FEATURE -On Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, conflict over indigenous land turns violent

by Tristan Martin and Faye Planer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 27 April 2017 13:00 GMT

Rossman Astin, a 28-year old Miskito man, shows a handmade gun made by one of the members of his village. Francia Sirpi, Nicaragua. February 2, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

Image Caption and Rights Information
Dominated by pine forests, this sparsely populated, remote coastal plain has become the most violently contested territory in the country

By Tristan Martin and Faye Planer

FRANCIA SIRPI, Nicaragua, April 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ronald Maclovio takes off his t-shirt to show the scars ten bullets left on his chest.

In June 2015, he says, illegal settlers shot him and attacked his community of Francia Sirpi, an indigenous Miskito village on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua also known as the Mosquito Coast.

"They did it just for the fun of it," he says.

Maclovio is not alone: many Miskito people report unprovoked attacks by non-indigenous settlers and tensions flare over land.

The worst of this conflict has unfolded far from the single, unpaved road that connects the region to the rest of Nicaragua. Dominated by pine forests, this sparsely populated, remote coastal plain has become the most violently contested territory in the country.

The Miskito, the largest indigenous group on the Caribbean coast, with a population of up to 300,000, blame the attacks on "settlers" coming from other parts of the country and occupying their ancestral territories.

According to CEJUDHCAN, a human rights organisation that works with indigenous communities, conflict over land has left 32 Miskito dead and 66 missing or injured since 2012.

However mounting evidence of unscrupulous land sales by Miskito leaders themselves suggest a more complex root to the escalating violence.

Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Miskito were allied to the British, whose navy provided them with weapons, and encouraged them to launch raids on neighbouring Spanish bases. Their land, which stretched from what is now Honduras in the north, almost to Costa Rica in the south, became an informal British protectorate.

After decades of modern day, peaceful co-existence, relations between the Miskito, Nicaragua's largest indigenous group and non-indigenous settlers have been souring.

"We don't want to see a single chicken, pig, or cow of theirs. We want complete eviction," said Virgilio Thomas Moore, Francia Sirpi's judge, elected by the Miskito.

The new settlers, say activists, come in search of cheap, fertile land, timber and gold. While no data has been collected on the deaths and injuries to this group, witness testimonies suggest that both sides have engaged in violence.

The problem is exacerbated, they add, by the Nicaraguan government's lack of action to mediate and resolve the land dispute. This has led to many Miskito taking the law into their own hands to clear the settlers themselves.

Judge Thomas Moore says the communities are on the brink of war. "We're not going to solve this over a coffee. Only a coffee of blood, because that's the way they think," he said.

Carlos Aleman, governor of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region did not respond to requests for comment. The office of Nicaragua's Attorney General, Hernan Estrada, did not respond to questions by phone and email.

Mestizo farmer Jose Boanerges (right), outside his cattle ranch near Sahsa, Nicaragua. February 4, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

SELL IT CHEAP, SELL IT TWICE

Farming settlers have migrated from the interior and the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to the far northeast of the country for decades.

A prolonged drought and concern over a proposed inter-oceanic canal project which is likely to affect thousands of Nicaraguan farmers has seen a significant increase in migration into Miskito land over the last few years.

Despite a law that bans the sale of indigenous land in the region, it has been widely reported that some indigenous leaders have granted "permits" to the settlers effectively handing tracts of land over for long term use.

Narcisa Davila is one such settler now living in the remote coastal plain of Sahsa some 90 km (55 miles) from the regional capital, Puerto Cabezas. She says that problems began for her family soon after they bought land from a fellow settler deep in indigenous territory.

One morning in May 2012, Davila's brother was sowing maize on their recently cleared plot when he was surrounded by men in military uniforms. He was shot three times and died several hours later, along with another farm labourer.

Davila said she believed the killing was ordered by Miskito leaders who wanted to reclaim the land and sell it.

"First they sell the land and then they send people to kill the Mestizo settler in order to take back the land and sell it for a higher price," Davila told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's not just my brother who has died, there are lots of Mestizo (settlers) who have died in those hills, just fighting for land."

The Tasba Pri Association for Farmers, an organisation that advocates for settlers in land disputes, said the killing was not an isolated incident.

Jose Boanerges, vice president of the association and a 35- year-old farmer who came to the region 15 years ago, believes communal property laws are being used to discriminate against non-indigenous settlers.

Nicaragua has been a world leader in the granting of land rights to native peoples. Indigenous communities gained autonomy in 1987 over their ancestral lands and "Law 445" was introduced in 2003 to allow indigenous people to apply for land titles.

"They created the law and now they themselves violate it," he said.

"The community that doesn't want to sell their land should be respected. But if they've sold it, they should respect the rights of the person who bought it. He's a Nicaraguan too."

A Mestizo farm under construction in indigenous Miskito territory. January 30, 2017. Sahsa, Nicaragua. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

COMPETING PHILOSOPHIES

According to Selmira Flores, the director of a research unit at the Universidad Centroamericana de Nicaragua, the two groups have different philosophies on land ownership.

She said settlers are steeped in notions of private property and legal ownership backed by documentation while the Miskito see the land as a shared asset for 'community use'.

"Those who come from outside have a logic of private property over the land, and here it's a communal property logic," she said.

The only legal way for newcomers to settle in the territory requires the approval of representatives of the whole Miskito community, she said. This would ideally result in the granting of temporary farming leases for the settlers.

But a non-indigenous settler is unlikely to discuss the issue with the entire community: "They'll talk to an individual and sign a document," she said.

"For a Mestizo (settler) having that paper where it says the other has accepted this quantity of money for this bit of land is all that counts."

The settlers then believe that it is theirs, she added, and they can re-sell it as they wish.

"IT'S WAR"

Law 445 places the onus on government to clear indigenous territories of non indigenous settlers where proper land title has not been granted.

The Miskito say they want the government to uphold their legal obligation to clear the land of illegal settlers. But with little action, the concept of "autosaneamiento" or "self-clearing" by the community is gaining popular support.

Judge Thomas Moore in Francia Sirpi said the time had come for the community to take matters into their own hands.

"We'll give them six months, no more," he said. "If the government doesn't want to take them out, we'll do the clearing ourselves. We'll go and invade those hills."

Several miles away, lying in a hammock on his cattle farm, settler Boanerges considers this possibility.

"They want to do ‘autosaneamiento'. But they also have to respect everything that they have sold," he said.

"And if they don't respect it, it's war."

(Reporting by Tristan Martin and Faye Planer, Editing by Paola Totaro and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)