The Mayangna of the Awas Tingni community, Nicaragua

Awas Tingni is one of numerous indigenous Mayangna (or Sumo[1]) communities in the remote, densely forested region on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Around 1,500 people live in Awas Tingni. During the 1990s, the Nicaraguan government granted a logging concession to a Korean multinational company (Solcarsa) for the logging of 62,000 hectares of land inhabited by the community, without asking for their consent.

The Nicaraguan justice system failed to address the Awas Tingni community’s concerns. A petition was lodged with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, accusing the government of failing to demarcate their communal lands or provide judicial protection of their ancestral rights to their land and resources.

On 31 August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark verdict that the Nicaraguan government had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni community. The Court affirmed that the American Convention of Human Rights offers protection of indigenous peoples’ property rights, and denounced the State for granting concessions to their land without consulting the community first.[2]

The Court ordered that the Nicaraguan government demarcate and title the traditional lands of the Awas Tingni community, and furthermore, that they establish the necessary legal procedures for protecting the land rights of all indigenous communities in the country.

In January 2003 the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a new law allowing for the demarcation of indigenous land. In December 2008, the Awas Tingni community finally received the property title to 73,000 hectares of its traditional territory.

This case was a historic achievement for the protection of indigenous peoples’ human rights, not just in Nicaragua but also elsewhere in the world. A United Nations news release stated, “this was the first case in which an international tribunal with legally binding authority found a Government in violation of the collective land rights of an indigenous group, setting an important precedent in international law.”[3]

Consistent with the outcome of the Awas Tingni case, on 13 September 2007 the United Nations adopted a ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, further consolidating the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditionally occupied territories, and the resources therein.[4]

“In a nutshell, the Court held that the American Convention on Human Rights obligates states to recognise and adopt specific measures to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to land and natural resources in accordance with indigenous peoples’ own customary use and occupancy patterns.”[5]

The significance of this precedent and of the titling of their land have not shielded the Mayangna people from the continuing threats of timber companies and illegal squatters on their land. Since the ruling there has been conflict within the Mayangna community relating to the alleged, but later denied, sale of land to a timber company, Mapinicsa,[6] as well as conflict between the Mayangna and squatters and other indigenous groups of the Atlantic zones of Nicaragua.[7]

The area inhabited by the Mayangna includes part of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve which, apart from being attractive to timber companies, has also suffered regular invasions of squatters, sometimes in organised groups and at other times individually. The beginning of 2010 saw a combined force from the Nicaraguan army and police force join with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to remove 80 families who had illegally colonised the Reserve. A further 200 families were to be removed at a later date. Mayangna leaders, however, considered the action to be insufficient to solve the problems caused by illegal squatters and have claimed that they have received death threats from some of the squatters.[8]

Some of the squatters are simply refugees from landlessness elsewhere in the country and are simply trying to find an area suitable for subsistence. Most such cases are victims for a second time around having suffered elsewhere at the hands of other gangsters. Mayangna leader Rolando Lewis, however, said that other settlers destroy the forest under orders from cattle ranchers who want to move into Bosawas.[9] And José Luis Garcia, the National Environmental Ombudsman, believes, alarmingly, that there are more than 30,000 colonists who have taken over 4,000 hectares of the Bosawas Reserve. He said that “In the past, the timber traffickers cut down the trees and took them to sell, but now these people possess large sections of the territory where they cut down the trees, burn them and then plant pasture to sell to the highest bidder.”[10]

This clash of interests in an area such as the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve clearly illustrates the link between conservation and indigenous peoples. It has been widely recognised that the major agents of destruction of the Bosawas ecology have been timber companies and colonisers or squatters. The western model of development has much to learn from indigenous peoples about the conservation of its natural environment.

[1] The people of Awas Tingni prefer to call themselves Mayagna, as opposed to Sumo, a commonly used designation. They regard the latter term as one imposed by outsiders.
[2] International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (accessed 31 July 2009).
[3] United Nations News Centre (accessed 3 August 2009).
[4] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, March 2008, United Nations (accessed 4 August 2009).
[5] S. James Anaya and Claudio Grossman ‘The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A New Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples’, The Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law
[6] Nicaragua Network Hotline (25 August 2009) ‘Government cancels sales of communal lands; YATAMA members protest’, Nicaragua News Service.
Nicaragua Network Hotline (29 September 2009) ‘Awas Tingni leaders clarify land sale accusation’, Nicaragua News Service
[7] Ramón H. Potosme (27 August 2009) ‘Nación sumo mayagna bajo agresión de Yatama’, El Nuevo Diaria, Managua.
[8] Nicaragua News (1 June 2010) ‘Squatters removed from Bosawas Nature Preserve’, Nicaragua News Service. Eira Martens (21 January 2010) ‘Crisis de Bosawas’, Personal communication.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Nicaragua News Bulletin (9 February 2010) ‘Government postpones visit to Bosawas Reserve to evict colonists’, Nicaragua News Service.