Nicaragua: Miskito Coast land conflict turns deadly

At least nine people have been killed and 20 more wounded in an escalating land conflict on Nicaragua's Miskito Coast over the past month. Hundreds of indigenous Miskito residents have fled their ancestral lands, in some cases seeking refuge across the border in Honduras. The crisis in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) pits indigenous Miskito and Mayangna communities against mestizo peasant colonists from Nicaragua's more densely populated west. Miskito political party YATAMA claims the peasants are illegally invading titled indigenous lands, sometimes after plots have been fraudulently sold by corrupt officials. Among the most impacted communities is Tasba Raya Indigenous Territory, where the communal president Constantino Romel was shot and wounded by National Police troops Sept. 16, allegedly after attempting to run a checkpoint. Community leaders deny police claims that officers were fired upon fmor the pick-up truck. Elvin Castro, traditional judge in the indigenous community of Francia Sirpi, has issued an ultimatum giving the colonists one month to to quit the community's territory. "If within one month they do not comply with this, then they will die," he announced. "The colonizers come to destroy the forests that we have cared for such a long time, destroying the watersheds, the plants and the animals… The government has supported the colonizers with firearms so that they can make problems."

Another Francia Sirpi community leader, Ramon Santis told reporters, "We suspect that under this land there is uranium and silver and later they will bring to our communities all of the people that they will remove from their farms to build the canal." The inter-oceanic canal now under construction actually cuts through the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), at the other end of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, and titled indigenous lands cannot be legally sold or otherwise alienated. 

In a surprise development on Sept. 21, Nicaragua's National Assembly voted to lift the legislative immunity of YATAMA deputy Brooklyn Rivera, accusing him of complicty in at least 16 cases of illegal land sales totaling 1,500 square kilometers. Deputy Edwin Castro of the ruling Sandinista party said the evidence had been gathered by a special committee formed by the government, which is continuing its investigations. Rivera denied the charges and asked Assembly leadership to create a legislative committee to investigate his case. His demand was supported by opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI) deputy Wilber López. After intense debate, the Assembly voted 62 to 22 to lift Rivera’s immunity.

In Waspam, the municipality at the heart of the conflict, religious leaders including Moravian, Catholic, Anglican and other clergy, issued a communique on Sept. 17, stating: "We ask the local, regional and central government authorities to search for an immediate solution, opening space for dialogue to come to an agreement on a mechanism for saneamiento of the indigenous territories in accord with the Autonomy Law and the Law for the Demarcation and Titling of Indigenous Land." (AP, Sept. 30; Nicaragua News Bulletin, Sept. 22; La Prensa, Sept. 17; Indian Law Resource Center, Sept. 16)