Nicaragua: Land Grab on the Atlantic Coast: Part 1 (6/98)

On the road to Puerto Cabezas, the cowboy country of Nicaragua’s central mountains slopes into the lush lowlands of the Miskito Rainforest – what’s left of it. For centuries, this region was an impenetrable jungle which protected the Miskito and Mayangna Indians from conquest. Just a few years ago, there was no road to the Caribbean coastal town. Now, Central America’s largest rainforest is shrinking faster than ever, and the Indians find themselves the guardians of what once was their protector.

In the 1980s, the Indians of the rainforest and Caribbean coastal plains – a region collectively known as Miskitia – took up arms against the central government of Managua to secure constitutional guarantees of their autonomy. Today, they find control of their lands threatened again, as the constitution is eroded by bureaucracy, corruption, and austerity. As a result, they view the new road with suspicion: an artery to bring more settlers in and take natural resources out.

The Miskito inhabit the coastal plains and villages along the Rio Coco, the border with Honduras. The Mayangna, known to outsiders as the Sumo, are the people of the inland rainforest. Other Miskitia inhabitants are the Creoles, descendants of rebellious slaves sent by the British to populate the region, small Rama and Garifuna Indian communities, and 200,000 mestizos, recent settlers from central and Pacific Nicaragua.

Since Miskitia was granted autonomy in 1987, it’s been divided into the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), with its seat at Puerto Cabezas, and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The Indians are mostly in the RAAN. During the last struggle, the leftist Sandinista government attempted to "nationalize" Indian lands; now President Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) wants to "privatize" them. But as the recent case of a South Korean logging firm demonstrates, Indians are again prepared to resist.

With some stability returning after years of warfare, foreign timber and mineral companies are recolonizing the rainforest. Under the long Somoza dictatorship, local fiefdoms were granted to US firms; today, the transnationals welcomed to Miskitia by President Arnoldo Aleman are just as likely to be Asian. Intensely politicized by the autonomy struggle, the Indians are defending their territorial rights.

"All This Land"

In March 1996, President Violeta Chamorro granted a 62,000-hectare logging concession to Sol del Caribe, SA (SOLCARSA), in Miskitia. The deal was approved by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry (MARENA) and the State Forest Administration (ADFOREST). The 30-year concession at Cerro Wakambay was the longest and biggest in Nicaragua. But the Mayangna village of Awas Tingni, which wasn’t consulted, considers Cerro Wakambay to be the heart of their traditional lands.

Awas Tingni leaders had recently mapped their traditional lands using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, assisted by satellite positioning. The project was organized by the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) based in Washington, DC, and a group of anthropologists and technicians from the University of Iowa. Elders and hunters guided the scholars through their sacred sites and hunting grounds to produce a map of 90,000 hectares claimed as the community’s traditional lands.

The project arose from Awas Tingni’s earlier conflicts with another timber company, Maderas y Derivados de Nicaragua (MADENSA), which paid the community to operate on 43,000 hectares. MADENSA officials include Sandinista party members, and it professes an environmentally sensitive forestry. These claims attracted the attention of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Interested in assisting sustainable forestry in Nicaragua, the WWF approached the University of Iowa, which joined with ILRC to send a team to Awas Tingni in 1993.

What they found were disputes with MADENSA over payments and the community’s rights within the concession area. Appointed the community’s official representatives, the team entered into negotiations with MADENSA and arranged a deal in which Awas Tingni participates in managing the concession.

In June 1995, however, while it was still pending before the central government, the SOLCARSA concession was approved by the RAAN Council’s seven-member Junta Directiva – but not by the entire 45-member council, as required by the constitution. Awas Tingni realized that the concession was in the heart of the demarcated area. Says James Anaya, an attorney with the ILRC: "We pointed this out to the government, but they refused to back down. They were adamant that there was no way that the community could have Ôall this land’ as they put it."

In September, ILRC attorneys filed a case for Awas Tingni on the basis of land rights. But the Matagalpa Appeals Tribunal ruled that the case had been filed too late – over 30 days after the community had sent a letter to MARENA protesting the concession. "We were tripped up by a narrow technicality," says Anaya.

Aleman’s Big Idea

In October, Anaya and the ILRC filed a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). In March 1996, with the OAS case pending, Managua approved the SOLCARSA concession. With ILRC legal support, two RAAN Council members filed a new case, challenging the concession’s approval by the Junta Directiva. Almost a year later, the Matagalpa Appeals Tribunal granted an injunction. MARENA appealed, and the case was on its way to Nicaragua’s highest court.

On February 27, 1997, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court of Justice issued a decision on both the original Awas Tingni’s land rights case and the second challenging the Junta Directiva vote. Although the court upheld the lower court decision on the Awas Tingni case, it found the Junta Directiva vote unconstitutional. Aleman should suspend the contract, it ruled.

But the president had other ideas. On May 29, 1997, a letter from MARENA chief Roberto Stadthagen Vogl to the RAAN Council requested approval of the concession, invoking "the need to assure the development of our nation and especially the Atlantic Coast." In October, the council approved the SOLCARSA concession. It was the first time the council had met in months, due to lack of a budget from the central government.

"Aleman cut off funds for the council immediately after his election," says RAAN Councilor Alta Hooker, who supported the concession in the Junta Directiva vote but abstained in the October general council vote. She felt the vote was compromised by SOLCARSA’s aggressive tactics.

The central government provided special financing for the RAAN Council to meet on the concession vote. "That was the last time the council met," says Hooker. "Who put up the money? A lot of people say it was SOLCARSA." James Anaya openly asserts that the company funded the vote: "SOLCARSA put up the money for them to meet. We had an investigative report and determined this beyond a doubt."

Maria Luisa Acosta, Anaya’s Nicaraguan co-counsel, made the next move: asking the Supreme Court of Justice to order that the government comply with the earlier decision declaring the concession invalid. On February 3, 1998, almost a year after the previous ruling, this was granted. The Supreme Court found that the RAAN Council vote was an improper after-the-fact remedy, and ordered Aleman and MARENA to comply with the year-old decision. The SOLCARSA concession was finally canceled.

"But we continue to push the larger issue of indigenous land tenure before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights," says Anaya. The OAS case argues that the SOLCARSA concession violated several guarantees of the American Convention on Human Rights: the rights to secure property, equality before the law, petition and prompt response, cultural integrity, and even religion. The community has traditionally used two-thirds of the land in SOLCARSA’s concession area, and over half of MADENSA’s.

Esidiaco Castillo is the coordinator of Awas Tingni, a position in Miskitia’s community self-government tradition. He says Managua has no right to make decisions on this land without the community’s input. "Here there is no government land. There is no national land. This is all communal land. We are not against the government, but they have to respect this. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sandinista or Liberal. We are prepared to die for this."

Rip Off in Rosita

SOLCARSA first built a plant at Betania, outside Puerto Cabezas, but abandoned it in 1997 to build a new plant at Rosita, in the rainforest. There had been conflicts with Betania’s Miskito elders, or ancianos, over compensation for building it. The company was engaged in talks with the ancianos when it pulled out.

The Betania plant was built to export mahogany from Puerto Cabezas. Conflicts with the municipal government may have helped prompt the move. The new Rosita plant started turning less valuable rainforest trees into plywood, to be trucked out to Managua. It was already processing trees felled by contract teams elsewhere in the forest before the road to the concession area was even complete.

The plywood was sold domestically, with plans to expand to other Central American markets. But the low-quality plywood was likely seen as a holdover until the precious mahogany and cedar of the Cerro Wakambay concession area could be exploited.

Shortly before MARENA officially requested RAAN Council approval of the concession, the agency fined SOLCARSA one million cordobas for building its Rosita plant without approval. Meanwhile, the local Mayangna community of Fenicia was relocated to accommodate the plant. Fenicia households were offered 1500 cordobas (about $150) each to move, plus a school, potable water system, electricity, and jobs. Residents say they have received only the money.

In September 1996, National Police and army troops enforced the move from Old Fenicia, residents say. According to Avel Dixon, "They said we would have potable water, electricity, work, a church, pero ahora – nada." Of Fenicia’s population of 115, only one worked at SOLCARSA. Another was fired. Felix Alvaro, Fenicia’s anciano, who was born at Old Fenicia in 1932, says: "We are the true owners, but we cannot cross that line. We are menaced by men with guns. They say we have no right to go there."

The 200 employees at the plant, mostly mestizos, were much less than the 2500 initially promised to Rosita municipal authorities. Some were paid as little as 25 cordobas (around $2.50) a day. "The managers told us there are no unions in South Korea," one worker told me. But the workers were also quick to point out that there is no other work in Rosita, and that campesinos also destroy the forest.

SOLCARSA was also accused of breaking a 1995 logging agreement with the Miskito community of Kukalaya. Rigoberto Gonzalez Garbeth, a Miskito legal advisor to Kukalaya, says SOLCARSA’s contractors destroyed over 9000 trees on Kukalaya lands in violation of that deal. "The community has known absolutely no benefit from Sol del Caribe," says Gonzalez. "The natural resources signify the survival of our communities – our Yapti Tasba, Madre Tierra [Mother Earth]."

The Company Line

Representatives from Miskito and Mayangna communities throughout the region attended a Forum on Forest Concessions held in Rosita on February 20-21, 1998. The Forum issued a "Declaration of Rosita," calling on the RAAN Council to suspend SOLCARSA’s concession pending demarcation of indigenous lands, and demanding that the central government cease granting concessions on communal lands.

However, SOLCARSA continued to insist it was complying completely with Nica-raguan law. "We are interested in doing a longtime business here," SOLCARSA plant manager Avram Lee told the New York Times. "How can we do that by cheating people?" He dismissed the protests of Indian leaders: "I told them, we don’t have anything to do with your people. We made a deal with the government." On the other hand, a SOLCARSA fact sheet on the dispute claims the company "is respecting the rights and autonomy of the indigenous communities."

SOLCARSA is a subsidiary of the Korean multinational Kum Kyung, primarily a clothing manufacturer. It boasts $5 million annual profits in sales to such fashion icons as Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Kum Kyung’s NICSEDA subsidiary has two plants in Managua’s free trade zone, where 800 employees sew clothes for export to the US at two cordobas (20 cents) per hour.

As the Asian financial crisis started to hit, Kum Kyung saw expanding into timber as a bold new strategy. But by the time the Supreme Court issued its February decision, its plunge into the rainforest was starting to look like a reckless gamble. On April 2, after eight more weeks of slicing up trees, SOLCARSA officially announced that it was quitting Nicaragua. In Rosita, workers suddenly thrown out of work gathered angrily at the mill, and National Police were called out to secure the site. v

– To be continued.

Bill Weinberg travelled with the Native Forest Network (NFN) early in 1998 to visit Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region. In part two of this series, he will examine the new autonomy struggle, threatened biodiversity, and global governance.