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Nicaragua’s stolen land: Indigenous communities fight back

Indigenous communities in Nicaragua are facing violence and displacement, but a Lush Spring Prize winning group is fighting hard to secure people’s human rights. Lush writer Katie Dancey-Downs talks to the group, and hears how agroecology is helping empower the Miskito people

When your whole identity has grown from a spiritual connection to nature, what do you do when your access to rivers, sacred sites, and forests, is cut off? When you face displacement from your native lands, discrimination, and human rights abuses, how do you survive?

For Indigenous Miskito people in Nicaragua, this is the reality. Scenes of political violence and civil unrest in Nicaragua have hit headlines around the world, but the lesser known story is the desperate situation for Indigenous populations, as both land and culture are torn apart as a result of the exploitation of natural resources.

Fighting hard for the communal land rights of Indigenous people, is a Lush Spring Prize 2018 winning group - The Center for Justice and Human Rights in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN). The organisation offers legal support to Indigenous communities, as well as support for practical solutions.

“Our human rights have been denied for centuries,” says the group’s founder, Lottie Cunningham Wren. “That’s why we’ve struggled to be included in the process of development for Nicaragua.”

Lottie, who is a human rights lawyer and a member of the Miskito community, says her people have been excluded from services like access to clean water, food, and education, and now face the threat of extreme poverty. But in addition to all this, she says they are victims of land grabbing for natural resources, meaning many people have been displaced from their land.

“Outsiders might think these people live in poverty, but there’s only real poverty when the natural resources are destroyed,” Lottie says.

Lottie refuses to stand aside and let this happen. Despite risking danger to herself, she is fighting back to defend human rights and cultural identities. She and the team at CEJUDHCAN are currently taking legal steps, and finding additional ways to empower people to rebuild their lives.

Taking legal action

As well as working with communities directly, CEJUDHCAN is taking legal action, in a bid to change the way Indigenous communities are treated and ensure they can access their human rights. The group is fighting for a change in public policy to defend the collective human rights of Indigenous peoples and people of African descent in the region. Lottie and her team are pushing the Nicaraguan government to complete the final phase of titling, giving these communities their land rights. This would mean evicting third parties from Indigenous land.

This is work that continues from what Lottie describes as CEJUDHCAN’s greatest success; in 2001, the group worked with other NGOs to achieve a judgement through the Inter-American Court. The court found that the State of Nicaragua had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni Mayangna community, by allowing natural resources to be exploited without consulting the community who lived on the land.

This case had a huge impact, and resulted in a law being created which, in theory, allows Indigenous communities to take a lead role in defining and protecting their communal land. But this is not the reality that Lottie has seen.

“Every year, the State of Nicaragua has to report on what kind of concrete action they are implementing to protect the life and land of Indigenous people, but they are still not doing anything to protect the communities,” she says.

In 2014, Lottie says there was a huge increase in the arrival of settlers, known as Colonos, taking community land from Indigenous communities for lumber, mining, or cattle - without permission from the communities concerned. She says the Colonos are usually Nicaraguan people who are often ex-military, or have connections with either the government or lumber companies, and are seeking the bountiful natural resources found in this part of the country.

The Miskito people have since experienced a rise in intimidation and kidnapping, and leaders have even been murdered, Lottie says.

“The forest is part of the Miskito people’s lives, and they don’t have that liberty anymore,” she says. “They just want to be left in peace.”

Many Miskito people are now left without access to the places where they fish, grow food, and gather traditional medicines. Parteras, or midwives, traditionally gather the resources they need from the forest whenever a new baby is due, but with no access to either the forest or a pharmacy, more and more pregnant women are suffering complications and dying.

Others have been completely displaced from their land, and are either living in refugee camps or cities in Honduras. Based on figures from refugee camps, Lottie estimates that around 5,000 Indigenous people from Nicaragua have been displaced. Most of them are women and children.

She says that many young Indigenous people in Nicaragua are even pretending to belong to other ethnic groups, just so they can get jobs and avoid discrimination.

Research into this land grabbing is being undertaken as part of CEJUDHCAN’s work, and will be officially published later in 2019, while photo documentation has already taken place.

Empowering communities with agroecology

Fighting cases in court takes time, and meanwhile communities need support in other ways. Lottie recalls being asked by one community member: “Why does justice move slowly like a turtle, and not run fast like a deer?”

Lottie replied: “The turtle might go slowly, but he always gets to his destination.”

But on later reflection, she adds: “While we are trying to get to our destination, people are dying of hunger. So we need to provide food to families.”

CEJUDHCAN wanted to find a solution to hunger, and so set out to support people in growing food at home. Women are now growing crops from the safety of their village centres, providing their communities with both food and opportunities for income, without the need to travel to fields further away.

To get the project off the ground, Lottie and her team went to different areas, and asked people which fruits, vegetables, and traditional medicines they wanted to grow at their homes.

After the area for each garden was identified, fences were erected to keep animals out (fences, Lottie notes, are not traditionally part of the Miskito people’s culture), and garden tools and seeds arrived.

They worked together to make compost, and invited an agroecology student to help train people in this diverse system of agriculture where the environment, social systems, and cultural identities are prioritised and integrated. One house, for example, had solar lighting and a roof water catchment system installed. Soon, plants like avocados, bananas, and pumpkins were ready to harvest.

Above all, having the gardens close at hand means the women do not have to walk to distant fields, where they risk attack, sexual violence, or even being killed. This work to establish food security underpins the legal struggle; while the long fight for human rights plays out, communities can stay in their villages.

The organisation has now supported 300 women in creating agroecology gardens, and 3,000 people are benefitting from the crops. But there’s still more work to be done - the soil is often acidic and there’s a lack of training in growing crops, so the gardens don’t always turn out well. Lottie also wants to transport food between different areas, and set up more training programmes in agroecology.

“We have a dream of strengthening the community around issues of territorial governance, so that they can have self-determination, and use and control their land in a sustainable way, which will benefit the planet as a whole,” Lottie says.

Through agroecology, CEJUDHCAN and Miskito communities have together found a way to limit displacement. But this is not a long-term solution to the struggles of Indigenous people in Nicaragua, and the legal battle taking place in the background remains crucial to ensuring the community can stay on their own lands.

The biennial Lush Spring Prize supports projects across the world that are working towards environmental and social regeneration, with a prize fund of £220,000. CEJUDHCAN won the Established Projects Award in 2018. Find out more about the Lush Spring Prize.

Illustration by by David McMillan.

Photo: Lottie and Deborah from CEJUDHCAN, at the Lush Spring Prize 2018.

Lottie and Deborah from CEJUDHCAN

The Miskito community has been excluded from services like access to clean water, food, and education, and now faces the threat of extreme poverty

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