After a seven year battle, the Mayangna community of Awas Tingni won a landmark ruling at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and demonstrated that international human rights law could protect indigenous peoples, their land and their natural resources. As a result a Demarcation Law was passed in 2003 in Nicaragua to recognise and respect indigenous people’s land rights. However a change in law does not always lead to a change in behaviour.
Indigenous communities continue to have to fight to protect their territory from unscrupulous businessmen selling off this land to poor families, some who may have invested all they own into a small plot. This has caused incredible friction between the settlers and the indigenous communities.
Patrols to protect disputed land often turn violent. In 2013 Charlie Taylor was murdered trying to keep colonists from his communities’ land, a Mayangna community situated in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. This is a crucial moment, the indigenous peoples are mobilising groups to defend their land against settlers who often cut down large areas of forest and are increasingly violent. Despite laws and promises being made, indigenous communities are facing an intensifying daily battle to protect their ancestral lands and their forests.
Deforestation in Nicaragua
The Caribbean Coast region of Nicaragua contains the largest rainforests in Central America, including its largest area of protected tropical rainforest, the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. Nevertheless, around 75 percent of Nicaragua’s original forests have already been cleared for agriculture, with continuing struggles between colonists from western Nicaragua and the indigenous communities working to protect their forests from the advancing agricultural frontier.
Not only does deforestation threaten biodiversity and increase carbon levels in the atmosphere, it has worsened the effects of hurricanes in the region with flash floods and landslides greatly exacerbated in areas where large areas of forest have been cleared. Research has shown that indigenous communities deforest significantly less than colonists, and in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve indigenous demarcations have proven more effective at halting colonisation and consequent deforestation than the Bosawas boundary itself and the efforts of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA). Indigenous land demarcations are a vital step for fighting climate change.
Land Tenure Conflict
Despite many now having land titles, indigenous communities continue to battle to protect their lands from invading colonists. Much indigenous territory remained untitled and therefore classified as state land until the 2000s. There were waves of colonisers from western Nicaragua as far back as the 1920s and 1960s, however since the end of the civil war in 1990 there has been an influx of landless peasants looking to settle on land that was perceived to be ‘up for grabs’. The lack of mechanisms to defend indigenous lands and the prioritisation of profit over indigenous livelihoods has allowed a chaotic situation of competing land claims to develop.
Despite the 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution and the Autonomy Statute of the same year recognising indigenous rights and common property land holdings, it was not until the Mayangna Awas Tingni community took the Nicaraguan government to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, that these rights began to be realised. Following that landmark ruling in 2001 the government passed the Indigenous Land Demarcation Law in 2003. This not only outlines the process for titling land, it also recognises the rights of indigenous peoples to administer and self-govern their traditional lands and resources.
The final stage in the land titling process is the eviction of colonists. However, the increasing violence with which settlers are resisting eviction has resulted in authorities withdrawing from areas where armed colonists have settled. This leaves indigenous communities to defend their lands and forests themselves, needing armed patrols to monitor their territories for new settlers.
Inter-American Court of Human Rights Landmark Ruling
Between 1995 and 2001 the Awas Tingni community mounted a landmark legal case against the Nicaraguan government for granting a 30-year logging concession to a Korean logging company SOLCARSA on their lands. The concession, granted in March 1996 without consultation of the community, permitted the exploitation of almost 62,000 hectares of tropical forest belonging to Awas Tingni.
The community entered a petition to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and simultaneously brought their case to the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. A second petition to the Nicaraguan Supreme Court succeeded in getting a reluctant cancellation of the SOLCARSA concession. However, the Commission nevertheless submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in an effort to bind Nicaragua to act definitively in support of indigenous land rights.
In August 2001, the Court ruled that Nicaragua had violated of several articles of the American Convention on Human Rights. The government was ordered to demarcate and title Awas Tingni’s traditional lands as property of the Awas Tingni community, as well as establish mechanisms to secure the land rights of all indigenous communities of the country. It was the first court ruling, with legally binding authority, that a government had violated the collective territorial rights of indigenous people.
About the Mayangna
The Mayangna are one of Nicaragua’s seven indigenous peoples. They have a population of around 35,000, the majority of whom live in the northeast of the country, across the 9 Mayangna territories. 7 of these territories have land titles, all of which were gained since 2007.
The Mayangna began to organise at a national level in the 1970s with the creation of SUKAWALA (Sumu Kalpapakna Wahaini Lani) Association of Mayangna Indigenous Communities of Nicaragua, which aimed to secure land tenure and improve health, education and production for the Mayangna. In 2010 it officially became the Government of the Mayangna Nation (http://www.nacionmayangna.org/).
On Patrol: defending their territory and themselves
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Mayangna in Awas Tingni make patrols of their territory to monitor whether there are new settlers. While they do not intend to be threatening, they have to carry arms to defend themselves if there are clashes. When the patrol finds settlers they criticise the environmental damage caused by the colonists but try to find a peaceful resolution.
Land titles are not enough
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Despite being granted rights to their ancestral forests their land continues to be invaded by settlers. Clashes have resulted in deaths of Mayangnas, yet the government is still not actively addressing these land conflicts. As a result the Mayangna must take action themselves to protect their forests.
A death in the forest
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Charlie Taylor was another Mayangna who made patrols to protect his land from invading settlers, in the Territory of Mayangna Sauni As in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. On one of these patrols he was shot by settlers and died hours later. Charlie’s widow Recalina Devis was left destitute, caring for their seven children alone.
Protecting the forests is protecting the future
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The forests provide the air, the water and the food for the Mayangna, who have been living in these territories generation after generation. They will keep fighting to restore, conserve and regenerate the areas deforested by settlers. Land is the priority issue for everyone in the Mayangna communities.
- The Guardian (2020) Massacre leaves six indigenous people dead at Nicaraguan nature reserve: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/30/nicaragua-massacre-six-indigenous-killed-nature-reserve
- UNESCO (2012) La naturaleza está poblada de espíritus – Cuaderno cultural sumu mayangna 6 [in Spanish] http://unicef.org.ni/media/publicaciones/archivos/6_Cuaderno_Cultural_Sumo_Mayagna.pdf
- Anaya & Grossman (2002) The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A New Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples, Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law Vol. 19, No. 1
- Stocks et al. (2007) Indigenous, Colonist, and Government Impacts on Nicaragua’s Bosawas Reserve
- Law 445 [in English] http://www.calpi-nicaragua.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Law-445.Chpt-1-to-5.pdf AND http://www.calpi-nicaragua.org/law-4545-chapters-6-to-15/
- Cultural Survival (2002) One Year After Breakthrough Court Order, Nicaragua Government Still Ignores Awas Tingni Rights https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/nicaragua/one-year-after-breakthrough-court-order-nicaragua
- Howard, S. M. (1998) Land conflict and Mayangna territorial rights in Nicaragua’s Bosawás reserve http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.504.1993&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- López, M. (2012) Análisis de las causas de la deforestación y avance de la Frontera Agrícola en las zonas de Amortiguamiento y Zona Núcleo de la Reserva de Biósfera de BOSAWAS-RAAN, Nicaragua. http://masrenace.wikispaces.com/file/view/Informe_final_RBB_12.07.12.pdf
- Kaimowitz, D (2014) What do forest rights have to do with climate change? https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/what-do-forest-rights-have-to-do-with-climate-change/
- Stevens, C. Winterbottom, R, Reytar, K and Springer, J. Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change http://www.wri.org/securingrights