Nicaragua A Tenacious Advocate for Indigenous Communities

Miskito paddling on the waters of the Rio Coco, Nicaragua.
Miskito paddling on the waters of the Rio Coco, Nicaragua. | Photo (detail): Esteban Felix © picture alliance/AP Photo

Nicaragua's legislation is among the most progressive in Latin America – and among the least enforced. 90 per cent of the country’s Indigenous areas are threatened with invasion by armed settlers. Lottie Cunningham, a Nicaraguan lawyer, environmentalist and Indigenous rights activist, talks about her struggle and the humanitarian crisis in her country.

By Ulrike Prinz

Lottie Cunningham Wren receives threats all the time, including death threats, for her efforts to defend the Indigenous areas of Nicaragua's northern Caribbean coast. She’s a lawyer and a member of the Miskito Indigenous group, and she isn’t one to give up without a fight. With the tools of her legal training, she is taking on a juggernaut that brings in its wake death and devastation to her country’s Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants*.

When armed settlers began illegally encroaching on these areas in the 1990s, various Indigenous and social movements were started up to protect the land. In 2001, Cunningham, the founder and president of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN), brought these various initiatives together and initiated efforts to demarcate Indigenous Territories. Two years later, the foundation stone was laid for the demarcation of the lands belonging to the Indigenous Mayangna community of Awas Tingni. Since then, however, thousands of Indigenous people have been displaced by the settlers, and Cunningham has not rested in her fight to defend their collective rights to the land and its natural resources. "They attacked again last week," Cunningham says over the phone.
Lottie Cunningham, who are these settlers and what are they looking for on Indigenous and Afro-descendant lands?

They’re ex-military. The Nicaraguan government has been allotting land to them since the 1990s, and over the past ten years they’ve been illegally appropriating Indigenous lands. They have been mining, and now they’re turning our forests into vast grazing areas for cattle. 90 percent of the 304 Indigenous settlements (in 23 territories) are faced with a massive invasion by settlers – most of whom are armed.
How does this invasion affect the communities?

The settlers are driving my people off their land, where they used to hunt, fish and harvest medicinal plants. In 2015, for example, they forced a number of families out of Wangki Lí Aubra, which is located in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve on the Waspuk River. They burned down all the houses of the Polo Paiwas community, and the families, who still haven’t been able to return, have taken refuge in a few communities along the Waspuk and Coco rivers. Many of them are suffering from hunger and disease... It’s a humanitarian crisis.

The invasion is destroying forests and vital natural resources, polluting our rivers and posing a grave threat to Indigenous peoples, their communal economies, their lands, their political autonomy and their cultural identity. These communities are at risk of ethnocide.

How did this situation come about?

We’ve been seeing increased violence in the Indigenous Territories since 2015. That year we counted 49 Indigenous people murdered, 49 wounded, 46 abducted and four disappeared. All these incidents are related to land grabs. We’re concerned about the situation. At least 13 natives were murdered in 2020, including Miskitos, Mayagnas, Ramas – various Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.

We carried out a census in a dozen communities along the northern Caribbean coast under the protection of the Inter-American System and found that over 3,000 people were driven off their lands in 2015, and 1,007 people in 2019. A total of 28,000 hectares has been expropriated from these twelve communities.
In Nicaragua, Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples officially own their land. So has the government stepped in?

Nicaraguan legislation on Indigenous rights has always been the most progressive in Latin America – but in practice the worst! There’s a huge gulf between the law and its enforcement. The government have not done their duty to protect Indigenous lands. They haven’t carried out the last step of the process of demarcation and titling of Indigenous lands known as “saneamiento” [clearing the Indigenous territories of colonos (non-Indigenous settlers) as well as corporations that are using the territories without any legal title or lease agreement with the community]. According to Law 445 on communal property, the Nicaraguan government are required to complete this final phase of saneamiento. But they have not shown any political will to comply with national and international legislation on Indigenous rights and human rights.

But the failure to finalize the saneamiento process is not the only cause of the afflictions heaped upon Indigenous societies. An independent investigation by the Oakland Institute shows that the Nicaraguan state authorities played an active role in fostering the internal colonization of Indigenous Territories: they granted concessions and permits to mining companies and even for logging and cattle ranching. Mining concessions have more than doubled in size over the past three years. They now cover 2.6 million hectares, which is 20 per cent of the country. This is a very serious conflict and a dire situation for the Indigenous communities, which the international community should know about.

Nicaragua is in the throes of the most profound crisis in its history.

Lottie Cunningham

What steps have you taken to put a stop to this destructive dynamic?

We turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (OAS), and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated in their decision that the saneamiento of Indigenous Territories is a means of guaranteeing the effective use and enjoyment of the rights in communal property, and that the Nicaraguan state must finalize the process.

We have also drafted reports for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We are making use of the Human Rights Council’s 
special reports on human rights and the environment, among other things, and will continue to make every effort to draw attention to the plight of the Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

Why aren’t the government implementing concrete measures to protect the lives, cultural identity and lands of your Indigenous peoples?

Because there is no political will to do so. Unfortunately, state institutions have deteriorated over the past ten years. And Nicaragua is in the throes of the most profound crisis in its history: violence, murders, kidnappings and disappearances are on the rise, while space for civil society has been closed off, violating our freedom of speech and right of assembly, and so on...
This human rights crisis concerns Indigenous communities as well. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to take domestic legal action against human rights violations because we have no access to the national courts. Because the Nicaraguan state has utilized the criminal justice system to criminalize Indigenous communities, traditional authorities and us human rights defenders on the basis of unfounded accusations and fabricated evidence.

The state has failed in its duty to protect the lives and lands of the Indigenous population, while all the offences committed by the settlers have gone unpunished.

* Afro-descendants are people with African migration histories who live in the African diaspora as a result of slavery on the American double continent.