Interview by Stephen Sefton
[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.]
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 has been discussing with Arisio and Eloy important issues of the Mayangna people, especially the invasion of settlers from the Pacific into Indigenous territory.
Arisio: Years ago, 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.
On the issue of artisanal mining in the Mayangna territories, and in the Reserve we don’t have problems with mining companies, with the large mining companies that are in the Indigenous territories. We do not have that problem. The problem is with groups of settlers, because it is known that we have large mining reserves in our territories. So, as the compañero said, settlers enter for two reasons. One is to take advantage of the mining reserves, and the other is to take over land for production.
Stephen: But they do it illegally, right? Because in order to do it legally, they have to have a document that allows them to do that work.
Eloy: There is a management plan in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve where the use of this resource by the community members is outlined. Our people do not work permanently in the Reserve; maybe in December, September, a few people go work for a week. That is why nature is virgin in the Reserve and that is why we do not want other people to go there, because other people have other cultures, they make large land clearings and they want to bring in machinery and we do not agree with this.
Arisio: With the large extractive mining companies we do not have that problem but over the long term, many of the settlers that are invading establish themselves in a violent way, not with the consent of the communities. That is the problem, but we are also working on it.
As a result of this situation of invasion, experience is being developed in the Mayangna territorial governments and the government of the Mayangna Nation, and we are making an articulated effort with the Army and the Police and also with some groups of Indigenous forest rangers with recognition from the police. The Mayangna Indigenous rangers do their patrols of the boundaries, and if there are settlers there without authorization, they detain them and hand them over to the police. There are also joint patrols with the Police and the Army, the Ecological Battalion. We have consolidated this working relationship, this coordination between the Mayangna Nation, the territorial governments, the Police, MARENA and the Nicaraguan Army. Patrols are carried out, that is how surveillance and protection are carried out. But this requires more effort between all the parties concerned because it takes resources for this to happen.
Because the police cannot be there for a month: they go to set boundaries, to clean up the boundaries or to go on patrol. So these are quick interventions, maybe four or five days to see how the area is. If there is more invasion, encroachment, or settlement, MARENA accompanies these patrols to identify the damage caused; if they identify invaders with chainsaws, then on the order from MARENA these people are captured and brought to court, where they are prosecuted, and MARENA accuses them of environmental damage, the Indigenous territorial governments accuse them of usurpation of Indigenous property. We have made progress in consolidating this working relationship with these institutions.
We have good communication with the National Police and the Army in the Mining Triangle, where we have four or five Mayangna territories, which are also within the reserve. So, we present a joint plan, we have meetings with the Police and the Army, with BECO, the Ecological Battalion, with MARENA. A plan is made, the plan is shared, the necessary resources are negotiated and the patrolling plan is made. Now we don’t have many problems with that.
Before it was difficult, very difficult for the Army to get involved, or for the police to get involved in these issues of Indigenous land ownership. But not now. Now they are accompanying the Indigenous peoples, and the relationship with the police and the Army has been a good experience. We always get advised if there is a change of authorities in the Army or the police; they invite us, we are always working with them.
Stephen: Is it fair to say that there has also been an improvement in terms of your relationship with the Attorney General’s Office?
Arisio: Of course. Look, the good things must be highlighted. During this period of the second stage of the Revolution, on the issue of the restitution of rights of the Indigenous peoples, we feel that there is greater recognition, greater respect, greater opportunity. On that score, we have had some situations.
For example, if the forest rangers or the police captured the settlers and brought them to the courts, it used to happen that after three, four days, they would release them and let them go. So there were some anomalous situations within the system and we started to raise questions with the government authorities, in the National Commission, that we needed more support from the Supreme Court of Justice, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, from the Public Defender’s Office, even from the PGR [attorney general] itself, and there has been progress. The government authorized the creation of a body within the courts, the Defenders of Indigenous Peoples, wherever there is Indigenous population. What is the function of these Defenders? These Defenders provide direct accompaniment to the Indigenous organizations for the judicial process of settlers, those who are destroying the environment, all these types of cases.
And the other important element we have also achieved is that, within the judiciary, our Indigenous officials also hold positions in the courts. So now the recent appointments of the Defenders of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples are also Indigenous people who speak the Indigenous languages, which for us is vital that there is an Indigenous official in the judiciary, in the courts. A Mayangna or Miskito Indigenous person may arrive who does not speak Spanish, so he has communication problems as well as procedural delays to do with the charges that have to be made.
The government has guaranteed that in all the municipalities where Indigenous peoples are present, there will also be functionaries who speak Indigenous languages. Now these Defenders of Indigenous Peoples are accompanying the organizations to file the complaint, because sometimes due to technical issues, perhaps the Indigenous organizations cannot lodge an accusation correctly, with the relevant technical criteria. So these Defenders of Indigenous Peoples accompany them to place the accusation and prepare it so that the accusation is duly filed and those guilty of the damage in the territories are punished.
Stephen: How do you view the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) led by people like Lottie Cunningham?
Arisio: Look at the Center for Justice and Human Rights in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN); for Lottie Cunningham it’s like her piggy bank, because CEJUDHCAN is not the institution she claims it is, or as it projects itself internationally, as an organization or institution defending Indigenous rights. Why doesn’t she ever come to the communities to consult us? Why not consult our national leadership leading the national government of the Mayangna Nation, or the presidents in our territorial governments? She is not present. She speaks from afar.
She uses the Indigenous name without having been there when the events were taking place. When the Alal case occurred in the Reserve, she said that the government was not defending the Indigenous people. But we have advanced together with the government institutions for the defense of Mother Earth. And what does Lottie do? Lottie works with opposition activists, making accusations against the government. She exploits the NGO to say that the government does such and such, but really if it were the organization she says it is, she should be open to consultation. But she is not. She just turns up for a short while and exaggerates things. And she makes use of the Indigenous peoples. And that is why Autonomy gave us the right for each native Indigenous people to have its own voice.
No one else can represent us ever. Brooklyn Rivera said: I am the leader of the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast. This is not true, this is a lie. Brooklyn Rivera [Miskito leader of the Yatama party who has received money from the US] does not represent the Mayangnas. The Mayangnas have our own Indigenous institutions, we have our own government that is of a national character and we have our territorial governments and the municipalities. So each one has its own voice. They give their opinion. They contribute. They can say and decide on the model of government that is being developed there in the communities, but it isn’t that Brooklyn or Yatama can come and say: I represent the Indigenous people of Nicaragua. Because that is not true. Because here each People is sovereign. Each People has its autonomy. We have self-determination so that each people can decide for itself.
Stephen: In the case of Alal what is your appreciation of that terrible incident? How do you perceive it? [The attack on the Mayangna community of Alal took place in a remote part of the buffer zone of the Reserve. The incident happened in the context of longstanding land disputes between Indigenous groups and encroaching settlers. The group that attacked Alal also committed crimes near communities located along the river Kahaska Kukun. In the community of Alal, the police found 12 houses were burned down and two people had been injured. Contrary to international news reports no one was killed there. In the following days police checked other nearby communities and found no evidence of murder or kidnapping. Local community leaders condemned false news reports. Later, at a completely different place east of Alal, near the community of Wakuruskasna, police found and identified four bodies, two in one part of the river and two in another part, who had died from gunshot wounds. Senior police and government officials met with the community to explain the investigation and enforcement work they were doing, as well as confirming that people would get help to rebuild their destroyed houses. A few weeks later, at least two of the attackers were arrested. Interviews with local families in the area reveal a pattern of violent intimidation by criminal gangs in the region where Alal is located. Some of these gangs try to give their crimes political cover by publicly identifying with Nicaragua’s political opposition. In some cases, local opposition politicians have even participated openly in violent attacks, like the massacre of police officers near Mulukuku in 2018.]
Eloy: At the root, there was a problem of settlers who attacked the community, but afterwards the government immediately attended to the community, rebuilt the houses, provided care, and ensured the presence of the Police and the Army to guarantee the security of the families. So, the government has looked after and continues to look after the families of Alal.
Stephen: Was it a criminal gang of the type of organized crime? What was it?
Eloy: Yes, they were practically organized settlers, criminal gangs. But the police and the army did their job, and that situation has calmed down.
Arisio: I think that cattle ranching in the Caribbean has increased, but it is on private properties. Here in the Mining Triangle, there have been people who had private properties with large extensions of land, but they did not make much use of them. The landowner maybe had a few animals, but they had large amounts of land. Then the farmers from the Pacific came and bought and started to put in a lot of cattle. Of course, after a year there is a valuable production of these cattle, and people will remark how many cattle trucks are leaving the Caribbean Coast for the slaughterhouses, because cattle ranching has grown. But in the Reserve, we have seen very little extensive cattle ranching. There we have seen more agricultural production, and the artisanal mining activities. These things have to be regulated.
Stephen: In relation to deforestation, are you optimistic that there is slowly a process that will reverse this? Or is it going to be a problem that will become even more acute?
Arisio: We consider that this issue is going to improve, because government institutions are paying attention to the issue. An effort is being made to make large investments in these affected areas, and there are also some local initiatives on the part of the territorial governments, in conjunction with some environmental institutions, MARENA, INAFOR. A youth group called Guardabarranco coordinates with INAFOR which has large tree nurseries, and they deliver the plants so that the youth can work in some watersheds that are quite degraded and reforestation work is being done. So in all the boundaries marking Mayangna territories, they are planting fruit trees or other types of trees for timber to recover from the deforestation in our Reserve where there was damage. There are plans for the future to continue working on this.
Stephen: There are people who criticize the Indigenous peoples and say that they themselves or people within the Indigenous populations break the rules. How true is this phenomenon in your experience?
Eloy: According to our assessment of the matter, yes there are some irresponsible people who commit these types of crimes. But maybe they don’t involve the large extensions that get mentioned, because the settlers also have the strategy of using those people to traffic large extensions of land. But we have already proved that there are Mayangnas who are also involved in this illegal business.
Stephen: Yes, because I imagine that they offer bribes…
Arisio: Yes, because there are good children and bad children anywhere, so unfortunately we have cases of violence that have occurred in some territories for that very reason. Although within the statutes of the constitution of the national organization, it states that any Mayangna—be it a person in authority or someone from the community that incurs in the crime of buying and selling or trafficking of lands—has to be tried according to the laws of the State of Nicaragua. And there are also Mayangnas who are serving jail time for the sale of land; they were convicted. Another issue must be mentioned. Namely there are mafia, criminal groups, that are dedicated to land trafficking, recruiting peasants and putting them on Indigenous lands, and then when that’s done, it is not the peasants who are the owners of the land but other people who have money.
The peasants do what they are told. Someone tells them to take 200,000 pesos, go, get in there, buy, and when the tensions calm down and there is no longer a problem, there he comes with the fancy SUVs. They use the peasants, they swindle them too, and there are also cases of Indigenous brothers who have dedicated themselves to this. But they have been prosecuted by the law. They are serving jail time.
Stephen: In general, do you think that the situation is getting better or worse in terms of invasions?
Arisio: Well, the situation is quite moderate, there is nothing massive like it was at one point. Maybe there are four or five families in some sectors, but there are other sectors where they continue to enter from other parts. The territory of Siquita, this Mayangna territory here in Siuna, is a part of this territory that borders with the department of Jinotega with San José de Bocay, so they are border territories. It borders with Siuna, it borders with Jinotega, it borders with Bonanza, so settlers enter there from all sides and sometimes it is uncontrollable. While in another territory, one that is in the center between Rosita and Bonanza, that doesn’t border with other departments with a mestizo population, there is less of an invasion issue.
Stephen: And how is your relationship with your neighboring Miskitos?
Eloy: As Mayangnas, we each have our limits and we have no problems with them; there is good communication. I mentioned that the Mayangna territories and the Miskito territories through the regional governments meet every so often and there they share the situations of their territories. I consider that there are no problems between Mayangnas and Miskitos.
Arisio: Maybe we have to reinforce what the compañero says of the relationship between the Miskitos and the Mayangnas. I think that the experience of life has marked a direction to follow. I believe the experience that both the Maynagnas and the Miskitos have lived through, because of the invasion of property, has made them more aware of the unity between Indigenous peoples. Because now we cannot be divided. It doesn’t matter if you are Kriol, Miskito or Mayangna, the problem is the same, and we all have to be united to face this situation. If we are more united we are stronger, better able to sit down, to make proposals to the government.
And the government itself sees that we are united. Many achievements have been reached because that culture of internal conflicts from before has been changed. During the ’80s the ethnic war in the Caribbean Coast was also not only against the government, but also, between the Miskitos and the Mayangnas there was a history of antagonism. They never got along well because the Miskitos kidnapped Mayangna women and children, stole their property, burned their communities. So the elders remember that we suffered like this because the Mayangna communities are mostly in rural areas, in the big mountains.
Many elders say we are here because they persecuted us, and it was a way to protect ourselves in the mountains from the Miskitos so that they would not exterminate us. I think we are now living another reality. Both we and the Miskito sisters and brothers have realized that was a thing of the past, and the reality is different now, and we have to be united, and that has strengthened us, and brought us progress. So we have come a long way and we have overcome the past.
Eloy: Miskitos have their organizations and we have to see that not all Miskitos are from Yatama.
Arisio: And internally they have their conflicts as well. Here is another element that is important. Before there was a mistrust on the part of the Mayangnas towards the Miskitos who were in power during the Liberal governments. Sixteen years they had control of the Regional Council governing body, they kept everything for themselves, and the Mayangnas were forgotten. And not all their Miskito people received those benefits, it was just a group of them. It was a Yatama elite that benefited. But thanks to the second stage of the Revolution, there was recognition and institutionalization of the territorial governments in 2009, and the allocation of a budget to each one. This also allowed for greater autonomy and better governance for the territorial governments to administer their own territories.
Stephen: What do you understand by the phrase “remediation” [saneamiento] and what does that mean?
Eloy: According to Law 445 there are five stages for the property titling process. So, we complied with all of them. The last stage is remediation. And that is a legal term. For us, there is another way of dealing with it that is a reordering of property. In the zone mentioned, perhaps people are currently entering there without knowing that this area is a conservation area, and not even the Indigenous peoples can live there. So, one way of managing that could be to place them in another part of a buffer zone of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. This is the term “reordering”, to bring order to our property, if someone came here, and we don’t want them there, we want them to be in another part. But that has to come about through the opinion of the majority of our population through a communal assembly, a territorial assembly of the people themselves. There they can approve if those people can be there or not.
Arisio: We have to understand that the concept of remediation does not only imply eviction. The remediation also has to do with the way we establish the mechanisms for coexistence. We cannot enter a situation where there is already conflict, and stoke that conflict even more, but it has to be a strategy proposed by the Indigenous peoples.
For example, when the situation of Alal occurred, we Mayangnas did not go to shout to the four winds, nor make demonstrations against the government, because we have a direct communication channel from the Mayangna Nation to the central government. We are the spokespersons for the situations in the territorial governments, and we make the national government aware of what is going on. What happened? We said we need to sit down to review this situation of Alal. Immediately, the government ordered that the police, the army, the PGR, all the structures of the responsible institutions be there to look for a way out of this problem. To make an analysis of what provoked that conflict, those deaths. And we directly drew up an analysis; we realized that in certain sectors of Mayangna territory, in the areas of Musawas, Alal, the Betlel River, Suliwas, people had entered in an uncontrolled way, they had taken lands, some even went as far as to fence off part of the properties of the Indigenous people, so that cannot be…
In these extreme situations, where Indigenous people are no longer allowed freedom of movement, freedom to produce, and feel under siege, we cannot allow it. We have to evict them. And so we coordinated with the government institutions, and the evictions of the 140-odd families in the area of the Reserve were carried out in coordination with our government institutions. That is why I was telling you that we have no problems in the relationship with the Police, the Army and the government. And this was a demonstration of the fact that yes, we coordinate, we articulate with government institutions. The eviction of these families that had invaded that territory, those 140-odd families, was carried out. Then, their representatives arrived to say yes, we recognize that these are your lands, we respect that, but we want to live there, we want to return. But what was the basic idea? Really to give Indigenous peoples the opportunity to decide how they want to administer their territory. And on that score the government has never denied that. On the contrary, it has said, well, you are free, decide what you want. Are you going to lease your territory or do you want eviction?
Immediately the territorial assembly was summoned. A consultation was made to know the consent of the communities. Immediately, 23 communities gathered from that territory. And the communities said well, we want our territory to be cleaned up, but more in the zones where they no longer allow free circulation. There are areas in the buffer zone, which are being treated differently, where there is a different spirit and dialogue with the peasants as well. So they remain, but under an agreement with the owners of the territories. Some can stay, some cannot, but always maintaining that balance of dialogue, peace and tranquility, because what everyone wants is to avoid violent situations like Alal.
These are the strategies that are being used. So, remediation is not only ordering evictions, dialogue is also part of it. And it also has to do with the process of reviewing Indigenous properties. For example, there are rural families who bought Indigenous lands and went to register them in the property registry of the region, but they cannot. The law says no; it is not allowed; it is illegal. So remediation is also part of that, reviewing all the documentation and if people went to register it when it was Indigenous land, a revocation is made. This is also part of the reordering of the territories. So the position of someone like Lottie who goes around saying that the remediation is not being done, is not correct. Each person manages their discourse as they please, according to their interests. And our people say what we are experiencing, what we are living in the communities. Our vision is different because we are living the experience ourselves.
By Nan McCurdy
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