Colonization is often thought of as something of the past, but to the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, it continues today.
Indigenous groups along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are having their rights, culture, and traditions violated at the hands of violent loggers, miners, farmers and enterprises.
Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast is occupied by three different Indigenous groups, the Miskito (the largest of the tribes), the Mayangna, and the Rama. Indigenous people have inhabited the coast for countless years and as of now, about 31 percent of Nicaragua’s population includes people of Indigenous and Afro descent. Most of the rest of Nicaragua’s population is made up of people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent, often referred to as mestizos.
The Indigenous population of Nicaragua lived mostly isolated from other countries, until the 1630s when the British arrived in Nicaragua and began occupying the eastern land of Nicaragua and Honduras. This occupation split Indigenous groups into sub-tribes. When the Spanish arrived in the Nicaraguan highlands, Indigenous groups were pushed to the interior of the Caribbean Coast. By 1860, when the British left the eastern coast, the Indigenous population had significantly decreased and continued decreasing due to disease, and assimilationist pressures from Nicaragua.
In 1979, Sandinistas — guerilla forces birthed from Augusto Sandino’s movement against U.S. colonialism in Latin America in the 1920s — partnered with Indigenous communities in the uprising and overthrowing of Nicaragua’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Sandinistas, in control of Nicaragua until 1990 after their political party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacíon Nacional (FSLN) lost the presidential election and increased the presence of the state even in remote areas of Nicaragua. Indigenous people felt the positive effects of the new regime including roads, clinics, and the push for literacy — facilitating the move to have Indigenous languages written.
Nicaragua drafted a new constitution in 1987 which grew to contain provisions that protect the Indigenous people of the country including their communal form of land ownership and utilization of natural resources. Settler invasions of Indigenous territory began around the 1990s, but heavily increased when Sandinistas came to power through Daniel Ortega in 2008.
Mayangna communities petitioned the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and in 2003, a law was passed allowing the Nicaraguan government to forcibly remove settlers — or colonos — from the Indigenous territory. Colonos in Nicaragua are often mestizo fellow Nicaraguans who are looking to exploit Indigenous land for their own benefit. Although the Nicaraguan government has placed protection on Indigenous people, invasions by colonos of the territory have not yet ended and instead intensified around 2010.
A Mayangna community leader — who spoke to El Tecolote on the condition of anonymity for fear of persecution — explained the change in lifestyle after the attacks; the Mayangna lifestyle consisted of dedicating themselves to the collective farming of basic grains. They would often grow just enough to survive, never exploiting the land. They also were avid fishers, fishing to feed themselves. The Mayangnas’ spirituality and love for the earth are important to them, as are their culture and traditions, many of which surround their natural resources.
They believe that they must protect their “mother earth” as they live off of her. As time has gone on, colono presence has grown in Mayangna territory, limiting their access to their activities, and stopping the Mayangna from participating in their sacred traditions. Sexual abuse of Indigenous women has grown rampant as have assassinations and attacks, which leaves the Mayangna unsafe in their own communities. According to a Mayangna community leader, attacks oftentimes displace many people from their houses and their land and leave them fearful to participate in their cultural activities.
Colonos, people who often already have many resources in comparison to the Mayangna, usually arrive from outside municipalities to claim Indigenous land forcibly. As it is the practice of the Mayangna, to be nonviolent towards these colonos, they use non-violent means to approach them, inquiring about their intentions and their rights to seize Indigenous land. The Indigenous people are often met with violent attacks if not death. In contrast with the Mayangna practice of avoiding exploitation of land, the colonos often plant large amounts of one crop on stolen fields, and chop down the forests, leaving the land unbalanced.
Large enterprises have also begun to arrive, taking over Indigenous land and depleting it of its natural resources. Colonos also build mines surrounding the Indigenous land without consent. The mines have depleted natural resources and polluted the rivers that Indigenous people drink from, poisoning people who, now, have no access to clean water.
Distrust of the police has also grown rampant within Indigenous communities. Oftentimes, Indigenous people will seek police help in their municipalities regarding these illegal land seizures and attacks. The police often don’t arrest the colonos, and if they are arrested, they are often released and allowed to go back to their old practices of violent colonization.
One tactic that the colonos employ when seeking land is documentation or illegitimate land titles — often referred to as “avales”). Colonos will purchase avales from corrupt officials, and bribe lawyers for certification. Colonos claim that these avales grant them the right to Indigenous land from community leaders and regional authorities. According to the Mayangna community leader, Indigenous people and activists often peacefully protest the attacks, as well as publicize the truth of what is happening, but the government refuses to take action, actively finding ways to stop the spread of information about the current situation.
Current Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, outlawed protesting in 2018 and intimidates news outlets in the country, even giving the military the power to constitute who they believe are “enemies of the state” leading to the fear of state-sponsored genocide against the Indigenous people of Nicaragua.Changes must be made, as the Indigenous communities of Nicaragua are disappearing and their land is being taken over by colonos, who will continue to exploit natural resources and pollute the environment. Nicaragua’s government must begin to enforce the protection of its Indigenous population and their rights.