Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Numbered at 120,817 in the 2005 Census with other estimates suggesting around 150,000, Miskitu are arguably the historically most influential of Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples. Most Miskitu today make a living through horticulture, fishing, and are involved in the hazardous occupation of scuba diving for shellfish. The rural Miskitu live in small villages in the savannah areas between the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACN) and the Honduras frontier. There are communities as well along the Caribbean coast and up the rivers of the region like the Río Coco which marks the border with Honduras. Many Miskitu live in the regions’ urban centres such as Bilwi, the capital of the RACN, which is predominantly Miskitu. There are also smaller Miskitu communities in the other urban centres of both the RACN and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS).
Miskitu have their own language which, like the population itself, has drawn from many separate cultural sources during its evolution. The group is also strongly influenced by the Moravian church, which was very instrumental in effecting a radical change in social organization that caused the elimination of many indigenous forms of government and the elevation of church pastors into key community figures.
Nevertheless, it is this close connection to religious institutions and their leadership development programmes of the 1980s that has enabled the emergence of a new generation of confident and more vocal Miskitu leaders.
In the early 17th century. British pirates began using coastal estuaries as hideouts. They then turned to extracting the region’s natural hardwoods in association with the indigenous communities along the coast that became known as Miskitu. The British traded firearms and metal tools with the coastal indigenous peoples in exchange for marine products and lumber. Having acquired guns, these groups began serving as guerrilla forces in British raids against the Spanish in exchange for more weapons. This may have led to the eventual name of the group. In addition to other possible origins, such as a connection with Muisca people of Costa Rica, the name ‘Miskitu’ may be more related to the word musketeros, meaning ‘the people with muskets’.
More guns allowed Miskitu to expand. This included conducting very long-distance raids into Spanish settlements and along the Yucatán to meet British settler demands for indigenous forced labour. It especially helped to expand and secure an independent state supported by imperial Britain.
By the 1700s Miskitu had become a regionally dominant mixed culture with various languages and ethnic groups who all lived together. The culture was polygamous and had a form of social organization based on kin groups. Communities were matriarchal, women did the agricultural and community work; property was communal and government was effected by the council of elders.
The growing Miskitu empire developed a monarchy. The king and the royal court were dominated by Zambos and the military was run by the Tawira. During the 18th and 19th centuries Miskitu eventually came to occupy most of the present-day north and eastern RACN and established scattered settlements in the northeastern portion of RACS.
In 1845, the British organized proxy colonial rule via the Miskitu kingdom including crowning of a British educated Zambo king and subsequently claiming Miskitu territory as a British protectorate. However, in 1894 the structure was dissolved following the annexation of the Atlantic region by President José Santos Zelaya. For almost 240 years, Miskitu had been able to maintain their autonomy and independence from Spain, the Federation of Central American States as well as from Nicaragua itself and this would prove hard to forget.
Although for the first time, opportunities were being created for Atlantic coast indigenous communities to campaign for their rights, the troubled bi-coastal history caused distrust of Sandinista plans. Events were seen as merely a change of government in the ‘Spanish’ part of the country and this was compounded by a lack of understanding of the region on the part of the new regime.
For example, government supported social services threatened long-established indigenous community authorities like the Moravian Church; Sandinistas offended Miskitu groups by the imposition of the Spanish language in the literacy campaign. MISURASATA (Miskitu, Sumu, and Rama Sandinista Alliance), a Miskitu-dominated popular organizations, which served as the only link between indigenous communities and the Sandinista government promoted their own Miskitu agenda and was not trusted by the government, specifically since few MISURASATA leaders and activists were actually Sandinistas.
By 1981, large numbers of Miskitu were in open revolt against the government and war resulted. Some were forcibly relocated by the Sandinistas. Around 40,000 Miskitu went into exile in Honduras during the fighting and others joined the US-backed contras. The threat of large-scale Miskitu participation in the civil war forced major re-analysis by the national government which led to the initial ceasefire in 1985. This was followed by two years of discussions and the production of the 1987 Autonomy Law of the Atlantic coast – a direct attempt to achieve peace in the region and the country.
An ongoing source of conflict within the country is the struggle between Miskitu and non-indigenous mestizo peasants settling illegally in their lands, with many attracted by the prospects of gold, timber and agricultural land. Tensions between the two groups escalated in 2015, leaving a number of people dead including two Miskitu leaders, Rosmeldo Solórzano and Mario Leman Müller, while many others experienced aggressive tactics and intimidation.
By 2017, the indigenous rights organization CEJUDHCAN reported that 32 Miskitu had been killed and 66 people were missing as a result of the land conflict of the previous five years. Miskitu women have been raped, and villages have been attacked. Miskitu have repeatedly denounced the government for failing to protect their land rights and allowing illegal settlement to take place on their territory. As a result of this conflict, in the last few years thousands of Miskitu have been forcibly displaced within the country or across the border to Honduras.
2017 was the deadliest year to date for land and environmental defenders worldwide, with 201 killings globally. Nicaragua was the deadliest country per capita, with four murders. Three of the victims belonged to the same Miskitu family; the killings appeared to be in retaliation after the family had successfully sued to protect their land title in court.
Over the years, Miskitu have denounced the government for failing to protect their land rights and allowing illegal settlement to take place in their territory. As a result of the conflict, in the last few years hundreds of Miskitu – some estimates suggest as many as 3,000 – have been forcibly displaced within the country or across the border to Honduras as hundreds of settlers have established themselves on indigenous lands. Some reports suggest that Miskitu farmers are being threatened with violence, sexual assault and murder to push them out of the way. The government, while claiming to take action to protect Miskitu land, has been criticized for failing to implement measures recommended by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. While efforts have been made to crack down on the illegal sale of indigenous lands, some community members suspect there is some official support for incoming mestizo settlers.