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Who owns the forest?

IDENTIFY (News and Analysis) · 0 links · 0 comments
A land crisis in a remote region of Nicaragua has brought violence and ethnic strife — and victims on both sides.

Written by Anthony Vaccaro / RAAN, Nicaragua
Photographed by Miro Brcic / RAAN, Nicaragua
Published Monday, October 4, 2004

Children of Wasa King

In a ramshackle school house deep in the jungle, angry members of the Mayangna community, Nicaragua's oldest indigenous tribe, plot their next move in the fight to reclaim their land. Lumber prospectors and Mestizo farmers, with or without land deeds, have been cutting into large sections of the once lush forest, and the Mayangnas, long considered the caretakers of Nicaragua's rain forest, have had enough. “I'm tired of talking,” says Luis Beltran Alfaro, a land trustee in Mayangna’s second capital, Wasa King. “We've talked and talked and nothing gets done. We have to take matters into our own hands.”

Thirty-two native inhabitants of Wasa King, all men, stand shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter of a largely open classroom, stepping forward one at a time to vent their frustration. “We want to kick them out peacefully,” Emilio Fendley says of the 150 Mestizo families settled nearby. “But we can't; they won't go.”

Mestizo farmers have been coming to the region for over 50 years now, but it is the brutality of the latest migration, the ones who have come in the last five years, that has triggered the rage of the Mayangnas. Despite a 2003 law that grants ownership of undeeded land to indigenous groups, trees continue to fall to the new Mestizos' tactics of slash-and-burn agriculture. The Mayangnas fear that the forest, their traditional hunting ground, will be lost.

“They come and see some forest, and think, ‘nobody is here, we can farm here,’” says Fendley. “But we are here. This is our forest.” He bangs the large wooden stick he holds in his hand on the wood-plank floor. “The only way left to us,” he concludes, “is to spill blood.”

A group of Mayangnas meet in the school house, including Luis Beltran Alfaro,(far left in khakis), Emilio Fendley (in red pants), and Ismal Milado (seated in middle).

Forgotten Peoples

Wasa King is located in the heart of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). Hennington Tathum Perryman, a high-ranking government official in the RAAN, says that the central government's interest in the region goes as only as far as the gold, lumber, and fish that the RAAN is rich in.

Perryman says that central government's indifference to the problems in Wasa King stems from a deep cultural and physical divide between the RAAN and the Pacific side of Nicaragua, home to the country’s capital, Managua.

The RAAN is home not only to a large population of Mayangnas and Miskitus but also to a dwindling number of Black Creoles. None of these three groups is found in any great number on the Pacific side, and they feel that the central government has done nothing to protect their cultures from the continual encroachment of the Spanish-speaking majority represented by the central government.

“No president of Nicaragua will ever care about the Atlantic,” says Perryman in his thick Creole accent. “80 percent of the population of Nicaragua lives in the Pacific, so that's where they get all of their votes.”

In many ways, Wasa King is to RAAN what RAAN is to Nicaragua: a remote community that feels its unique culture is being threatened while an indifferent government looks on. The nearest town, Rosita, has only one truck that can make the arduous trek over the gutted dirt road leading into Wasa King. The muddy, jostling drive is so hostile to outsiders that the people of Wasa King seldom encounter foreign visitors. When someone does manage to make the trek, throngs of half-naked children surround the truck and guide the visitor past scattered thatch huts, over the narrow suspension bridge, and into the center of town. There, a weathered clapboard church that was once painted white stands prominently, flanked by a long, single-story wooden structure that serves as school, community center, and housing complex.

In January 2003, the government passed a law apparently intended to benefit indigenous people in places like Wasa King. The wording of Law 445, which was supposed to stop the onslaught of destructive migration into the forests, mandates a surprising degree of protection for indigenous land claims, granting the Mayangnas and the Miskitus, the region’s other indigenous group, a right to all forest land that had not already been legally deeded. However, the law is poorly enforced, which means that Mayangnas in Wasa King still have no real means of protecting the forest from the Mestizos.

Children play outside the Wasa King classroom.

A Lumber Mogul and an Easy Target

The Mestizo farmers are not the only ones with a stake in RAAN land. Kamel Ben, a lumber prospector, has laid claim to land near Wasa King. The mere mention of Ben's name brings a torrent of abuse from Mayangnas. Ismal Milado, a 73-year-old who has come to the classroom to hear how the younger members of his community plan to fight for their land, calls Ben “Osama bin Laden's brother.” Many in the room nod in agreement.

Ben and the Mayangnas of Wasa King are in the midst of a long legal battle that will determine who is the rightful owner of the 3000 hectares Ben currently harvests. The court has been hearing the case for two years, and it may be at least another year before a verdict is reached.

Pulling up to a coffee shop in Rosita on a new Enduro motorbike, Ben seems more congenial than evil. His sharp Middle Eastern features and graying moustache give him the appearance of a younger Omar Sharif. Puffing on Marlboro Reds, Ben speaks openly about all of his dealings in the region. He dismisses the bin Laden accusation with a laugh. “You see,” he says, “this is the kind of mentality that we are dealing with.”

Ben's good nature is surprising given the danger he faces in everyday life. Having Middle Eastern features in a region where foreigners are about as common as politicians from Managua makes him an easy target.

“I've had two death threats,” says Ben, his signature smile retreating from his face. “I was eating my dinner when the owner of the restaurant rushed up to me going, ‘There's a whole mob of them coming up the street. They're going to kill you.’” His smile begins to resurface as he recalls, “It was not the time to negotiate, so I escaped through the back door.”

Ben says that the Mayangnas’ hatred for him has more to do with their interest in the lumber on his land than with protecting the forest. “There is no economic activity here, so they want money from the wood.” He points out that four Mayangnas have already been arrested for illegally cutting down trees. Government officials in Puerto Cabezas confirm that a “wood mafia” is operating with little restraint in the region, poaching mahogany and other less valuable trees. The mafia is said to pay indigenous people good money to cut trees for them. Ben claims that such activities undercut the image of the Mayangnas as stewards of the rain forests. “It is false,” Ben says of the Mayangnas’ good reputation for environmentalism. “Absolutely false.”

The author (right) with Kamel Ben.

Dwindling Patience and Looming Disaster

The slow speed of the litigation has many in the region worried. As patience with the court proceedings wears thin, the prospect of the Mayangnas following through on their threats increases. No one in the area is taking those threats lightly. In Layasiksa, a Miskitu community 90 kilometers southwest of Wasa King, Misikitus’ anger over a Mestizo settlement on their land exploded on February 7 of this year, when some 100 Miskitus marched on to the settlement. Mestizo homes were burned to the ground, and a gun fight erupted. When it was over, two Mestizo farmers and one Miskitu had been shot dead.

Hurtado Garcia Baker, the governor of RAAN and leader of the largely Miskitu YATAMA party, warns that what happened in Layasiksa could happen again in Wasa King. According to Baker, “The Mayangnas’ defense of their land will be even more fierce that in Layasiksa. There are eighty men there waiting to use their machetes.”

The atmosphere of Garcia Baker’s office lacks the stuffy formality typical of North American politics. Government officials and ordinary citizens mingle in the hallway outside his open door and spill into the office itself. Garcia Baker prefers to talk while standing or sitting on the large sofa in one corner of the room while his desk sits idly against a back wall.

When asked about the President of Nicaragua, Enrique Bolanos, Baker’s face contorts as though tasting a bitter lemon. “[Bolanos] has not given one dollar to implement Law 445,” Baker complains. “It is part of the central government’s strategy. They didn't like the law, so they won't give the money needed to enforce it.”

Baker believes the solution to the Wasa King situation hinges on the enforcement of the law. But the Bolanos government, he contends, has little incentive to enforce a law that would make it harder for them to herd land-seeking Mestizos into the RAAN. The scarcity of land in the country has created a huge population of landless Mestizo's roaming the Pacific countryside in desperation, and the government simply does not know what to do with them. The Nicaraguan government would ordinarily never have given the indigenous people of RAAN such powers, says Baker. But the law was passed under political pressure stemming from a corruption scandal involving former president Arnoldo Aleman. “Once Bolanos got into power, he couldn't believe that such a law had passed, but it did, and he couldn't do anything about it.”

Garcia Baker seems neither to know nor care where the Mestizos end up. “They’re not from here,” he says. “So they are not our problem.” Rather, Baker has made it his mission to demarcate all of his region’s land in order to grant legal claims to the indigenous people. Once that happens, the protections of Law 445 will begin to take effect. “We're going map our own land,” Garcia Baker says, “even if Bolanos won't send us a cent.”

Diplaced Mestizo farmers compete for land and raise the ire of RAAN locals.

The Displaced as Displacers

The massive influx of Mestizos into the RAAN has made them the largest single group in the region — and the least popular. But even though the locals see them as aggressive invaders, the migrants claim to be no less victims of displacement than the indigenous peoples resisting them.

Despite their numbers, Mestizo farmers have little representation in the government. Newly arrived Mestizos are largely uneducated, very poor, and in contrast to the Miskitus, politically unorganized. Many end up razing the forest for cattle fields because the crops of beans and corn that they grew on the Pacific side are not suited to the rainforest’s wet climate.

In Susun, a Mestizo settlement 20 kilometers outside Wasa King, Mayor Noel Palacio Garcia Delgado gathers together a group of Mestizos who have recently arrived in the RAAN. They are thin, their clothes are worn, and their rotting teeth lack the silver caps that more prosperous farmers display. Two women, one with a newborn, and eight men sit before Delgado. They are slow to answer questions, finding it hard to comprehend the level of hatred that the Mayangna in Wasa King feel for them.

“We don't know where else to go,” says Pedro Antonio Espinoza, a 48-year-old father of nine. “Our lands [on the Pacific side] have all dried up, and we need to feed ourselves. If the don't want us here, then just tell us where we should go.”

Espinoza bows his head and looks to the floor. When the threat of Mayangna violence is brought up, he speaks while still looking down: “We are worried,” Espinoza says, slowly looking up. “They are the ones that have the guns.”



The writer
Anthony Vaccaro, INTHEFRAY.COM contributor

The photographer and translator
Miro Brcic

The writer would like to thank Tom and Lois McGrail for their contributions, which made this article possible.


The Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast


The Nicaragua Network

Mayanna People’s Statement on Proposed Sustainable Development Project in Nicaragua


”Land Grab In Nicaragua,” commentary by Bill Weinberg, Toward Freedom, 1998

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