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The Battle for Miskitia Part Two: Nicaragua's new autonomy struggle centers on biodiversity

By Bill Weinberg, Toward Freedom,
August 1998

In the 1980s, the Indians of the rainforest and Caribbean coastal plains in Nicaragua - a region collectively known as Miskitia - took up arms against the central government of Managua to secure constitutional guarantees of their autonomy. Today, control of their lands is threatened again.

Since Miskitia was granted autonomy in 1987, it's been divided into the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), with its seat at Puerto Cabezas, and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The Indians are mostly in the RAAN. During the last struggle, the leftist Sandinista government attempted to nationalize Indian lands; now President Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) wants to privatize them. Intensely politicized by their past, the Indians are again defending their territorial rights.

On March 1, in a militarized atmosphere, the RAAN and RAAS held regional elections. The army and National Police were out in full force and rumors spread of armed groups attempting to disrupt the vote. In one community, five ballot boxes were burned.

Following a presidential tour of the region in a caravan of over 100 spanking-new four-wheel-drive vehicles, Aleman?s PLC won a majority on both councils. But the 60 percent abstention evidenced how little confidence remains in the official autonomous governments. With their budgets controlled by Managua, the RAAN and RAAS are only convened at the president's call, critics say. Increasingly, the Miskito, who inhabit the coastal plains and villages along the Rio Coco, and the Mayangna, people of the inland forest, are returning to their traditional forms of local self-government.

The autonomy provisions won in the 1980s look pretty good on paper, recognizing the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and develop their identity and culture, have their own forms of social organization and administer to their own local affairs, maintain their communal forms of land ownership, and to use and enjoy those lands. But enabling legislation to establish a regional taxation system was never passed, so the autonomous governments have no power to raise their own money. Before the March vote, both the RAAN and RAAS complained that their funding had been cut off.

Immediately after a February Forum on Forest Concession, which demanded that the central government stop granting concessions on communal lands, the Council of Elders (Consejo de Ancianos), Miskitia's oldest governing body, convened the Ninth General Assembly of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities in Puerto Cabezas/Bilwi. A new autonomous government structure was unveiled, including election of an Indigenous Territories Demarcation Commission, a Natural Resources Commission, and a Legal Commission to define a new legal framework on which to base our self-determination as a nation.

The ruling party increasingly views the consejo as a threat to Nicaraguan sovereignty. Calling them separatists, Jorge Salaverry, Aleman's special advisor on Atlantic Coast issues, told the Managua daily La Tribuna, I note with sadness that while Europe is abandoning frontiers between completely different countries, in Nicaragua we are raising barriers.

At a March press conference in Managua, three ancianos and Oscar Hodgson, legal advisor to the consejo, denied wanting to create an independent republic in Miskitia. We stand for self-determination, not separatism, said Hodgson. We only will press for independence if Nicaragua will not recognize our territorial rights. We have arms, we are ex-combatants, and we are ready to fight.

The land question could force the issue. The central government considers those Miskitia lands not titled to be national lands. There are no national lands, replies Oscar Hodgson. Nicaragua has no right to grant concessions for exploitation of natural resources in our territory.

Titling of indigenous lands has been moving forward slowly since Miskitia was formally incorporated into Nicaragua in 1894, but accelerated during the Sandinista years. And in March 1997, Aleman introduced a new Ley de Comunidades to the National Assembly, which would do away with the notion of communal lands, instead parcelling out small plots to each Indian family. Although the National Assembly has yet to act on the bill, the process is already underway in the Rio Prinzapolka area, provoking much protest. This clearly violates constitutional autonomy, says Hodgson.

The hidden agenda behind this scheme, he asserts, is made clear in a draft document entitled Preparing for the Next Millennium. It was produced by the Aleman administration for the Geneva-based Nicaragua Consulting Group, made up of European governments aiding Nicaraguan development. The document, dated April 1998, is marked only for discussion. But the section on land policy reads: [T]he Government is ... removing restrictions that still exist on the sale of land ... . Although indigenous communities were given communal titles to their lands, the owners are free to privatize or sell their properties.

In contrast, Article 36 of the Autonomy Statute reads: Communal lands are inalienable and imprescriptable; they cannot be transferred, sold, seized or assessed.

The Embattled Bosawas

A generation ago, the Miskito Rainforest stretched in an unbroken canopy from the Rio Coco on the Honduran border to the Rio San Juan on the Costa Rican border. Since then, campesino colonization has gutted the middle zone.

The last large stretches of closed-canopy rainforest survive in the remote areas to the north and south, now officially protected as the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve along the Rio Coco and the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve in the Rio San Juan basin. Small patches of original closed-canopy forest or secondary growth continue to extend between the two, but are rapidly shrinking.

The global significance of this besieged biodiversity has attracted the attention of the UN and World Bank. In February 1998, Bosawas received UN certification as a biosphere reserve, allowing the Nicaraguan government access to special global funds for conservation and sustainable development. Almost all the people within this sparsely inhabited territory are Mayangna, and some Mayangna communities have titled communal lands within the borders of the reserve. But the reserve was created without consulting either with these communities or the regional authorities.

The World Bank's new Global Environment Facility (GEF) lays out the strategy for protection of Bosawas in a June 1997 Project Document entitled Nicaragua: Atlantic Biological Corridor. The corridor, proposed to link Bosawas and Rio San Juan, is seen as the first segment of the planned Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, an isthmus-long chain of protected areas. A $7.1 million GEF grant, with an associated $12.8 million from European aid agencies, is slated for Nicaragua under the project.

In August 1996, then-President Chamorro created the 22-member Demarcation Commission as a condition of GEF funding. It now includes five Indian representatives. But critics say it's so inactive as to exist in name only. Mollins Erants, who lives in the Bosawas Mayangna community of Betlehem on the Rio Pis Pis, remarks, We protect the forest. We don't destroy the forest. We clear some land for our cattle, but not thousands and thousands of hectares like those who come here from the Pacific. The government says, 'We will give you a title,' but we are still waiting.

Development Disputes

Nicaragua's most prominent environmentalist is Jaime Incer. Chief of the Natural Resources and Environmental Ministry (MARENA) when the agency was created in 1994, he's the real intellectual patriarch of Bosawas. Incer portrays himself as the last bulwark against massive resource exploitation in the region.

I was fighting the Economy Ministry, he says. As soon as I was moved out as MARENA minister, the way was cleared for big concessions in the forest. Incer is now an advisor to the National Council for Sustainable Development, created under GEF tutelage. He continues to advocate for Bosawas and the Atlantic Corridor from this reduced position. Although the situation improved somewhat in the Sandinista years, he says, it is now at its worst, with nearly 100,000 hectares of rainforest being lost annually to campesino colonization.

In some ways, Incer sees the region's autonomous status as an obstacle to preservation. There is no definition of 'autonomy' or 'comunal lands.' It is a chaotic situation, which encourages competition between the central government and regional government as to who will get the benefits from logging concessions.

Though Incer is skeptical of indigenous autonomy, he also sees the traditional model of central government control as outmoded. I don't believe in regulation, he says. Rather, government's role is to help promote a climate in which there is more value in maintaining forests than in cutting them. He points to new preservation strategies such as ecotourism development. The GEF Bosawas protection strategy includes that and biologically friendly investment. But access of such outside investors may be a precondition of local communities receiving aid. Financing for community development projects will be available as a quid pro quo in exchange for the communitys formal agreement to manage its lands in a manner consistent with the plans.

A prime example is the 62,000-hectare logging concession granted to Sol del Caribe, SA, (SOLCARSA) in Miskitia. George Brooks, Director General of the State Forest Administration (ADFOREST), portrays that concession as responsible development. Sixty percent of everything that's been published about SOLCARSA is false. They never even touched a single tree in their concession area. He also dismisses the Awas Tingni (a Mayangna village) claim to the concession area, asserting that the Indians there were stirred up by gringo outsiders. The 90,000 hectares claimed by Awas Tingni and the GIS team from Iowa is a lie. Those are national, state-owned lands.

But did the SOLCARSA concession area encroach on the Bosawas buffer zone, as opponents have argued' That is another lie, claims Brooks.

Part of the confusion lies in the conflicting definitions of the buffer zone. Bosawas maps with the MARENA logo show the buffer zone conforming to the outer boundaries of the municipalities. This looks like a huge protected area, but actually puts a great deal of campesino settlement, gold mining, and logging activity within the buffer zone.

Jorge Luis Prendiz, geological engineer with MEDE-MINAS, the Economy Ministry's mining agency, denies that there are mining operations in the Bosawas buffer zone. His office map shows the mining town of Bonanza just beyond the border.

Forcing the Issue

Gerardo Gutierrez is a veteran guerilla fighter who studied agro-ecology in Brazil and now heads a Puerto Cabezas-based environmental group, the Center for Conservation & Sustainable Development (CONADES). With seed money from Burlington, Vermont, which has a Sister City program with Puerto Cabezas, CONADES is promoting organic cacao production in 33 RAAN communities. Born within the borders of what is now the Boswas reserve, Gutierrez was among the first to raise alarm over SOLCARSA.

Our lands rights within the Bosawas reserve are still unclear, says Gutierrez. Aleman wants to give us 50 manzanas per family, and the rest of the land can be given to any concession. This is what they are trying to impose on us. But we indigenas are not accustomed to live that way. We hold the land in common for all our families to work and fish and hunt together.

He says that if the constitutional autonomy system doesn't work, indigenous communities will once again organize independently of the government. I don't care about any of the political parties. I care about rights for indigenous peoples and protection of their lands. The central government does nothing for us.

The Indian resistance against the Sandinistas really began in what is now the Bosawas reserve. In 1980, following Sandinista nationalization of the forest resources, hundreds of Mayangna in the Bosawas region, armed with machetes and axes, blockaded roads and confronted government timber cutters. This was the first physical confrontation between indigenous peoples and the Sandinista government.

The new controversy has prompted Managua into taking some measures to preserve the image of rainforest preservation. In May 1997, Aleman issued an executive decree declaring a five-year moratorium on export of the most precious rainforest woods, mahogany and cedar.

Garcia Cantarero, Aleman's coordinator for the biological corridor, admits that it was the Mayangna themselves who forced the government to confront this issue. Nobody wants to face the real reason SOLCARSA never touched the concession, he says. They were afraid to. The Indians blocked them. They were clearly ready to stand in front of the logging trucks with their machetes.