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News > Nicaragua

Nicaragua: Indigenous Leader Recounts the Karata Experience

  • A mother takes her children to a school in the Karata Indigenous community, Nicaragua, Feb. 2, 2021.

    A mother takes her children to a school in the Karata Indigenous community, Nicaragua, Feb. 2, 2021. | Photo: Twitter/ @GobiernoCosta

Published 15 February 2021

Ronald Whittingham talks about the historical development of the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Caribbean area of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua's "Tortilla Con Sal" Review spoke with Ronald Whittingham, the president of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Territorial Government Karata, to explain how the Puerto Cabezas Municipality's communities are defending themselves against the usurpation of their lands. TeleSUR shares the full interview.


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In this interview, Whittingham also discusses the historical development of the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Caribbean area of Nicaragua. He focuses especially on the municipality of Puerto Cabezas (now perhaps better known as Bilwi) from the time of the Mosquitia Kingdom to the new Indigenous Territorial Government (GTI) land titles defined by the National Commission for the Demarcation of Indigenous Territories (CONADETI).

Ronald explains the work and coordination between the territorial and communal governments, the regional government, and the municipal government. He also comments on various aspects of the transition from the period of regional government controlled by the opposition parties, Partido Liberal Consitucionalista and Yatama, under its historic leader Brooklyn Rivera, until 2014 and the current period of the regional and municipal government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FMLN).

-Can you explain to us or giving us a summary of the historical context of this problem of land conflicts here in the area.

Well, maybe to talk a little bit about that, I'm going to go back further with the Indigenous peoples. In the nineteen hundreds, in the early nineteen hundreds or before in the eighteen hundreds, the Atlantic Coast was more or less the La Mosquitia reserve and it was protected by the British. But when the British were about to leave the Miskitos on their own, they made a treaty with the Nicaraguan government, and that was the Harrison-Altamirano treaty.

Back then several communities benefited from this treaty with rights to land. So the government signed it and gave land to many communities both in the south and in the north. But at the time we are talking about there, there was no access, no communication routes. That is why the communities that are on the banks of the Coco River, did not benefit because the commission did not reach that area. So few communities benefited from that Harrison-Altamirano treaty, from which treaty the territory that I represent benefited.

So, because we already had, that right, but now after we were given another title, that was closed administratively. But from that closure there, from that right that was extended back then, we came to administer the city of Puerto Cabezas... For the territory of Karata there is no differentiation of ethnicity, race, or color. That is why you see here in the city of Bilwi, everyone lives here, here live Chinese, gringos, Miskitos, Spaniards, all under the norms of the community, the community has norms.

- Ronald, maybe it would be a help to the people who are watching this if you could explain the territory that Karatá covers. Is it all the town of Bilwi?

Yes, everything that is the entire town of Bilwi. Everything that is the urban center of Bilwi and the rural communities, and Karatá which is the community of which that we are natives, the closest community to Bilwi is approximately two-and-a-half kilometers but right now I think it is not even two kilometers, it could be a kilometer or half a kilometer which is Lamlaya and the other community that we have is Dakban and the other communities we have after Dakban are agricultural areas.

So we have been administering, we are administering according to our own norms, our own system based on our customs as ethnic groups. Now it's been more than.... more than a century, maybe almost a century because during that time no government, no State government recognized the rights of the indigenous peoples. None.

Until 1987, when this government in its first... in its first period of government recognized the rights of indigenous peoples in the Republic's Constitution of Nicaragua. After that came Law 28, always to protect how we choose our own regional parliament. Then comes Law 445, which is the law governing the titling of the communities' lands.

- What year was that?

2005, Law 445. And then when the turn came of the current government, then they set about issuing titles. 36.5 percent of the national territory is in the hands of the territorial governments, the indigenous peoples.

We are indigenous peoples recognized by the State of Nicaragua today and not only recognized but we have been given those rights, the right to communal property which we never had, the right to education, all the rights prescribed in the Constitution, to health, housing, and the territorial governments always work with, which is why Law 445 establishes the framework, a coordination mechanism for the four levels of government.

You might ask, how is that? Only in Nicaragua are three, four, five levels of government. Central government, which is the same as the state. Municipal government, which administers the municipality with its administrative, political-administrative dimension. And the regional governments. The regional government, which is the seat of government of Puerto Cabezas. The territorial governments which are us and the communal governments. The five governments established by the Constitution must work in a coordinated way.

-Ronald, can you explain to us the difference between the territorial government and the communal government?

The difference is that the communal government is directly for a specific community. The territorial government is a group of communities. If there are five or six communities, it represents that group of communities. But the communal government is specifically for a single community.

Therefore, while each territorial government has five or six communities, in each community there's a communal government that functions articulately. Who is the communal government? Law 445 says that it is the judge, or that the community decides who it might be. So, since the tradition for a long time has been that the judges are the highest authority, then we go along with that custom with the judges.

-When you talk about the judges, you are talking about the communal judges...

Communal. In Miskito they are called "wihstas"...., so we are working on that basis. Now, by law, since you asked me to explain the panorama a little bit, by law there are five stages for titling the land. Now the law says that the last stage is remediation. That's what the law says. So we, the territorial governments, are primarily responsible for watching over, administering, conserving, taking care of the territory together with the communal governments, with the communal governments.

Now, the issue really is how the communal governments govern, how the territorial governments govern. Because the State already gave them title to their land. Because in my case, when it gave me the title the government, "Ronald, you are the Karata territory's president, it is in your hands to administer, take care and give good use to the natural resources that belong to your territory."

So the government already allowed me I can administer. I can have that power over those lands. That is why as a territorial government I do not speak for any other territory, I don't know how other territories manage, but I can speak about how we manage things. So as regards how we manage things. We have rules, rules, and regulations about how to apply them and how to govern the territory.

So the rules are classified as how they should be applied in the communities and in the urban area, as I was saying, and that's how we are working without distinction as regards the kinds of ethnicity or race that exist in the territory. And not only here in the city. We also have mestizo rural communities, but we are working with norms, the norms that regulate our territorial government, we are characterizing and controlling this territory, as a community, as a territory, based on that.

Now, in a few communities, there are problems with remediation, but we also have to see some realities, realities that we, or at least in my case I have seen, because I have gone to some territories and I have seen that there are people from the self-same communities, authorities of those same communities that have sold land, sometimes up to 350 hectares, or as much as 700 hectares. So, if I sell to you even though the law, the law... the law prohibits the sale of land.

But, through ignorance of the law, sometimes people sell it. So really these are problems that sometimes we, as indigenous peoples, in the territorial governments, we blame the State. But what happens? The people now that... when they are sold 350 hectares or even a thousand hectares, then those people bring their relatives. Because if you buy something from someone. It's something you bought, then you are going to think it is yours, although the law says otherwise. Do you see?

It's true that maybe some have entered on their own, but there must be a negotiation. There must be a negotiation how to go about ordering things because there are lands that can be zoned really, where the community or the territory can say, "well here there are outsiders, but where can we put things in order, where can they be and what can or cannot be there, and under what system can they be there. It is like Karatá saying, "okay, you want, we're...you have 700 hectares? no, you can't have 700, you are going to have 70". An example. "But this is going to be the area where you can be...under what terms? you'll pay me a lease...".

The lease comprises things apart from money because the farmers or outsiders are producers and they might pay you in kind, with livestock if they have livestock. An example, say... if a farmer has one hundred head of cattle, in one year he produces another fifty head of cattle. You work out, you had fifty this year, so then you are going to give... just an example, five head of cattle, or you harvested 100 hundredweight of rice, so you are going to give the community ten sacks... just as an example I tell you, or you took out 2000 measures of beans, so then you are going to give ten hundredweight...So, there has to be... all that depends on the rules you are going to create and on your administration.

-Fresly suggested a difference, a distinction between what he called "reordering" and "remediation", a term that so many people manipulate. Do you think that distinction is valid? And if you think it is valid, what is reordering and what is sanitation?

There are several hypotheses. And various people interpret things in different ways. Because there are people who say remediation is to clear out, to get everyone out, one... But some people say no, remediation is to seek an understanding, to remediate is to reach an understanding. And part of that understanding is the well-known term of reordering. That is the concept.

So, what does it mean to reorder? Not that the mestizos or the outsiders that are within your territory, within your area, that they are going to decide where they are going to be. You will tell them where they are going to be. That is reordering. And how much you can give in the portion of land. That is the zoning.

-It is a component of this...

It is a component for solving problems. Now in that reordering, you also have to see who will go and who can stay. That is reordering.

- Ronald, in this whole process it's the responsibility of the communal governments, of the territorial governments to insist on their rights to their property, but since Law 445 is a national law, surely the remediation must be a responsibility of the State. So how is the relationship between the process of the territorial and communal governments defending their rights and this process directed by the State, promoted by the State of remediation to guarantee completion of the land titling process?

 As far as I understand the matter, this process is one of accompaniment. The State provides that through the Army and the Army's Ecological Battalion, and no territory can say that's not the case. They have indeed provided accompaniment. They have provided accompaniment. But as I was saying, the will to resolve problems is up to the territorial governments and the community. And I am going to tell you why.

Sometimes... sometimes the... to tell you the truth there are many, shall we say, aspects that are inconvenient for one person, inconvenient for another person and annoying for yet another person, but you cannot, if a member of the community sold a certain portion of land for whatever reason, you are forced to sit down and negotiate. To see what can be done. And to negotiate you have to do so in a spirit of wanting to solve the problem. But if there is no will to resolve the problem rather than to create more problem, then you will never solve the problem.

Because CONADETI... CONADETI is an institution created by the State and has always provided accompaniment, in various communities, in Francia Sirpe, in Fresly's territory and even in mine... sometimes there is no will and no follow-up, the key word is follow up, to go resolving matters case by case. Because the community has to decide how they want the remediation stage to be effective. That is what we have to remember. 

So when you have that clear vision, then you know how you are going to go about things. For example, I was in the Fresly's territory,... in Fresly's territory, there is a man... there is a man called... Collective so and so... there is this collective there, which has a lease of a thousand hectares, but what happened? This collective had a contract with the community and with the territory, but this collective brought in other people and their families, when according to the community's rules that is forbidden.

So, they take a thousand hectares and bring other families and give them thirty hectares, for which are going to pay so much. So the territory's space, the space of the community's land becomes merchandise and these are things that have to be regulated. If I rent you a thousand hectares, that land is for you. And if you... if you violate that clause, immediately a negative effect arises, which is the cancellation of the lease. And those are the rules. I don't know if they have those rules. 

So say you are the president of the territory, that gives you the power,  and you gave someone a thousand hectares and you realize that eleven or twelve families that don't have a contract have occupied the land, so I call the police so that they remove those people from the land. I told the person concerned that this is the contract; they violated the rights of the community... And in this case, there is a reordering. This person is going to leave of their own accord. Why? Because they violated the norm... So I believe it may be the case that things are being done in that way.

- One thing that in Siuna explained to me is that much of problem has resulted from mismanagement by previous administrations. For example, the Regional Council was controlled by the people of Yatama until 2014. And we were also noting that in the 2009 municipal elections here in the Northern Caribbean area, most or perhaps half of the six or seven municipalities were in the hands of Yatama and the PLC and that many of the problems that are coming out now results from mismanagement, maybe corruption, but the irresponsibility of those previous administrations. How true is that?

That is well confirmed. Why? That's why I was telling you now, I was explaining to you that the leaders... why do I insist so much on the leaders? Because maybe you didn't want to get deep into this but you asked me the question... Because the leaders the communities had were from Yatama and most of them were ex-combatants, so they had the blessing of their maximum leader and so they sold their lands. Do you understand? Now with this government, the new GTIs want to clear people out, and what do the people say? "No, no, no no, here I bought this land, and I have been living here for ten, fifteen years". That's what they tell you. "And if you want to get me out of here, you must carry me out dead..."

Of course, there is a difference. Remember you that assigning something is without, how do you say...it's not something onerous as they say in law, or that you are not going to pay, I assign you this land, period. But that does not exist. Donations do not exist. In the law the communal lands are sacred... they cannot be taxed, sold, nor donated, nor assigned. But the issue is that someone may come and say to the territorial president, "I want five hundred hectares of land to live on". But the territorial president doesn't have the power to negotiate that.

The instance with the right to negotiate and to decide if they are going to lease is the community. The communal assembly is where a negotiation becomes effective or where it gets authorized, always taking into account free, prior and informed consent in accordance with the United Nations rules. But as the person is asking for five hundred and we do not have a great deal of land then we can lease him three hundred but under these conditions. So if the outsider says they agree, there is no problem. If he doesn't agree then the community doesn't have to offer the land. But the difference is that just assigning the land is inapplicable, null in other words. Leasing is what applies.

The only way the community can get something for their land is to lease. And they want...what are they going to lease? I'll give you an example. If in a woodland are there is precious wood, the mestizo is going to go after the wood, not the land. What is on the land, who owns it, who pays for it? Is the community going to give it away? And what if in the land being leased, there's what's on the surface, but also in the subsoil? What do I mean? If there is gold in that land, it always belongs to the community. Or if the resource is only on the surface. So then all these details should be known to the communal governments and the territorial presidents.

Because many times it has been said by way of false news that "No," they say, "they came, they invaded us, they took our wood" or I don't know what, "they seized our plantation..."  But what happened..?. Where were the community leaders? What kind of negotiation did they do? The thing is that each community has its own norms but based on national laws. You can't go beyond those. And the State recognizes the norms of the community, its form of administration, that is set out in the Constitution, how the community administers itself.

And also the State protects the rights of the community. That is why the State has ordered the no sale of lands because the lands are sacred for the community. Then, under this legal framework, the community creates its norms, how it wants its land to be leased, on what terms.... So, the community cannot lease a land where there is gold, which is the wealth of the community. The community cannot lease a land where there is precious wood.

The community must know. So there must be a conditional clause, completing the agreement, conditions set.... So that is where the territorial government must seek guidance and advise the community as the legal representative of those communities, so that things work out well. But what happens?

I have always said to the territories, what is the use of just having, just having and not knowing what to do? Many people, many communities have... because the government has given them large amounts of land... some communities have up to one hundred and eighty... three hundred thousand hectares... a very big area of land. So you have to know how they should take advantage of that, how to take advantage of that....

- What do you think of the argument, that the national government manipulates the communal governments?

Well, to answer that, I am going to talk a little bit about ideology, the way of thinking. When I talk to you about that... the word position refers to when a person is at an opposite pole to the other party and everything that speaks well for him is not regarded as good by the other party. That's normal. Now, addressing specifically the issue of indigenous peoples...

There's news that spreads overseas that are... I cannot say that they are false news, but they are examples of manipulated information, of various falsehoods that are not based on reality. And this information is one-sided. There is no interview like what you are doing coming to ask us about the whys and wherefores... ah well...

When you say that the government puts parallel presidents of indigenous territories to the ones the community chooses or they say that the community elects two parallel wihstas, that is not so... Look, do you think that things here would be as they are, just with that information and that there would be no demonstrations against the government? But that has not happened here...

Why has it not happened? Because the communities made their choice. Right? And the other part I noted is the political part of Yatama I mentioned. Because Yatama wants to have counterweight against what the people in the community, the majority... we in the communities elect from our community democracy... That's right.

So, that's when they see that and say "No since the community elected that person sympathetic to the government then we are also going to elect another one who is aligned with our political party." That doesn't work.

But after all that ended. Things are normal. Here why not... why if you go to all the communities that have been mentioned internationally, you go there and the community is calm, they are very calm with their leaders. Why? Because the community elected them.

If I had not been elected by the community's sovereign will, there would have been a problem because I would not have any authority. If here I had not been elected by the five communities, do you think that the communities would allow me to visit them? No. First, they will reject me. "No. I have not elected you. You are from the government...so you go to the government." But that has not happened. It's just not true.

I think no information internationally can truthfully say that in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and the Miskito, Afrodescendant, Mayangna indigenous peoples there is conflict because there is double election or there are demonstrations, have you seen any? No one has seen any. Not one. They just say that. But it is not the reality. That is not the reality. There is information that appears...Now, if we in this world did not have, if there had been no problems, this would not be our world, it would be a paradise. In every country there are problems...

It may be, after a while, after a week or so there may be some dissatisfaction. This happens everywhere, in any country, look at the United States, now the president there is unhappy. That's normal. But then people are satisfied and realize that this is not the reality. You have to accept reality. So it is something that really... what happens sometimes is that information is distorted for their personal benefit and it should not be like that. That is how I see it.

Because I have always said and I am going to tell you with complete confidence. The Miskitos...the Miskitos, above all the Miskitos do not have a political ideology. The Miskitos are with whoever solves their problems. The Miskitos are with whoever stands by them. The Miskitos are with whoever respects their rights. That is the Miskitos for you. If you take away the Miskito's property rights, the Miskito will rise up. But the government gives them those rights. That's why the Miskitos... the Miskitos are calm, the Afro-descendants are calm, the Sumus are calm. Why? Because they know that they are getting their rights. So there it is... I think that sometimes one has to reflect, comparing, how we are, how we were and how we are now and how we think as indigenous peoples. That is why I said that the indigenous cosmovision is different from what Westerners, as we call them, think. We think differently, we live differently.

- Is the arrival of a highway positive from the point of view of the indigenous peoples of the area or is it negative, or does it have elements of both?

Look, the dream of the indigenous peoples is a dream for development, for progress. Who doesn't want progress? Who doesn't want development? Who doesn't want a paved road providing access from Managua to Puerto Cabezas? Who wouldn't like to see paved roads from here to Waspam? Who? Which Miskito? You do an interview with the community and the first thing they will say is "Brother, we need our roads paved".

Who is not going to need to go from here to Managua, which is five hundred and something kilometers in a pickup truck in a bus, to be able to go in six or seven hours? Who is not going to want that? How much is a bus ticket to go, a ticket to go to Managua? And how much is the cost from here to travel by bus in comfort? Look... There is a biblical phrase that says "change your way of thinking to change your way of living".

The Miskitos are not like a hundred years ago. The Miskitos think about how to get ahead. That is what we, the indigenous peoples, that is what we think and dream of. Why in other countries...? I am going to tell you about Oaxaca, I don't know if you know Oaxaca, the three indigenous peoples... in every corner, there are paved roads, means of communication... that is what has been done here...

-That's in Mexico...

In Mexico... here the government is trying to make roads to provide access, to make people's produce accessible. How much can you produce and take of your product all the way to Managua to sell? And not only in Managua, internationally too? That is why I told you when we started, the government, this government is restoring the rights of the indigenous peoples, which for many years it could not and I am going to tell you something, sometimes when I say this, people don't like it.

I always say, the main leader of the indigenous peoples, I am not going to name him because we all know, he was the worst violator of the rights of the indigenous peoples. Why? Because the government, when it arrived in the first period of government, wanted to start the project for a highway. And what did he say? "No. You cannot have a paved road to Puerto because it will fill up with settlers..." he said,  and so the road was not done, but the settlers still came... yes or no? So, one needs a paved highway to be able to produce and exploit the resources that one has. Here we need Free Trade Zones to create jobs... because we want to live well and have a nice life. And if there are no such rights, how are we going to? Imagine... Do you see how it is? That is why we are always grateful to the government. Imagine right now the problem at Wawa Boom. If that bridge is built we won't have the problems we had just now with hurricane Eta, because of the hurricane a lot of trucks that the government sent with food could not get through...

- Which bridge...?

By Wawa Boom

- Over the River Wawa?

That was going to be done about ten years ago by the government...they had the plans, it was going to happen with support from Venezuela, but what did the leader say when Yatama had the regional government and municipal authority, what did he say? "No...no..." So what does he want? For us to be like in the eighteenth century, without clothes, without anything, only with.... no not that... No Miskito is going to tell you that. Just like a Miskito tells you that you prefer to walk around naked with just something to cover your private parts... No one is going to want that...That's absurd.

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