Creoles in Nicaragua: territorial demarcation, self-determination and resistance
BY ALEXANDRINA HENRÍQUEZ FOR DEBATES INDÍGENAS
Since colonial times and slavery, the population of African origin has faced difficulties to be recognized as subjects of law. In Central America, they have gone through centuries of resistance to be accepted first as people and then as citizens of the republics. Currently, the Afro-descendant Creole community in Nicaragua is fighting for the demarcation, titling and regulation of their ancestral lands, while at the same time seeking equal conditions for their development as other Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Meanwhile, mining, logging and fishing concessions, and the use of the territory for megaprojects and monocultures are expanding on their lands.
The Afro-descendant Creole population of Nicaragua originated when slaves of African origin fled the Caribbean plantations around 1640, settled in the territory known as the Mosquitia and formed families with Indigenous peoples and, later, Europeans. Many families adopted the surnames of the slavers, mainly English and Dutch, and transformed the English language into their own dialect known today as English Creole. Later, more free slaves were added, merging different African tribes.
In this mestizaje, Afro-descendant Creole men and women played a preponderant role in the preservation of customs through oral history, gastronomy, dances, culture, traditional medicine and spirituality that survive to this day.
Fragmentation of the Mosquitia
Located on the Caribbean Coast of Central America, this territory was strategically divided to facilitate the process of annexation to the states of Nicaragua and Honduras. First, England founded an indigenous kingdom and "placed it under its protection". Later, through the Zeledón-Wyke (1860) and Harrison-Altamirano (1905) treaties for Nicaragua, and the Wyke- Cruz (1859) for Honduras, the Mosquitia territory and its population were annexed to both States.
The treaties gave rise to the dispossession of the ancestral lands of Afro-descendants and Indigenous people who were neither consulted nor informed about this decision. The Indigenous territory annexed to Nicaragua became a reservation for the continuation of the Mosquito government, but with territorial restrictions. In addition, their form of government changed from an Indigenous monarchy to an Indigenous and Afro-descendant government with a hereditary chief defined in their governing council.
After its annexation to Nicaragua, the territory underwent several name changes: Mosquitia Reserve, Atlantic Coast, Department of Zelaya, Special Zones I, II and III, Autonomous Regions and today Caribbean Coast. In this process, new boundaries have been established with neighboring countries and in the same administrative political division of Nicaragua. In addition, the San Andres Archipelago, an important part of the Mosquitia, was incorporated into Colombia.
These disjointed territories have been areas of cultural influence of the Creole people, who over the centuries have maintained close linguistic and family ties, as well as commercial exchange. On the other hand, as the republics were formed with the presence of Afro- descendant peoples, the Creole peoples of the region have a similar history of exploitation, colonization, poverty and discrimination to other ethnic minorities. Thus, they have had to struggle for centuries at the national and international level to demand historical rights that were forcibly recognized in laws and statutes.
The demand for effective participation
Although in recent years the legal framework has opened spaces for the Indigenous and Afro-descendant population to occupy positions of relevance in social, religious and political life, compliance is still not guaranteed given the strong influence of national political parties in the affairs of the Caribbean Coast. These practices reduce the autochthonous participation of the communities and the native population in the spaces of power.
Furthermore, the same political system uses the figure of Afro-descendants in national political issues: Creole men and women can be observed in the presidency of the South Caribbean Autonomous Regional Council, in the National Assembly, in the Supreme Court of Justice, in the Supreme Electoral Council, in the mayor's office of Bluefields, in the parallel communal and territorial governments (created for partisan purposes) and at the head of community universities. However, the Creoles who occupy these high positions have no decision-making power because, for the structure of the national State and its interest, they only pretend to have the right to participation and non-discrimination.
At the same time, the central government refuses to assume its responsibility to protect the Indigenous and Afro-descendant population from the invasion of settlers on communal lands. Despite the Autonomy Law and the Territorial Demarcation Law that protect ancestral Indigenous and Afro-descendant rights, and the approval by the United Nations of the International Decade for Afro-descendant Peoples (2015-2024), the government's response has been silence: there are no investigations or sanctions for those responsible. The State's negligence to protect these peoples' collective and individual rights is a form of violence that deepens discrimination and a government strategy to colonize lands that were not achieved in colonial times or during the annexation of the Mosquitia. In this process, women have been the ones who have demanded the most from the Nicaraguan State for the respect and regulation of their territory.
The judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in the case of the Mayangna Community of Awas Tingi vs. the State of Nicaragua set a precedent for all the Indigenous Peoples of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast to organize their communal assemblies with the objective of strengthening their communal and territorial governments, and to demand that the National Commission for Demarcation and Titling (CONADETI) demarcate, title and regularize their ancestral lands.
The Territorial Demarcation Law, approved by the National Assembly on December 13, 2002, did not distinguish rights between Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants; rather, it included as subjects of rights the Afro-descendant ethnic community settled in the Mosquitia territory. In fact, in its conceptual framework, the same law refers to the ethnic community as the population of Afro-Caribbean descent.
In this context, the Afro-descendant Creole community of the entire Caribbean Coast and the Afro-descendant Garifuna population submitted a request in 2006 to demarcate their communal lands. However, unlike the Indigenous peoples, the Afro-descendant Creole population (especially from the Bluefields territory) did not get their request approved until 2010. The reasons and motives were not very clear given that Law No. 445 of the Communal Property Regime of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities contemplated a more expeditious period to respond to the request of the applicant population.
During the waiting period, the Bluefields Creole community continued to organize and strengthen its demand with the preparation of its 2012 territorial diagnosis, which justified its claim to ancestral lands by demanding equal treatment with other Indigenous and Afro- descendant territories. During this time, important coexistence agreements were reached with the neighboring territories of the Rama and Kriol (Creole) people, in the south of the Bluefields territory, and with the authorities of the ten Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of the Pearl Lagoon Basin.
Titled territories on the Caribbean Coast
To date, there are 24 titled Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories comprising more than 300 communities. However, no territory has been able to initiate the territorial regulation stage. On the contrary, they have suffered a constant invasion of mestizo settlers from the Pacific, central and northern parts of the country. For its part, the National Government claims that no more communal lands will be titled, that the titled territories represent 32% of the national territory and that they are constitutionally protected.
On the contrary, despite the enactment of Law No. 445, there is more insecurity in communal territories because the Autonomous Regional Councils have granted important mining, logging and fishing concessions in titled territories. Likewise, the National Government did not allow the Afro-descendant Creole community of the Corn Island territory to title their communal property, claiming that all their territory was private and not part of the demarcation process.
It is important to note that the definitions of communal territory and communal property, according to Law 445, obliges the State to respond to the demand for demarcation of Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories. But the State ignores and does not resolve the demarcation requests of the Bluefields and Corn Island Creoles. Even worse, while there are conflicts in all the demarcated territories, the National Government and the Autonomous Regional Governments, with the permission of the Supreme Court of Justice, created parallel communal governments to reduce the territorial claims and allow concessions in communal lands.
The territorial demarcation law came to regulate, for the first time, both the relationship between the levels of government on the Caribbean Coast and the procedures for granting concessions and contracts for the exploitation of natural resources in the soil and subsoil on Indigenous lands. The law also highlights the importance of free, prior and informed consultation with the communities. Despite this normative advance, there have been anomalies in the granting of concessions for mining, timber, hydrocarbon and fishing exploitation, and the use of the territory for megaprojects and monocultures.
Since the enactment of the Autonomy Statute (Law 28) in 1987 and the installation in 1990 of the first Regional Councils in the Caribbean Coast, the hierarchical structure in Nicaragua experienced changes in decision-making concerning socio-political and economic issues. First, the right to elect a Regional Council with representation from all ethnic groups and, second, the election of a Regional Council government coordinator. These changes in the former Mosquitia presented governance challenges for both the Nicaraguan State and the Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.
Unfortunately, the Regional Council no longer discusses the affairs of the autonomous regions, but rather complies with the guidelines issued by the national government through the Caribbean Coast Secretariat and the political secretary on duty in the autonomous regions. An example of this is the approval of the Tumarin hydroelectric project that cut off Awaltara lupia Nani territory to meet the demands of investors. Another example is the construction of a deep-water port in the territory of Bluefields, which is part of Nicaragua's Grand Interoceanic Canal. This project received the endorsement of the Regional Council of the Southern Caribbean in 2013 without consultation with the communities, in violation of the Autonomy, Territorial Demarcation and Municipalities Law and ILO Convention 169.
On the other hand, mining, timber and fishing concessions, and African palm monoculture and extensive cattle ranching projects on communal lands infringe on the rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Creole territories of Bluefields, Pearl Lagoon and Rama Kriol. To approve them, the modus operandi of the Regional Councils is to create parallel communal governments with Indigenous and Afro-descendant people belonging to the political party structures.
Based on these experiences, the process of autonomy and territorial demarcation should be opportunities for Afro-descendant Creole men and women to strengthen spaces for participation in all aspects of society, differentiating between partisan political interests and socio-community demands. From these spaces, they should contribute to improving the lives of the population in general, and of Afro-descendants in particular.
In this new social context, the Afro-descendant Creole population faces the challenge of maintaining their demands for justice before national and international systems. The objective is to protect their communal lands, their ways of life, their identity and their culture through the existing legal framework. Indeed, the human rights of Afro-descendant Peoples have achieved greater consensus so that the voices of Afro-descendant women and men can be heard.
Nicaragua's multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural society also faces great challenges in building a new education system that is more respectful of the cultures and rights of all peoples. Nicaragua lives in a patriarchal system imposed by a State that has maintained an internal system of colonization of its communal lands, which has limited the effective exercise of the historical rights of the Afro-descendant Creole population.
Alexandrina Henríquez is a pseudonym. The author of the essay is an activist who has dedicated decades to the struggle for the rights of the Afro-descendant Creole people of Nicaragua. She has also promoted collaboration and agreements with other Afro and Indigenous peoples of the Central American Caribbean Coast.
Tags: Indigenous Debates