Above photo: Mayangna President Arisio Genaro Selso and Secretary Eloy Frank Gomez, in Siuna.
In November of 2020, between hurricanes Eta and Iota, Stephen Sefton interviewed Indigenous leaders and others in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. The interviews mainly address long standing misapprehensions and outright falsehoods about Nicaragua’s Sandinista government’s defense of Indigenous people’s rights, an issue inseparable from defense of the natural environment. More immediately, the interviews exposed several poorly researched, inaccurate reports of the Oakland Institute, published in 2020, clearly seeking to damage Nicaragua’s economy by means of misleading, sensationalist and simply false allegations of abuse of Indigenous people’s rights and environmental depredation.
Translator’s note: The Mayangna Nation’s territory is mainly located in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve and its buffer zone, which is part of the Western Hemisphere’s second largest area of tropical forest. Covering around 20,000 km², it was designated in 1997 as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The reserve comprises about 15% of the nation’s total land area. Bosawas is said to be the richest biome in the planet, and is reckoned to contain 13% of known species worldwide.
Interview with Mayangna Nation leaders, President Arisio Genaro Selso and Secretary Eloy Frank Gomez, in Siuna, RACCN, November 11, 2020.
Stephen Sefton: What is your perception of the seriousness of the problem of the intrusion of outsiders into Indigenous lands, in your case of the Mayangna people?
Arisio Genaro Celso: We need to go back a bit to the past, to remember some negative actions generated by past governments. For example, this problem of the invasion of mestizo settlers from the Pacific, towards our lands in the Caribbean, Indigenous lands, Mayangna land especially, is because the Bosawás Reserve is located within Mayangna territories because these have been our ancestral lands.
The limits of the Mayangna territory border with the Miskito territory, but the problem of invasion is not between Miskitos and Mayangnas. It is with mestizos coming from the Pacific. Go back to the 90’s, to the government of [President] Arnoldo Alemán, who was the one who promoted colonization of the Caribbean by mestizos, with the purpose of destabilizing the whole Autonomy project, which was being developed at that time. The Liberals then led by Alemán, wanted to disappear the Autonomy project in the Caribbean, to invade the Caribbean Coast with a mestizo population, to have control, especially at election time, to be favored with the votes of the mestizo settlers they were sending to Indigenous territories. I remember at the time the Nicaraguan army once detained about eight or ten trucks belonging to Liberal authorities, full of mestizo people whom the Alemán government was sending to take over lands on the Caribbean Coast.
The problem was also that back then, they decided that the Caribbean Coast lands were national lands. There was the question of recognition of the culture of the original peoples, we the Mayangna, for example, and the Miskitos too, traditionally divided the territories into hunting areas, reproduction areas, artisanal mining areas, production areas, fishing areas. That has been the way the territories have been organized. With the Autonomy process, this was reinforced. Prior to this, after the 1979 Revolution, the Indigenous peoples knew their limits, where they could go hunting, where they could not cut down trees, because there were already large wooded areas or areas for the reproduction of bird species. But for the mestizo culture of the Pacific, the people who arrived there said “There are many manzanas of land but nobody lives there.” For them, it was understood that they were national lands, because nobody lived there. However they were territories belonging to the Indigenous peoples where they went to hunt, protected areas, reserves.
The great Natural Reserve is in the Indigenous territories. The Bosawas Reserve is in our Mayangna territories, which our ancestors, our grandparents have been taking care of for generations because conservation is also part of the culture. For example, if a boy cut down a tree and left it lying down and did not use it, the community was punished. In this way, values of protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources were instilled in our communities. Then, the issue of the invasion of Indigenous lands towards the Caribbean Coast began in the ’90s, in the time of Arnoldo Alemán.
Stephen: Not in the time of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro?
Arisio: No, with Arnoldo Alemán. Although in Doña Violeta’s time, they also set up kind of land banks to locate some of the Nicaraguan Resistance [after the war].
Eloy Frank Gomez: We, the Mayangna People, are organized at the communal level, at the territorial level and the structure of the Mayangna Nation of which compañero Arisio is President, and myself as Secretary. We represent nine territories, of which four territories are located within the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, and five are outside the area of the Reserve. Before 1990, we lived in our communities and we did not need to have documents. The Mayangna vision is to live in nature, to live with the relationship between nature and living beings. Life was in the land, rivers and forests. But for them, starting with Violeta de Chamorro, their interest was power.
They made commitments with their people and at that time in the ’90s, they began to organize what they called development poles, without thinking about where; they had no lands, but they sent people on to our lands. On seeing that situation, we the Mayangna Nation organized to seek the title of communal property of the nine territories. Since 2007 with the arrival to power of our Commander Daniel, we have achieved the titling of our lands, an area of 8,101 square kilometers, the title handed over by our Comandante Daniel to the communities.
So what happened in that period of 16 years, the time of Violeta, the time of Arnoldo Alemán, the time of Bolaños: they began promoting the invasion of our lands. But nowadays, we are able to enjoy this space, where we historically lived with the land. Today, we have problems because we have artisanal mining areas. Our people use those areas to survive. For example, at Christmas time, people work there but in an artisanal way, not on the scale of large exports but rather to solve basic needs. Now the mestizos are trying to take over. They go there because there are rivers, there is forest, there is gold, there is wood. We do not live off the export of wood, our life has been agriculture to feed our families, or hunting, fishing.
But now invasion is everywhere, the rivers are drying up, and our anxiety is for our government to sustain its interest in maintaining the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve; we all have to unite here at the level of the municipal and regional authorities. On the other hand, we accuse the invaders, because these people are not poor people. They are individuals who have money and they send their people. They are not being sent by the government because there they not only clear land for pasture but rather they are like traffickers, land traffickers. They come in, they sell. We don’t have resources ourselves because those resources are there, we live with nature. But these people set out boundaries, and then they sell….
Stephen: How can they sell if they don’t have title? You have the title. So how can they sell it?
Eloy: That is why I said traffickers, mafia, because sometimes they are armed. For example, some documents came to light claiming in such and such an area, but they are not in that area, rather they are inside Bosawas, with a rubric that might say Kukalaya, for example, with an area of such and such, but it is not in Kukalaya, instead it’s in Bosawas. There are forged documents, with forged signatures of authorities. We don’t believe our government is doing that, because we have seen at various times how, rather, the government has restored our right to property with title deeds. What happens is that people manipulate things and go out in the media to blame the government. We are convinced that it is not like that, rather it’s the other way around and they want to take advantage of this situation for their political aspirations.
Arisio: It’s worth highlighting some elements on this issue, as the Secretary says. It is necessary to see the situation of land trafficking from different perspectives as well. For example, the vision of our people is one of respect, of coexistence, of harmonious relationship between the Indigenous Mayangna and nature. Someone said to me, “Where do you Mayangnas have your pharmacy? Our pharmacies are the large natural reserves in the mountains; those are our pharmacies. However, with the large clearings that settlers are making in the Indigenous territories, they are also exterminating those resources that we have used historically for traditional medicine, from the wisdom of our culture. So, the culture of conservation, as I was saying, has been with us over time, for many generations.
However, another perspective on the issue means looking at several elements. One is organized crime, because organized crime is fully involved in this issue of usurpation of Indigenous property, trafficking of Indigenous lands, even the sale of the wealth of Indigenous lands. Apart from that, there are also armed groups, armed delinquents who come to harass, threaten the community members and dispossess the communities of their lands. We have this situation too.
Then again, there are political operators. There have been incidents in some Mayangna and Miskito Indigenous territories and there were also deaths in our Indigenous territories because of the land issue. The settlers invading the lands, killing Indigenous people. But when we realized that those who were behind this were regional councilors of Yatama [an Indigenous political party that has been utilized and financed by the US], Yatama mayors, and even some of them were deputies of Yatama, also involved in the sale of Indigenous lands. The community members didn’t know, the mestizos came in big numbers, families after families entering Indigenous territories, for example in the area of the Rio Coco. In certain areas of our communities in the Bosawas Reserve, which border with Miskito land, many mestizo settlers entered our Mayangna lands, through these sales authorized by politicians from Yatama.
And another issue that is well known, it’s no secret that the Liberal mayors and municipalities with mayors opposed to the government also promoted land trafficking, even financed organized groups, armed groups to invade Indigenous lands and to dispossess the Indigenous people of their lands. There is evidence of that. We have spent years following this situation. And we know that El Cuá and in San José de Bocay, were invaded and financed by the mayor who was at that time a Liberal. He financed the groups. He recruited peasants and told them: get organized, go there, take the land. We will support you. And he gave them weapons and that is not a secret.
If you look at the history of Nicaragua, the Mayangnas are one of the most peaceful people. During the time of the war of the ’80s, perhaps some communities got involved in the war in an involuntary and forced way as well. It was not their wish to go to Honduras with the Nicaraguan Resistance. Many were kidnapped. They have been a peaceful people, a peaceful culture. We do not go around inciting violence in these types of situations. So, these political operators came to impose a war on us, invading Indigenous lands, but the effect was unfortunate, because many families were displaced, both Miskito and Mayangna families.
Stephen: Do you produce cattle on the lands of your people in Bosawas?
Arisio: In the lands of the Reserve where our territories are located, there is very little cattle ranching. Only recently, in the Caribbean Coast is there cattle ranching, but in areas that are not Indigenous territories, but on private properties, where people from the Pacific have come to buy private property and have doubled the rate of cattle ranching. Look, what we are seeing is that the invasion of Indigenous lands by mestizos is for two reasons.
Many are dedicated to large-scale production. Indigenous farmers work the land only to sustain their families, for subsistence, self-consumption. On the other hand, the mestizo farmer produces more, works the land more because he trades the product. They are dedicated to selling their produce. The Indigenous are not. So, yes, production has increased, but in the buffer zones which are also protected. Indigenous lands are mainly inside the Reserve and inside the Reserve is the main concentration of forestry reserves and biodiversity.
But these cases get a different treatment. For example, with the settlers in the buffer zone in the Indigenous territories, an agreement has been made: you can stay on those lands but with the agreement that at the same time you are going produce there, you are also going to protect it so that no more families enter, so that they do not continue causing deforestation.
We, the government of the Mayangna Nation, are an Indigenous institution with a national character that covers six territories nationally with 75 communities, and we also participate in government decision making. We are members of the National Commission for the Defense of Mother Earth where there is also the Army, the Police, the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Regional Government, the Secretariat of the Caribbean Coast, the entire government structure, also MARENA [Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources]. This allows us to do advocacy work, to be able to dialogue, to make proposals to the government, and to participate in decision making. Before, we did not have that possibility.
What was the political reality of the Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean from the ’90s until 2006? That was the period where we lived with racism and discrimination practiced on a large scale against the Indigenous people by the neoliberal governments. And that is not a lie. That is a reality. In the ’90s that situation was very difficult, because all the functionaries came from Managua to govern here in the Caribbean Coast. Here the Indigenous peoples had no opportunities, they had no right to express their opinion, to participate in the decision-making process over policies that were made at the whim of the government. So now, for example, as of 2006, or before even, from ’79 in the first stage of the Revolution, this issue was changed. Back then it was improving so as to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples.
There are many important elements. The issue of education in the languages of the Indigenous peoples, the issue of the restitution of their rights to Indigenous territories. This issue was being worked on during the first stage of the Revolution. The issue of a health model that gathers the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of the Indigenous peoples’ traditional medicine.
Now, since 2006, the delay of the Autonomy project has been reversed and it has become more concrete. Take the example of the existence of regional government structures. This has allowed the region to manage all its political, social and cultural issues. Everything. Since 2006, the autonomous institutions have been strengthened. There is a Regional Secretariat of Natural Resources, SERENA, so here everything is coordinated with Managua. We have here a Regional Secretariat of Education that is working and administering the model of Intercultural Bilingual Education, to strengthen the issue of Indigenous languages and to rescue the literary culture of our peoples. We have a regional health model, an intercultural health model that also incorporates the knowledge and wisdom of the Indigenous peoples. And in this way, Western knowledge and the knowledge of the native peoples work together. Another element that must be highlighted. Before, Indigenous peoples were relegated, there was no recognition by previous governments. Today, since the creation of the Territorial Governments, their territories have been restored.You were asking about how they are financed. The government is funding the strengthening of these Indigenous territorial governments; they have an economic allocation from the government’s national budget, from the Ministry of Finance to strengthen and develop capacity in such a way that these structures of the Indigenous governments support some social things but also pay attention to all the organizational matters within their communities.
Eloy: For example, every two or three months the regional government convenes the territorial governments of the whole region. There, the communities participate and present their proposals to the government. This is a new way for the Mayangna people to participate in this system of government.
Arisio: Something else that is important. During those three neoliberal governments, there was a large project financed by GTZ, the Germans [German Cooperation]. It was a large project in the Bosawás Reserve. I remember that at the time they called a consultation meeting with all the leaders of the territorial governments within the Reserve. It was understood that it was for the Indigenous peoples to make proposals for development programs within their territories and that they were going to be financed by that project for Bosawas of the GTZ. But what happened with that project? Instead of stopping the issue of the invasion of the colonists, it got worse, invasion increased.
So there are organizations, NGOs that use the name of the Indigenous peoples to denigrate the government, to try to destroy the government’s image and its work within the protected areas, such as the Río San Juan, or the Indio Maíz Reserve, and here in the Bosawas Reserve. However, at the time when their side had power [1990 to 2006], there was no decision-making for Indigenous people to participate in, so that the decisions would have some real effect. At no time was this the case. Right now there is an issue that is very topical that is under discussion, the issue of the Bioclimate, the Green Fund, a project. This is an issue about which a consultation process was carried out with the territories within the Reserve.
Stephen: Someone told me that they held 400 assemblies.
Arisio: There were consultations, at least the Mayangna territories were part of the consultation team. With a national team sent by the government, the Mayangna Nation provided a team of personnel to participate in the consultation, so that they could also participate in the design of the project, what they want to do, how it is going to be done, why it is going to be done, where it is going to be implemented and how it is going to be implemented. The point is that now it is possible for Indigenous peoples to participate in the decision-making process.
For example, there is much mention of the issue of prior, free and informed consultation, where the Indigenous peoples also have the right to participate, to be consulted, when a program or project is to be implemented and executed in their territories, and this process has been complied with. The Indigenous people are taken into account for consultation. This project was about the deforested areas, due to the effect of the invasions of the settlers, how they were going to work on the natural regeneration of trees, or they are going to work on reforestation projects in all those areas to give life back to those affected areas, and this has been coordinated with the territorial governments, with the Indigenous institutions.
Before, there was this great project for Bosawas, but it was worse, there was no consultation, the decisions weren’t made by the Indigenous communities. Now things are different, so this is an opportunity for the Indigenous peoples, this recognition and respect by the government towards Indigenous institutions and peoples, and this also allows Indigenous peoples to participate directly in decisions that are being made.
Next week read Part Two of the interview!
Stephen Sefton is a community worker who has lived for the last twenty-five years in Nicaragua. Susan Lagos, long-time resident of Dario, helped with transcription, translation and editing of the interview.