrary to witnesses’ and survivors’ versions of the attack, the police authorities –on the only occasion they published the results of their investigations– criminalised the human rights defender who spread the news on social media[xxiv] and formally blamed the crime on 14 Mayangna,[xxv] some of them community forest rangers defending the territory.[xxvi] The Indigenous people, meanwhile, have pointed the finger of blame at settlers who were evicted from Kiwakumbaih on 19 September 2020 by community members.
In view of this situation, one community leader said: “When we complain, they prosecute us, so I’m keeping my head down; I don’t want my name to come up because there is enormous danger. The Mayangna are suffering death or condemnation for defending our Mother Earth”.[xxvii]
In addition, the Indigenous people warned that the National Police had failed to point out that the massacre took place in a context of land invasion and encroachment that began several years ago with total impunity.[xxviii]
This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here
Notes and references
[i]“Mujeres productoras emprendedoras hacia el cuido y conservación de la Madre Tierra” [Enterprising women producers for the care and conservation of Mother Earth]. FAO, 17 March 2014. https://www.fao.org/nicaragua/noticias/detail-events/es/c/237404/
[ii] Such was the case of the Indigenous Mískitu leader Marcela Ines Posta Simons (also known as Marcela Foster), municipal councillor for the regional Indigenous party, YATAMA, who lost the sight in her left eye and had to undergo surgery for a fractured arm due to an assassination attempt while she was leading a peaceful demonstration over the lack of elections in her community. The MESENI continues to receive statements and documents concerning worsening repression against members of the Peasant Movement and, more generally, against peasants who live far from the country’s cities, as well as against members of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean region. On June 26, the IACHR was informed of an attack perpetrated by government supporters against defender Marcela Foster—a member of the Kamla community in the Twi Yahbra territory—and two other members of that community. The IACHR observes that some difficulties—including lack of geographical access and, in some cases, lack of financial resources—make these groups particularly vulnerable to complain about persisting violence, threats, and arbitrary arrests in various departments, and also to access adequate legal counsel. https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/PReleases/2019/172.asp
[iii] Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI). Informe sobre hechos de violencia ocurridos entre el 18 de abril y el 30 de mayo en Nicaragua. [Report on the violence that occurred between 18 April and 30 May in Nicaragua]. Executive summary of the report. 21 December 2018. https://gieinicaragua.org/giei-content/uploads/2018/12/GIEI_NICARAGUA_RESUMEN_EJECUTIVO.pdf
[iv] IACHR. Nicaragua: Concentration of power and the undermining of the Rule of Law. OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc. 288 25 October 2021 Original: Spanish. Page 8. Retrieved from: https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/2021_nicaragua-en.pdf
[v] “Corte IDH supervisa el cumplimiento de la Sentencia del Caso Acosta y otros Vs. Nicaragua” [IACHR Court oversees compliance with the case of Acosta et al. v Nicaragua]. CEJIL, 13 January 2020. https://cejil.org/comunicado-de-prensa/corte-idh-supervisa-el-cumplimiento-de-la-sentencia-del-caso-acosta-y-otros-vs-nicaragua/
[vi] “Nota en solidaridad a Dolene Miller y a las compañeras de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua” [Note in solidarity with Dolene Miller and the compañeras of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua]. Revista Amazonas, 18 January 2021. https://www.revistaamazonas.com/2021/01/18/nota-en-solidaridad-a-dolene-miller-y-a-las-companeras-de-la-costa-caribe-de-nicaragua/?fbclid=IwAR3zaOEnTsQGt5Xbvtn-xoGvuRQ_TL38GqniEafZOhwxguLKBTgUEUjI9XY
[viii] “Rights of Indigenous Peoples (...) 11. The Committee is concerned at the information received regarding the lack of adequate mechanisms to guarantee Indigenous Peoples the right to be consulted in the decision-making that could affect their rights, including their rights to the territories they have traditionally occupied (...). It is also concerned at the stalemate in the area of the regulation of Indigenous territories and the lack of effective mechanisms to protect their rights to their lands, territories and resources. The Committee is concerned at the serious social conflicts and violence that are being generated around the possession and use of lands and territories between Indigenous Peoples and third parties occupying or interested in the exploitation of the natural resources found in such territories, particularly in the Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories on the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (Art. 1).” “Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Nicaragua”. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. E/C.12/NIC/CO/5 Gen. Dist., 11 November 2021. Original: Spanish. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2fNIC%2fCO%2f5&Lang=en See also: Acosta, María L. “El Impacto de la Ley del Gran Canal Interoceánico de Nicaragua sobre los Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes de Nicaragua” [The Impact of the Nicaragua Grand Interoceanic Canal Law on the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples of Nicaragua]. In Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua. El canal interoceánico por Nicaragua: aportes al debate, 2nd edition, 157. Managua, 2015.. http://cienciasdenicaragua.org/images/libros/AportePORTCanalIIedic.pdf
[ix] Nicaragua saw 12 killings – rising from 5 in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020. In “Last Line of Defence”. Global Witness, September 2021. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/last-line-defence/
[x] OMCT. Indigenous Peoples. Accessed 7 December 2021. https://www.omct.org/en/what-we-do/indigenous-peoples
[xi]“Impacto de la colonización en territorios indígenas de la Costa Atlántica en Nicaragua” [Impact of colonisation on Indigenous territories of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast]. IACHR Thematic Hearing. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_58UMplYgk
[xii] “Nicaragua exporta el 82 % de la carne de Centroamérica” [Nicaragua exports 82% of Central America's meat]. La Prensa Gráfica, 17 October 2019.
https://www.sica.int/consulta/noticia.aspx?idn=120201&idm=1&ident=1461 See also: Rautner, Mario and Cuffer, Sandra. “¿Qué tiene que ver la carne que exporta Nicaragua al mundo con la deforestación?” [What links Nicaragua’s meat exports to deforestation?] Mangobay, 3 October 2020. https://es.mongabay.com/2020/10/que-tiene-que-ver-la-carne-que-exporta-nicaragua-al-mundo-con-la-deforestacion/ And, “In Nicaragua, supplying beef to the U.S. comes at a high human cost”. PBS News Hours, 20 October 2020. https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/nicaragua-supplying-beef-us-comes-high-human-costNicaragua
[xiii] Silva, José Adán and Romero, Elizabeth, “Nicaragua: Hay logística tras armas y municiones en el Caribe” [Nicaragua. The logistics behind the weapons and ammunition in the Caribbean]. InfoRed, 11 September 2015. https://prensaindigena.org/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14489:nicaragua-hay-logistica-tras-armas-y-municiones-en-el-caribe&catid=86:noticias See also: Nicaragua Investigates: “Retired Nicaraguan Army Major Roberto Samcam believes that the settlers are operating in Bosawás in collusion with high-ranking government officials and that they intend to depopulate the area in order to set up an operations base for illegal activities such as the smuggling of timber, cattle and drugs”. Facebook, 3 February 2020. https://www.facebook.com/nicaraguainvestiga/videos/544063992870037
[xiv] Enríquez, Octavio, “Gobierno protege a Alba Forestal” [Government is Protecting Alba Forestal]. Confidencial, 5 June 2013. http://confidencial.com.ni/archivos/articulo/12124/quot-gobierno-protege-a-alba-forestal-quot
[xv] Carrere, Michelle, “Empresa de palma violó normativas ambientales” [Palm oil company violated environmental regulations]. Confidencial, 14 September 2017. https://confidencial.com.ni/empresa-palma-violo-normativas-a And, López, Julio. “Nicaragua: Palma africana se expande sin control y presiona a productores” [Nicaragua. Uncontrolled expansion of African palm puts pressure on producers]. Mongabay Latan and Onda Local de Nicaragua, 23 January 2019. https://es.mongabay.com/2019/01/palma-africana-en-nicaragua/?fbclid=IwAR3FLJKvvxmSqcYzRCyzQkKd84Aqxf5fHY0VWjAd5sl5U6Djfb9V4ecFQCM
[xvi] Centro Humboldt, “Estado del Arte Minería en Nicaragua” [State of the Art Mining in Nicaragua]. 2020. https://humboldt.org.ni/estado-del-arte-mineria-en-nicaragua/ç
[xvii] “Líderes Indígenas Denuncian Masacre en Territorio Mayangna” [Indigenous Leaders Denounce Massacre in Mayangna Territory]. Cultural Survival, 31 January 2020.
[xviii] “Mujeres mayangnas temen por sus vidas ante constantes ataques de colonos” [Mayangna women fear for their lives in the face of constant attacks from settlers]. ENI Nicaragua, 30 October 2021. https://eninicaragua.com/2021/10/30/mujeres-mayangnas-temen-por-sus-vidas-ante-constantes-ataques-de-colonos/
[xix] “Denuncian hambre, prostitución y muerte de indígenas en el Caribe de Nicaragua” [They are denouncing hunger, prostitution and deaths of Indigenous people in the Nicaraguan Caribbean]. Agencia EFE, 18 March 2021. https://es-us.noticias.yahoo.com/denuncian-hambre-prostituci%C3%B3n-muerte-ind%C3%ADgenas-234135147.html?soc_src=community&soc_trk=fb
[xx] Alvarez, Oscar, “Minería amenaza ceremonial indígena, bosques y fuentes de agua en San Ramón Matagalpa” [Mining threatens Indigenous ceremonial sites, forests and water sources in San Ramón Matagalpa]. Nuevas Miradas, 12 October 2020. https://nuevasmiradas.com.ni/2020/10/12/mineria-amenaza-ceremonial-indigena-bosques-y-fuentes-de-agua-en-san-ramon-matagalpa/
[xxi] Onda Local. “El 23 de agosto de 2021 colonos armados atacaron a personas comunitarias que viven en el territorio Mayangna Sauni As del Municipio de Bonanza” [On 23 August 2021, armed settlers attacked community members living in the Mayangna Sauni As territory, Bonanza municipality]. Facebook, 9 September 2021. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1177680526076379&extid=NS-UNK-UNK-UNK-AN_GK0T-GK1C&ref=sharing See also: Intertextual: “Conferencia de Prensa: Masacre indígena” [Press Conference: Indigenous Massacre]. Facebook, 9 September 2021. https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=206385971485047&ref=watch_permalink
[xxii] “Statement of the Government of Mayangna Women of Nicaragua on the Further Massacre of Indigenous members of the Mayangna Sauni As Territory, Bonanza, in the Mining Triangle-Nicaragua”. Revista Amazonas, 27 August 2021. https://www.revistaamazonas.com/2021/08/27/pronunciamiento-del-Gobierno-de-mujeres-mayangnas-de-nicaragua-sobre-la-nueva-masacre-a-originarios-del-territorio-mayangna-sauni-as-ciudad-e-bonanza-del-triangulo-minero-nicaragua/
[xxiii]“Interminable sufrimiento indígena” [Interminable Indigenous suffering]. La Prensa, 28 August 2021. https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2021/08/28/editorial/2870682-interminable-sufrimiento-indigena.
[xxiv] “Régimen acusa al ambientalista Amaru Ruiz por divulgar supuestas ‘noticias falsas’” [Regime accuses environmentalist Amaru Ruiz of spreading alleged ‘false news’]. Confidencial, 9 September 2021. https://www.confidencial.com.ni/nacion/regimen-acusa-al-ambientalista-amaru-ruiz-por-divulgar-supuestas-noticias-falsas/ See also: “Ambientalista Amaru Ruiz rechaza acusación por ‘Noticias Falsas’ que le imputa régimen en Nicaragua” [Environmentalist Amaru Ruiz rejects accusation of ‘false news’ made by the Nicaraguan regime]. 100 % Noticias Nicaragua, 9 September 2021. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snuyjIsrMS4
[xxv] Sandino, Nohemy, “Policía presenta a los autores de muertes homicidas en el cerro Pukna en Bonanza” [Police present the perpetrators of homicides in Pukna Hill in Bonanza]. El 19 Digital, 8 September 2021. https://www.el19digital.com/articulos/ver/titulo:120365-policia-presenta-a-los-autores-de-muertes-homicida-en-el-cerro-pukna-en-bonanza?fbclid=IwAR3vpYC40-IfE3xCRVfSzWGEVjgp4yDOukfZK1qyUEx4QxMTcQcYsqv-tX4
[xxvi] “La peligrosa tarea de los guardabosques voluntarios de Bosawás” [The dangerous task of the volunteer forest rangers of Bosawás]. La Prensa, 22 March 2021.
[xxvii] Mayangna community member who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
[xxviii] “Al Pueblo de Nicaragua” [To the People of Nicaragua]. Bosawás Actual, 28 August 2021.