Who Owns the Forest?

A land crisis in a remote region of Nicaragua results in violence, ethnic strife, and victims on both sides

| October 14, 2004

The Mayangna are desperate. As Nicaragua's oldest indigenous tribe, they have long been considered the caretakers of the Nicaraguan rain forest, upon which they rely for housing and hunting. They have been trying to peacefully resist the migration of Mestizo farmers onto their land for fifty years. Last February, the Miskitu, another indigenous tribe being displaced by the same landless farmers, burned down a Mestizo settlement in February, leaving three dead. Those familiar with the situation anticipate the Mayanga taking a similarly violent route. 'We want to kick them out peacefully,' says Emilio Fendley, a member of the Mayangna community. 'But we can't; they won't go.' The landless Mestizo farmers are also desperate. While it's easy to demonize them for taking Mayangna land and employing slash-and-burn agriculture, they see little alternative. With no political clout, no money, and little education, the landless farmers simply want somewhere to settle down. 'Our lands [on the Pacific side of Nicaragua] have all dried up, and we need to feed ourselves. If they don't want us here, then just tell us where we should go.'The Nicaraguan government did pass a law forbidding the outside settlement of indigenous lands, but it has provided no resources to local authorities to enforce the law and has otherwise been indifferent to the conflict. And those local authorities, while annoyed by the presence of the Mestizos, are reluctant to get involved in the first place. As one official puts it: 'They're not from here, so they are not our problem.'As a result of this neglect, the Mestizo's and Mayangna's may well conclude they have to choice but to fight, and the Nicaraguan government would be complicit in the bloodshed.
-- Brendan Themes 

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