NicaNotes: Letter to UNHRC about Political Exploitation of Indigenous Communities in Nicaragua

This letter, signed by solidarity, human rights, religious, labor and other organizations, has been sent to the UN Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It denounces the misrepresentation and exploitation of disputes over land in Nicaragua’s autonomous Indigenous territories for political purposes by local and international organizations which claim to represent the interests of Indigenous peoples.

Police inspect the site of a violent incident in an artisanal goldmine run by Indigenous people in Bosawás, Nicaragua

To: The United Nations Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Copy to:
CEJIL (the Center for Justice and International Law)
Center for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR)
Front Line Defenders (FLD)
Global Witness (GW)
Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (IM-Defensoras)
International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR)
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights (IIREHR)
International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)
Peace Brigades International (PBI)
Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos (RIDH)
Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos – Europa (RIDH-E)
Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala (UDEFEGUA)
Women’s Link Worldwide (WLW)
World Organization Against Torture (OMCT)

FROM: Undersigned solidarity, human rights, religious, labor and other organizations

Political exploitation of Indigenous communities in the Bosawás region

Nicaragua is a country with some 40,000 Indigenous families who benefit from the region’s most ambitious system of decentralized Indigenous government. Three hundred Indigenous communities legally own approximately one third of Nicaragua’s national territory. Within four years of returning to government in January 2007, President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista administration had granted Nicaragua’s Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples title to 15 territories covering more than two million hectares.

The largest tropical rainforest reserve in Central America, Bosawás, includes seven territories belonging to Mayangna and Miskitu Indigenous groups. Under autonomous government, Indigenous peoples participate actively in decisions relating to the protection of this environment. Land in these territories is held communally and cannot be sold, only leased.

However, there is a long history of mestizo settlers (called colonos) moving into the territories, a process which accelerated under neoliberal governments in power from 1990 until 2007. From January 2007, the new government worked to mitigate the continuing adverse effects while also consolidating the region’s autonomous administration. In fact, most mestizo settlers are accepted by the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and live alongside them.

Despite that generally stable context, some mestizo settlers occupy land illegally. Most disputes over land are resolved peacefully, but there is a history of occasionally violent conflict, with some 37 Indigenous deaths in the six years to 2020 reported by international organizations, who invariably omit other deaths of mestizo people resulting from attacks by Indigenous groups. Guillermo Rodriguez of the Center for Justice and International Law has admitted that “It’s a really complex situation. In some places, 90% of the current inhabitants are colonos.”

Regrettably, local and international NGOs ignore such complexities. They also fail to abide by basic reporting norms, making little effort to corroborate information they receive from local sources, seldom comparing reported incidents with other versions of events and rarely seeking genuinely independent verification. While other countries have bona fide representative organizations (e.g. in Honduras, COPINH’s defense of Lenca communities and OFRANEH’s reporting on attacks against Garifuna people), in Nicaragua elected Indigenous leaders reject the incompetence and biased reporting by local foreign-financed NGOs, finding them to be neither representative nor impartial.

The UN system and other international institutions seem almost invariably to accept the reports of international NGOs as if they were presented by impartial interlocutors, which, in the case of Nicaragua, categorically they are not. In doing so, such organizations fail the majority of Indigenous and Afro-descendant people in Nicaragua by misrepresenting the problems they face and by propagating falsehoods about the causes of any violence. They disregard the views and experience of Indigenous community leaders themselves, who are given no voice in these debates (as, for example, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights holds hearings without inviting local elected Indigenous leaders, such as the one on March 18 2021).

At both local and international level, NGOs exploit the occasional violent incidents in Nicaragua’s autonomous Caribbean Coast regions, using them in effect as ideological propaganda against Nicaragua’s socialist government. Here are four recent examples (for details, see links in text and sources at the end of this letter):

  • An incident in Kiwakumbai on August 23 of this year led to nine deaths and two women being raped. The Oakland Institute, together with Nicaraguan NGOs CALPI, CEJUDHCAN and Fundación del Río claimed that “settlers massacred at least 11 members of the Indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna peoples living in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.” In fact there were no settlers involved: the victims, who were Mayangna, Miskitu and other people operating an artisanal goldmine, were attacked by a group composed mainly of other Indigenous people in a dispute over profits from the mine. This was an intracommunal conflict.
  • On February 16, 2020, according to CEJUDHCAN, a young girl in the Miskitu community of Santa Clara was shot in the face in a settler attack, an allegation repeated by the Oakland Institute. The girl’s injury was actually due to a domestic firearm accident, as community leaders later confirmed. Settler attacks giving cause for concern have indeed occurred in Santa Clara and nearby Wisconsin, but as a result of illicit land sales by other local Miskitu community leaders to mestizo families.
  • On January 29, 2020, 12 houses in the Mayangna community of Alal were burnt down by colonos and two people injured. The Oakland Institute’s report Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution wrongly claimed that there were four deaths. This was repeated in a statement by the UN Human Rights Commissioner on February 7. In fact, the violence was a revenge attack by colonos to whom some Mayangna people from Alal had illegally sold land. The attack targeted the houses only of those people involved in the sale, apparently because they wanted to illicitly resell the same land to other buyers.
  • More widely, in 2020 the Oakland Institute and CEJUDHCAN launched a completely spurious and baseless campaign to portray Nicaraguan beef exports as “conflict beef” coming from disputed Indigenous territories, ignoring the protective mechanisms which the government has put in place and which meet stringent international norms.

Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council received a letter signed by many of the organizations listed above, falsely accusing the Nicaraguan government of “negligence… and impunity in the face of the recurrent attacks against Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region with the aim of widespread land-grab.” The letter repeats the incorrect version of the incident in Kiwakumbai on August 23 and is based on a statement by Amaru Ruiz of the NGO Fundación del Río, who has himself now been charged by Nicaragua’s authorities with deliberately publishing false information and provoking communal hatred.

Several of the organizations have condemned the Nicaraguan government in the most extreme terms, accusing it of “ethnocide” and labelling Nicaragua “the most dangerous country” for environmental defenders.” One body warns sensationally of the “complete disappearance” of Indigenous peoples, when the overall population of the Miskitu and Mayangna peoples alone number some 180,000 and 30,000 respectively.

The letter’s completely distorted picture ignores the interlinked problems of the remoteness of the areas, the extreme difficulty in policing them and the culpability of some members of Indigenous communities involved in illicit land sales. In the worst neocolonial style, these NGOs idealize all Indigenous people as environmental and human rights defenders when, naturally, this is not always the case. They dismiss the Nicaraguan government’s continuing efforts to resolve land disputes, omit the role of autonomous regional, territorial and communal governments and ignore far-reaching improvements brought by the government to the social and economic wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.

We therefore call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject the accusations in the letter from the 16 organizations. We also call on the international NGOs concerned, to act in good faith when reporting on Nicaragua in the future. At the very least, we urge them to abide by basic reporting norms so as to investigate and corroborate far more thoroughly claims about the situation of Indigenous peoples of the kind made by the Oakland Institute and by Nicaraguan NGOs CALPI, CEJUDHCAN and Fundación del Río. We demand that all these organizations desist from making exaggerated, misinformed and categorically false criticisms of Nicaragua’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples.

Signed by the following organizations:

Alliance for Global Justice
Australia Solidarity with Latin America
Black Alliance for Peace
Casa Baltimore Limay
Casa del Agua
Chicago ALBA Solidarity
Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox
Communist Party of Ireland
Community Organizing Center
Friends of Latin America
Friends Of The Congo
Friendship Office of the Americas
Genesee Valley Citizens for Peace
Give Ye Them to Eat
Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space
International Action Center
Marxist Think Tank
Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign
Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Action Group
Nicaragua Solidarity Ireland
Ode to Earth/Echoes of Silence
Orinoco Tribune
Pan-African Roots
PCOA: Anti-imperialist Working Class Platform (Ireland)
Popular Resistance
REDH: The Network in Defence of Humanity (Irish Chapter)
Rights Action
Sustainable Orphanages for Haitian Youth
Task Force on the Americas
Venezuela Ireland Network
Veterans For Peace Linus Pauling Chapter 132
Victor Jara Siempre Canta
Women Against Military Madness

– – – – – – – – – –

The Kiwakumbai, Santa Clara and Alal incidents and the “conflict beef” issue are described in these articles:
Nicaragua’s Rainforest and Indigenous Peoples: a Story of Falsehood, Lies and US-based Political Campaigns
Progressive Media Promoted a False Story of ‘Conflict Beef’ From Nicaragua
Recorded interviews with Indigenous and other community representatives are presented in:
Nicaragua’s Indigenous Peoples: the Reality and the Neocolonial Lies (author Stephen Sefton)
Details of a site visit to Kiwakumbai, including interviews with the Mayor of Bonanza and a report by the Nicaraguan police:
Site visit to Kiwakumbai, Cerro Pukna, Bosawás (video by Stephen Sefton)
Report by Nicaraguan police
Interview with the mayor of Bonanza (by Stephen Sefton and Jimmy Altamirano)
Video report of site visit with the mayor of Bonanza to Kiwakumbai, Cerro Pukna, Bosawás (by Stephen Sefton and Jimmy Altamirano)
A summary of Indigenous leaders’ views and the background to these issues is given in:
Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast Indigenous Leaders Speak Out (author Rick Sterling)

By Nan McCurdy

99% Electricity Coverage
The goal of 99% electricity coverage was reached on October 23, reported Salvador Mansell, Minister of Energy and Mines and Executive President of ENATREL. This goal was reached “thanks to the efforts of the Government, mayors’ offices and community leaders. We have managed to move quickly with these projects, considering how much it improves the quality of life of Nicaraguan families, and improves the country’s economy,” he added. (Radio La Primerisima, 23 October 2021)

A Hundred Health Facilities Built in 2021
By the end of 2021 Nicaragua will have built more than 100 health facilities. Already finished are three primary hospitals in Los Chiles, Quilalí and Mina De Limon. Before the year is out, departmental hospitals will be inaugurated in Chinandega, Las Segovias, Bilwi and in Leon – scheduled to be the largest and best in the nation. Primary hospitals in Matiguás, Matagalpa and Wiwili, Jinotega will be finished this year. The hospitals in Prinzapolka and Waspam on the Caribbean Coast, damaged in the hurricanes, are being rebuilt. The San Carlos Hospital is being expanded. A new outpatient section is almost finished in the La Trinidad Hospital as well as new emergency rooms in the Rivas hospital. A new maternity wait home is almost ready in El Viejo, Chinandega. Health posts damaged by the 2020 hurricanes on the North Caribbean Coast in Haulover and Wawa Bar are nearly ready.  A Tola health post is being rebuilt. There is a new oncology area in the Managua Solidarity Hospital. There are new medical clinics in Kukra Hill and Bonanza. A new surgery section is almost ready in the Bluefields hospital. There are also new nephrology areas in the Rivas Hospital. Part of the historic children’s hospital, La Mascota, in Managua is being rebuilt. The Dermatological Hospital in Managua is being rebuilt. New health centers are being finished in Paiwas and Prinzapolka. A major new laboratory was just inaugurated for diagnosis and research on leptospirosis, dengue, zika, chikungunya, among others. (Sin Fronteras, 20 October 2021)

Rivas Hospital Inaugurates Nephrology Section
The second stage of the renovation of the nephrology section of the Gaspar García Laviana Hospital in Rivas was inaugurated and will guarantee better attention to people with renal diseases. The renovation included substantial improvements in all areas of the nephrology service, such as furniture, new nursing station, training area, consulting rooms and hospitalization. So far in 2021, 15,000 hemodialysis and dialysis sessions have been performed. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 21 October, 2021)

No More Hikes in Fuel Prices
President Daniel Ortega has decided not to apply the constant increases derived from the movement of international prices of oil and its derivatives in Nicaragua, Salvador Mansell, Minister of Energy and Mines reported on October 23. Mansell said that the prices of gasoline, diesel and cooking gas are frozen as of October 23. The prices of oil and its derivatives have experienced an increase of up to 73% this year. “These increases, although due to external causes, have a negative impact on the local price of fuels, indispensable for the life and work of Nicaraguan families,” he added. (Radio La Primerisima, 23 October 2021)

1.2 Million Vaccines from Cuba
A shipment of the Abdala and Soberana Covid-19 vaccines was received in Nicaragua on Oct. 20. Health Minister Martha Reyes reported that “the shipment contains 1.2 million doses authorized by MINSA for voluntary immunization of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 17.” This is the first shipment of the seven million doses purchased by Nicaragua through the Cuban organization of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries (CUBAFARMA). (Nicaragua News, 21 October 2021)

Women’s Businesses Supported
The Ministry of Family Economy (MEFCCA) and the Embassy of Taiwan launched a program for financial support and technical assistance for small, medium, and micro-businesses, headed up by NicaMujer, which seeks to promote economic recovery and social stability for female entrepreneurs in a post-Covid-19 world. The Taiwan Ambassador in Managua, Jaime Wu, stated that “the initiative seeks to promote the empowerment and economic independence of women through financial assistance and professional training of 120 female entrepreneurs in Masaya, Granada and Carazo departments.” The NicaMujer pilot program has an initial funding of US$3.178 million. (Nicaragua News, 22 October 2021)

Chontales Bridge Connects Pacific and Caribbean
The new “Cuisalá” bridge in the Department of Chontales was inaugurated Oct. 21 with a cost US$3.6 million and benefiting 200,000 inhabitants of the departments of Chontales, Río San Juan, and the Nicaragua Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region. Minister of Transportation Oscar Mojica said, “the construction of the bridge is part of the effort to guarantee permanent and safe road integration of the departments of the Pacific and southern regions of Nicaragua with the Caribbean Coast.” Financing for the project came from the General Budget of the Republic. (Nicaragua News, 22 October 2021)

Construction of more than 18,000 homes
The Sandinista Government announced that it has begun the construction of 18,660 homes throughout the country, and has already visited the municipalities where the houses will be built in order to continue with the bidding process. The first component of the program is the construction of 7,000 homes to substantially improve the living conditions of families living in extreme poverty. In the second component of the strategy, the Sandinista Government will build another 7,000 homes as part of the Bismarck Martinez program. In the third part of the plan, the Government will provide resources to develop home construction, in a public-private partnership, to benefit 4,660 moderate-income families. (Radio La Primerisima, 25 October 2021)

SEC Working with Council of Universities
On 20th October, the Supreme Electoral Council (SEC) and National Council of Universities (CNU) signed an agreement on university community participation in the November 7 Elections. During the electoral process, the CNU and affiliated universities will undertake a work plan which includes the monitoring of polling stations and polling station boards in order to make an evaluation of electoral logistics and voting conditions. At the same time, the CNU will carry out academic forums covering electoral matters, sovereignty, self-determination and democracy. Also, they will meet with international and national organizations participating in the electoral process. Following the elections, the CNU, as an accredited affiliate of the SEC, will produce a technical report on the different stages and elements of the election, providing reliable national testimony and objective and impartial support as to the quality of the electoral process. The SEC noted that in this way it ratifies its commitment to continue guarantying a free, just and transparent electoral process in a climate of order, tranquility, justice and peaceful coexistence for all Nicaraguans. ( , 22 October 2021)

7,962 Technicians Trained for Elections
In accordance with Electoral Law, the SEC and the National Computing Center must install municipal and departmental computing centers. Article 179 of the law states: “There will be a National Computing Center; and computing centers will function in each of the Municipal, Departmental and Regional Electoral Councils.” In this context, and to comply with the Electoral Law, the first National Workshop for the installation and operation of Computing Centers will be held on October 22. On October 24, training will take place by video conference with the participation of departmental, municipal and regional extensionist trainers, along with the personnel that will work in the municipal, departmental and regional computing centers. 7,962 technicians will be trained throughout the country. ( , 22 October 2021)

Healy and Vargas Investigated for Money Laundering
Michael Healy and Álvaro Vargas are under investigation for the crimes of laundering money, property and assets and other illicit acts, as well as for having attempted against the rights of the Nicaraguan people and society according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Special hearings were carried out to comply with constitutional guarantees and detention was ordered for 90 days. Healy is president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and Vargas is Vice President. On his June 18 Sin Fronteras Program, William Grigsby revealed that the US government, through the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, based in Washington, DC, was paying for the salaries of COSEP employees including Michael Healey and Jose Adan Aguirre. They were each paid $8,000 a month. The IIREHR also paid for lawyers for the opposition and for materials during the 2018 failed coup attempt. Grigsby said that workers were let go mid-June when COSEP no longer had access to the US money. And on June 30, Grigsby revealed on Sin Fronteras that businessmen in COSEP, headed by Michael Healy, met on June 25 with publicist María Fabiola Espinoza who presented the design for a disinformation and smear campaign financed by the US, against the elections and against Sandinista-related media and journalists. The campaign would also be against government ministers. Sin Fronteras revealed that all activities would be carried out with agencies from Honduras and El Salvador coordinated by Crea Comunicaciones from Nicaragua (also financed by the US). (Radio La Primerisima, 21 October 2021)

Sovereignty is the Power of the People
The United States will have to learn to respect the sovereignty of countries, which is an indispensable requirement for peace and development of peoples, said President Daniel Ortega in a ceremony held on October 25 for the delivery of 250 Russian buses to urban collective transportation cooperatives. “Sovereignty is a word that is defined by nature. It defines all species and especially of the human species, which must be free, never a slave. The human species is born sovereign and must never be subjugated by any power. The human species must be respected; the family must be respected; the world’s peoples must be respected,” he affirmed. Listen to the speech here: (Radio La Primerisima, 25 October 2021)

Speech at UN on Eradication of Colonialism
The Sandinista Government reiterated its commitment to contribute to the elimination and eradication of the colonial occupation that still persists in the world during the Fourth Committee Meeting on Special Policy and Decolonization. Jaime Hermida Castillo, Nicaraguan representative to the United Nations, pointed out that Nicaragua hopes to contribute to decolonization through its experiences, aspirations and principles of peace, harmony, unity and consensus, faithfully supporting the struggle for liberation and independence of the world’s peoples. As a member of the Special Committee on Decolonization (C24), Hermida expressed his gratitude for the contributions and commitments in the struggle for the eradication of colonialism and stated that efforts must be redoubled to fulfill the commitment that the General Assembly has entrusted to the Committee, which is still considered a moral and historical debt. The diplomat reiterated Nicaragua’s willingness within this committee to continue supporting the struggles of the peoples in the non-self-governing territories, intensifying its efforts, and advancing in self-determination and independence, until the eradication of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations is achieved. (Radio La Primerisima, 20 October 2021)