According to the 2005 National Census, at that time there were 9,756 Mayangna individuals in Nicaragua, making up 36 communities. However, other organizations have calculated that there are up to 27,000 Mayangna residing in the country.
Mayangna consist of three separate peoples, each with a distinct identity. These are Twahka, Panamaka and Ulwa – all of whom speak related dialects of a common Mayangna language and mainly live in villages along the rivers of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACN) in some of the region’s most isolated areas.
Until very recently Mayangna were commonly known as Sumu. This name, which is derogatory, was applied to a number of the separate but linguistically related Caribbean coastal indigenous peoples who refused to be absorbed into the then expanding Miskitu kingdom. In recent years, the group has rejected the name Sumu, much preferring to be called Mayangna.
In a leading case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), namely Mayangna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua (2001), the Awas Tingni community (one of numerous Mayangna communities inhabiting the isolated Atlantic coast region of Nicaragua) challenged Nicaragua’s failure to demarcate their communal lands and the granting of a timber concession in an area belonging to the community without consulting them. Despite the fact the American Convention on Human Rights made no express reference to indigenous peoples nor to communal property, the Court, through what it itself described as ‘an evolutionary interpretation’, found that Article 21, until that point regarded as protecting a classic, individual private right to property, protected the right to property ‘in a sense which includes … the rights of members of the indigenous communities within the framework of communal property’.
This was a ground-breaking development. Yet, the reason why the Awas Tigni community had to take their case to the regional level was not because Nicaragua’s Constitution and legislation made no provision for indigenous peoples and their property rights. Indeed, Nicaragua’s 1995 Constitution contains several provisions on the country’s indigenous peoples, their communal form of land-ownership and their enjoyment of their natural resources. Instead, as found by the IACtHR, there was no established procedure for the titling of indigenous lands and therefore for making the constitutional and other legislative provisions effective in practice.
The case ended positively, albeit after a protracted struggle to ensure implementation. In December 2008, a ceremony was held where the Nicaraguan government granted the Awas Tigni community title to some 74,000 hectares.
Large Panamaka and Twahka communities are located in the RACN, while Ulwa are concentrated in the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS). The best-known Ulwa community is near the mouth of the Río Grande de Matagalpa. There are also smaller Ulwa communities further up the Río Grande and in the southern tributaries of the Río Escondido. The Mayangna-Ulwa dwellings are very dispersed and although Spanish is widely used they have little contact with regional officials. In general, the Mayangna are among the most marginalized of the Atlantic coast indigenous peoples.
Despite the Awas Tigni legal decision and the subsequent titling of the community’s customary lands, Mayangna remain severely under threat from migration, invasion and logging. At stake is the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, which at 2 million hectares is Central America’s largest tropical forest and the traditional home of Mayagna and Miskitu communities. Community leaders documented 11,500 settlers who had deforested 150,000 hectares during the period 2009 – 2013. In April 2013, a Mayangna leader, Charlie Taylor, was killed and others wounded by ranchers when they went to investigate a land clearance.