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One of Nicaragua’s greatest achievements is in danger of being reversed

2 August 2007

The autonomy agreement for the Atlantic coast – agreed in October 1987 – ended an ethnic conflict which threatened to tear the country apart. If we look at what is happening today in places such as Iraq, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Kashmir, we see that ethnic and religious conflicts not only cost countless lives and destroy economies, but are also highly resistant to efforts to bring them to an end. Seen from that perspective, the achievement of 1987 was indeed a great one.

Looking back, the process of negotiating that autonomy was a unique, radical social experiment, as a new report by the UK-based Minority Rights Group International (From Conflict to Autonomy in Nicaragua: Lessons Learnt) emphasises. Instead of bringing together an elite, hand-picked group of leaders in a secretive location, the Sandinistas made a genuine attempt to consult the people of the Atlantic Coast, by training activists to visit communities and knock on residents’ doors. Autonomy commissions were set up in 90% of the region’s communities. Finally, in 1987, a massive, multi-ethnic conference was convened with 220 elected delegates from across the Coastal area. The whole process lasted two years – contrast that with the eight-month timetable imposed by the USA to negotiate a new constitution for Iraq.

But 20 years later, the autonomy is very fragile. On emerging from violent conflict, communities have high expectations, a new era of security, prosperity and development – the so-called peace dividend. The reality is very different. How can we explain that an area which is very rich in natural resources – accounting for 70% of the country’s forest reserves, and 90% of fish exports – suffers from such desperate poverty and poor basic services? In the RAAN, 14% of the population is connected to the electricity network; in the RAAS, it is 17%. Compare this to the national average of 49%. Access to drinking water is much the same. 12 of the country’s 25 poorest municipalities are to be found on the Atlantic Coast, including Prinzapolka where 92% of residents are in the “extreme poverty” category – this means that they live on less than $1 per day.

Recently I took part in a seminar in Bluefields on the gains and setbacks of the autonomy. It was both an uplifting and a depressing experience. While the participants were – justifiably – very proud of the region’s achievements – two autonomous universities, the new law no. 445 defining indigenous peoples’ land rights, a new sense of empowerment that has allowed the Coastal communities to take two cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and win them – there was also a sense that real autonomy was slipping away from the original communities of the Atlantic. It is not only the poverty and lack of basic services; the Miskitu, Creoles, Garífuna, Rama and Mayagna are starting to feel like minorities within their own communities, as the flow of migration of Nicaraguans from other parts of the country increases. These communities are now in the minority on the two regional councils – 48% in the RAAN and 40% in the RAAS.

But there are also more sinister processes afoot. The autonomy agreement decrees that the regional councils must be consulted before any natural resources are exploited in the region. But in May of this year, the Supreme Court of Justice granted a request for protective measures brought by members of the Atlantic Communities against the Solicitor-General of the Republic. These protective measures blocked concessions which the Solicitor-General had granted to two foreign companies for oil exploration on the Caribbean Coast, in violation of the autonomy statute.

However, the outlook is not entirely negative. The government has made a number of positive commitments. The newly agreed Regional Autonomous Educational System (SEAR) has the approval of the local communities and is designed to promote education in both Spanish and the communities’ mother tongues – for example by training bilingual teachers. And the government is working with the regional councils to reform the autonomy agreement, in particular regarding the election provisions. The aim of the local communities is to agree a set of quotas for seats, which will guarantee them a stronger voice in the councils of the RAAN and the RAAS.

Finally, the European Union is in the process of agreeing a new package of aid for Central America. Many Nicaraguans are poor and have inadequate public services and this aid should be used to help the country as a whole. However, Minority Rights Group International’s research has shown that, for a country to develop sustainably, aid must also be targeted specifically to help the poorest sectors of the population, and that includes the ethnic communities of the Atlantic Coast.

Let us hope that these are the signs of a new start, and that finally the necessary steps will be taken to shore up the 1987 agreement, a historical milestone of which all Nicaraguans should be proud.

Chris Chapman is Conflict Prevention Officer at Minority Rights Group International


Chris Chapman