Autonomy and the Multiethnic Country in Decisive Moments

Autonomy and the Multiethnic Country in Decisive Moments

René Mendoza Vidaurre, Nora Sánchez, Celia Benjamín, Jairo Zelaya. Klaus Kuhnekath and Alejandro Pikitle*

Mahoney (2001)[i] defines “critical juncture” as the moment of contingency in which a decision is made for one of various options, an institution that is self-reinforcing and that is challenged through the processes of reaction and counter-reaction, reaching new results. In terms of the Atlantic Coast we are watching two “critical junctures”, the first in the context of liberal policies of annexation of the Mosquitia Reserve in 1894; and the second, the autonomy law within the context of a war in 1987, resulting in a multiethnic Nicaragua. This process was reinforced in 2001 with the decision of the Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in favor of Awastingni, and in 2003 with Law 445 for the titling and demarcation of communal lands. As a result, by mid 2014, 37,190 km2 of Indigenous and Afro-descendent territory (31% of the national territory) had been demarcated, restoring the rights of 304 communities. Under this framework we argue here that the multiethnic country is facing a new “critical juncture” whose decision will mark the decades that follow.

Multiethnic territory under challenge

The titling and demarcation of territories has been preceded and accompanied by the advance of the agricultural frontier and the systematic extraction of natural resources by large businesses. Two cases illustrate something about this complex situation. The case of the community of Awastingni (AMASAU territory) with around 69,000 hectares, between 2001 and 2015 went from controling 95% of their area to less than 15%, and the mestizo families from controlling 5% to 85% (according to Larry Salomón Pedro, Mayangna leader, 92% “is invaded by settlers”, LP-25-07-2014; and that less than 15% is area divided up among Mayangna families. In practice there is no communal territory, except legally under the territorial title. And the case of the Miskitu communities of Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma, with the change in the course of the Rio Coco caused by Hurricane Mitch (1998), with that river defined as the “dividing line between Nicaragua and Honduras” (, they lost 4,400 hectares that have been occupied by Honduran landowners from Olancho.

The causes that led to these results are reduced to blaming the “mestizo invaders” and the natural phenomenon of Hurricane Mitch, and from within this framework “compensation” policies are proposed, that the State expel the mestizos and negotiate with the Honduran government so that the “dividing line” be where the river used to flow. In what follows we seek other explanations and then sketch out a proposal.

The weight of structures and actors

The history, production systems, markets and forms of organization explain the situation presented above. Concerning the former, Mayangna-Miskitu relationships have been tense historically, including expulsions from one territory to another, and even had to do with the change of name from Sumo to Mayangna. In reference to Awastingni in 1991 a group of Miskitus participated in an arrangement with the Solcarsa company to extract wood from Awastingni, the same happened in 2003 with Madensa, situations which led the Mayangnas to sue the State in the IHRC; in 2009, a year after the titling of the AMASAU territory, a group of Miskitus tried to take part of the AMASAU, were prevented from doing so with the support of mestizos that the Mayangnas called “human boundary stones”; and in 2010 the Mpinicsa wood company started an agreement with Miskitu groups to extract wood from Awastingni, which was resisted by the Mayangnas. These relationships, according to a Mayangna leader, created a sense that “the land is not going to be respected”, with this accelerating the Mayangnas taking the land and selling it to mestizos.

In the case of the Miskitu of Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma, the “hacienda” institution has made itself felt; a good part of the areas today claimed by them prior to 1980 were a livestock ranch of a Creole family, and since 2006 claimed by ranchers from Olancho. The persistence of the hacienda, which many times caused confrontations with the Miskitu communities of Nicaragua and Honduras, is well known in Latin America for its economic, social and political despotic relationships. In other words, with or without the change in the course of the river, most of these areas have been governed by the haciendas.

In terms of the production system, the Mayangna families have their yamak where they plant beans (and plaintains), a yamak that annually rotates from one place to another, and that has responded to their consumption needs, while they have looked for money in cash to buy their salt or clothing by working in the banana fields and in mining (1950-70s), for the State (1980s), and for wood companies, mestizos, international aid and the State (1990-2015). The Miskitu from the 3 communities (Saupuka, Ulwas and Bilwaskarma) differ somewhat from the Mayangnas, they have their insla on the other side of the river which the ranchers permit, they plant beans and rice for their own consumption and part of that to buy their salt or clothing, they also receive pay for working on the haciendas, and get some resources through the sale of wood. Most of the indigenous historically have had annual crops, which along with the grazing fields of the ranching haciendas contributed to the change in the course of the river, because it is harder for a river to change course when it is bordered by trees and permanent crops. There are also some Mayangna and Miskitu families with permanent crops who produce and sell their products. Our hypothesis is that not producing for both purposes, consumption and to purchase products, has contributed to the fragility of their economic system and to the sale or loss of their lands.

The markets have hardened these practices of production just for consumption, and getting money through other ways. Awastingni in the last 20 years has enjoyed financial resources, having probably received millions of cordobas from wood companies (Madensa 1993-1998, Amerinica 2000-2003, Mpinicsa 2010-2011 and Dusa 2015-2020), the sale of land to mestizo families, that according to indigenous leaders includes a little more than 50% of the total area (with the rest of the area considered to be invaded by mestizos), and international aid or State projects. In Saupuka most of the wood extraction is happening between Waspam and Bilwaskarma illegally, which is why only a part of the small scale timber merchants are paying Saupuka; this situation has increased tensions, for example, between Bilwaskarma and Saupuka, expressed as a “dispute over property boundaries”; and given that the families of Saupuka are in a better economic situation than Awastingni, 6 km from the municipal capital of Waspam, companies like Curacau and Gallo mas Gallo leave them goods and equipment on credit with usurious interest rates.

Because of these 3 factors, the government structure in both cases has become pyramid-shaped and weak. Mayangna leaders and families sold their land, providing “possession documents” as the proof of the sale, and in many cases selling the same area 2,3 and even 4 times to different meztizo families; correspondingly, there is a leadership that operates more around external resources (mestizos, companies and organizations), with weak counterweights in the community that would help them to be transparent and use the resources well. In Saupuka the organizational structure, even though divided and with a certain level of community beligerancia, is surpassed by the hacienda institution. Overtime the organizational structures were shaped more around external resources and “freed” from those who had named them, a process fed by the external actors themselves (organizations, companies, mestizos) that just connected with the leaders, generally bypassing the communities.

In the face of a third “critical juncture”

With these elements, a tense relationship between the Mayangnas and Miskitus, intra-ethnic conflicts, Mayangna-Mestiza relations, the influence of companies and organizations, and a governance structure without internal and external counterweights, 31% of the territory of the country was able to be demarcated in the name of Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and that in practice this is in dispute given that the mestizos population in the Coast are more than 76% of the population (Gonzalez, 2014[ii]). Given this, we think that multiethnic Nicaragua is on the verge of its third critical juncture. Three paths are visible: one, complete imposition of the ranching hacienda institution (more than peasants), and of mega extractive companies with their multiple economic, social, political and environmental effects; two, indigenous self-government that includes respect for collective and individual property and respect for nature; and the third, a inclusive, multiethnic society with historical and grassroots alliances, accompanied by a model – as Polanyi would say – of “societies with markets”. We think that the first two paths are in conflict with one another, the former moved by the “domino effect” (Mendoza, 2004 [iii] ) with unfortunate consequences, and the second – even though it is more just and legal – is more and more reduced, which is why working pragmatically on the third path is urgent.

What would this third path consist in? First, that the indigenous families would promote diversified production systems that would combine forest, agriculture (annual and permanent crops), and ranching, ensuring their consumption and staggering their income. Secondly, weaving endogenous alliances between Mayangna families and mestizo families of peasant origin with diversified systems and agreements of possessing less than 100 mzs of land per mestizo or Mayangna family, combining respect for collective and individual properties, and an alliance between the Miskitu of Nicaragua and of Honduras; in both cases with the capacity of making the ranching hacienda institution withdraw beyond the border. Third, that the territorial and communal government structures would develop internal counterweights (e.g. commissions for administering external resources and rethinking their diversification strategies) and external counterweights (e.g. microfinance institutions of the Coast to protect the resources of the communities, and the Moravian Church, because of its historic connections with indigenous populations of the Coast, cultivating bonds with the Honduran side, concretizing its Gospel of spirituality, solidarity and training. Fourth, the BICU and URACCAN universities, in collaboration with institutions like Nitlapan-UCA, would reinvent their conflict mediation institutions based on participatory research to overcome the discourse of “invaders” and “victims” and glimpse the limitations and possibilities of collaboration behind the confrontations.

In conclusion, in light of the third path as a realistic option within the current “juncture”, the problem is not the lack of financial resources, but of administering them; it is not lack of land and of laws, but of working respecting the national and international laws; and it is not a scarcity of leaders, but of an institutionality with counterweights above and below, with the participation of women in those structures, recovering the circular origin of the functioning of indigenous structures, and with the support of organizations that are connected with leaders and the population itself. Nicaragua in 1987 broke ground in Latin America with autonomy law; Nicaragua can once again break ground in the continent based on a strategic indigenous-peasant strategy for a multiethnic society, with an inclusive and sustainable development institutionality.


* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Nora is a professor of BICU and researcher of Nitlapan-UCA. Celia, Jairo and Alejandro are researchers of Nitlapan-UCA. Klaus is an associate researcher of Nitlapan-UCA.


[i] Mahoney, J., 2001, “Regime Change: Central America in Comparative Perspective” en: Studies in Comparative International Development 36.1

[ii] Gonzalez, M., 2014, “Autonomía Costeña, 27 años después” en: Revista Confidencial

[iii] Mendoza, R., 2004, “Un espejo engañoso: imágenes de la frontera agrícola” en: ENVIO. Managua: IHCA-UCA, No. 265. 2004.


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