Massacre in Nicaragua: Four indigenous community members killed for their land

“We are very concerned about the continued attack against indigenous people in Nicaragua, the lack of protection of their rights, and the impunity of the crimes committed against them.”

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  • On Jan. 29, dozens of armed men stormed the indigenous Alal community. They killed four people, injured two, and burned 16 houses. The UN Human Rights Office and indigenous advocacy organizations say the armed group was connected to land grabbers farming illegally on protected indigenous land.
  • Police have reportedly captured the leader of the group.
  • Alal is located in Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site in northern Nicaragua that hosts the largest remaining tract of rainforest in Central America. The deforestation rate in Bosawás is climbing as people migrate from southern Nicaragua and illegally clear forest for cropland, cattle pasture, and mining. Satellite imagery shows deforestation around Alal increased significantly between December and January.
  • The Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua reports 40 people have been killed over land conflict in the region in the past five years. The UN condemned the Nicaraguan government for allowing impunity for crimes committed against Nicaragua’s indigenous communities.

An illegal armed group connected to land grabbers killed four members of the indigenous Mayangna people, left two injured and burned 16 houses in northern Nicaragua on Jan. 29, according to the UN Human Rights Office.

The UN Human Rights Office condemned the Nicaraguan government for allowing impunity for crimes committed against Nicaragua’s indigenous communities: “We are very concerned about the continued attack against indigenous people in Nicaragua, the lack of protection of their rights, and the impunity of the crimes committed against them,” UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet said in a press statement.

Advocacy organizations warn ongoing colonization process by non-indigenous mestizos from the central regions of Nicaragua threatens the cultural existence of Mayangna, whose ancestral rainforest territory is being taken over for gold mining, logging, cattle ranching and commercial crops. The process has accelerated over the past five years, precipitating a vicious land conflict that has claimed the lives of 40 people since 2015, according to the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN).

Cattle browse in Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Image by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

The Mayangna people inhabit a region known as La Mosquitia, which straddles the border between Nicaragua and Honduras and is the largest rainforest region in Central America. Alongside the more populous indigenous Miskito people, the Mayangna maintain a cultural tradition of protecting the forest ecosystem they rely on for food and water.

The most recent attack on the Mayangna took place in the Alal community in the Sauni As territory. The region sits mostly within the buffer region of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, and belongs to Nicaragua’s Autonomous Region of the Northern Caribbean Coast.

Disappearing refuge

The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, declared a UNESCO site in 1997, is extremely rich in biodiversity, providing habitat to an estimated 13% of the world’s known species, several of which are threatened with extinction.

The Nicaraguan environmental agency MARENA reported a doubling in Bosawás deforestation in less than two decades, with nearly 31% of the reserve’s forest lost by 2019. Satellite data compiled by the University of Maryland shows deforestation began to cut into the heart of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in January 2018, with the rate of forest loss increasing into 2020.

The Alal community is right inside the core zone of the nature reserve, which contains one of Nicaragua’s last remaining areas of forest that is large and undisturbed enough to retain its original biodiversity. Satellite imagery shows mounting deforestation around the community.

Satellite data show heavy deforestation in Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in January. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch
Satellite images taken one month apart show a big recent jump in clearing activity (indicated by yellow circles) around Alal. Source: Sentinel-2 and Landsat 8, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Juana Bilbano, director of Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN), said that even though the government officially granted land titles to indigenous communities in Bosawás, the laws protecting those titles have not been effectively implemented or enforced as obligated under law.

“The government has delivered land titles to the indigenous communities but it has not provided legal protection,” Bilbano said. “In 2015, the same thing happened to the Miskitos when colonizers arrived to commit massacres as they did in Alal. We have 12 different Mayangna, Miskito and afro-descendent communities at high risk from the invaders.”

Last year Mongabay visited Mayangna Sauni Bu territory, located in Bosawas Biosphere Reserve to the north of where the most recent massacre occurred. There too, the pressure from colonizers was felt acutely by communities that have lived in the forest for generations. Indigenous leaders explained that although the Mayangna’s collective lands cannot legally be sold by private individuals, land traffickers—sometimes members of the indigenous community—were selling plots to non-indigenous farmers and ranchers.

Mayangna community member Rioberto Delgado, who lived along the Bocay River near the border with Honduras, told Mongabay during a September 2019 interview that his community was losing control of the forest, and with it, its cultural identity and means of survival.

“The communal living system of the indigenous communities is disappearing. The animals we used to hunt, the fish we used to take from the river, they’re all going away, they’re disappearing,” Delgado said. “With the colonists, another system is replacing ours and the indigenous are suffering. Our system requires lots of land, fish, animals, the ability to work calmly without [agricultural] chemicals.”

Bosawás is home to the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), one of the largest eagles in the world. The species is nearly extinct in Central America. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Beyond the Mayangna territory and Bosawás reserve, Bilbano said maintaining large intact forest landscapes are important for the rest of Nicaragua because the forests help produce water and regulate the local climate. The northeastern portion of Nicaragua sits within the Central American Dry Corridor—a territory that stretches from the south of Mexico to Panama—which is suffering from increasingly severe droughts due to El Niño events and climate change.

Disparate accounts of the massacre

Following the attack in Alal, different accounts have come out of the remote Alal community where a lack of roads, cell service and a deeply divided political situation impeded the diffusion of information.

In the days following the massacre, the police, loyal to President Daniel Ortega’s leftwing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSNL) party, reported two people were killed in the attack, contradicting reports by indigenous leaders who reported six deaths initially. Later, the police said that they had conducted investigations that showed “no evidence of dead persons.”

With the appearance of the attack surfacing on social media, however, the police made another announcement after conducting a wider investigation, claiming there were four deaths, a version corroborated by the indigenous territorial government.

Deforested hillsides in Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Image by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

Nicaragua’s National Police did not respond to requests by Mongabay for comment on the Alal massacre, or reasons for the inconsistent reports.

Police reported the capture of the leader of the armed group allegedly responsible for the massacre in Alal. Along with his capture, the police reported apprehending an automatic weapon, munitions and “two pounds of marijuana.” The police have not mentioned land-grabbing as a motive for the attack.

In April 2018, Nicaraguan opposition parties, students and business leaders sparked a nationwide protest movement that spread throughout the country’s major cities, and which the government claimed was an attempted coup. While the government’s crackdown on the protests left hundreds dead and provoked international criticism, Ortega has since been able to consolidate domestic political power.

Bilbano admits that indigenous leaders are divided by the FSNL and the opposition parties. “Political persecution puts us at great risk,” Bilbano said. “We are under great threat for making these sorts of denouncements.”

Banner image: Rainforest in Bosawás Biosphere Reserve by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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