Diakonia - People change the world
Oscar Barcio and Martin Gonzales is getting ready to head up the river to their farmlands. Photo: Daniel Ogalde Oscar Barcio and Martin Gonzales is getting ready to head up the river to their farmlands. Photo: Daniel Ogalde

The struggle for land continues in Nicaragua

Poverty and discrimination make life difficult for the indigenous population of Nicaragua. Diakonia’s partner organization IPADE is working to improve their situation.

The morning has brought with it a heavy mist from the distant mountains. In the early hours, the loud noises of the howler monkeys can be heard somewhere in the area as the village of Sikilta slowly comes to life. It’s 5.30 am, but already wood is being chopped, cooking fires are being lit and water is being collected. It’s hard not to be spellbound by the sight of the sun slowly starting to rise up between the trees while the villagers move quietly between the houses. Martin Gonzales and Oscar Barcio are standing by the river bank, making ready the boat that will take them upriver to where their farmland is.

“It’s dangerous, we risk our lives when we go there, but we have to. We have to look after our crops.

“We get shot at, our crops are burned, our holy sites are destroyed and desecrated, and the government does nothing,” says Martin Gonzales.

An unjust country                            

Nicaragua is a small country, about a third of the size of Sweden, but it has a population of almost seven million. As in many other parts of the world, land distribution is unjust. A few people own a lot while most people only have a little. The squeeze on land has led to armed conflict between the indigenous population and mestizos, or ‘colonisers’ as they are disparagingly called in this region, one of the two biggest regions bordering the Caribbean. Here, the indigenous Miskito and Mayangna people are predominant.

“We have long suffered discrimination and been excluded from many parts of society,” explains Willard Green from Diakonia in Nicaragua, who himself belongs to the indigenous Miskito people.

He has many tales to tell about discrimination, violence and oppression, and similar incidents are repeated far too often. It is a destructive structure that has affected generations and things have now come to a head.

“There have been increasing numbers of illegal settlers and they encroach further and further onto the land that the indigenous population has been living on, cultivated and revered for generations – land that by law should be protected but the government hasn’t done anything to maintain the balance. It’s not surprising that it ends in violence,” says a subdued Willard.

Burning land

The slash and burn technique of the illegal settlers is alien to the indigenous population, who believe it damages the soil. The water in the river is affected by the settlers’ pesticides and fertilisers.

“Our children get ill when they bathe or drink the water from the river. It wasn’t like that before,” says Ilario Lacayo.

Ilario takes us into the forest. He clears a way through the dense foliage with his machete. It feels as though we have been walking for a long time, but suddenly there is a stone pillar in front of us.

“This is our landmark. This marks the boundary of our land. Everything beyond this belongs to the Mayangnas,” he explains proudly, continuing:

“We put up these stone pillars in several places so that the settlers know that they must respect the land.”

The land consists of just over 43,000 square metres of deep forests, green hills and powerful watercourses – areas that are already largely inhabited by illegal settlers.

“Now they’re chopping down our ancient trees. These are trees that have been growing for generations; they are the heart of the forest.”

His reverence is striking. It isn’t surprising that UNESCO has nominated this as a World Heritage Site. But it’s a distinction that is at risk the more the forest is plundered.

A seed of hope

IPADE, Diakonia’s partner organization, works from the small town of Siuna, not far from Sikilta. For almost 30 years it has been working on sustainable agriculture, disaster risk management, and education and democratisation.

The organization works with over 500 people in 15 communities in the area.

“Our aim is to secure access to food and improve household finances. Many communities are located in nature reserves, so sustainability is important,” says IPADE co-ordinator Ninoska Moreno.

The participants learn to work the land without damaging the forest and they are given a starter pack of seed.

“Many families aren’t able to put food on the table.”

In the past they would have sown a few staple crops and grown and harvested them for a limited period. But these days they’re growing not just maize, rice and beans but also cocoa, pawpaw and plantain. That way they can both feed their family and sell off any surplus to bring in some income.

“We can change our society step by step,” says Ninoska Moreno. “It takes time, but we’re on our way. Of course there are still lots of challenges to be faced, but this project means that we can create a sustainable future in which people not only live in harmony with nature but also live in harmony with each other, irrespective of ethnicity.”