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Sandinista’s mixed legacy for Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast

26 July 2007

Despite constitutional recognition and provision for self-government, ethnic minorities on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast fail to profit from exploitation of natural resources on their native land and are among the nation's poorest.

Coastal communities, supported by rulings from Nicaragua's Supreme Court of Justice, complain that the Nicaraguan government has violated their rights by granting land concessions to a logging company and allowing US companies to explore offshore oil reserves.

In a new study From Conflict to Autonomy in Nicaragua: Lessons Learnt (PDF | Spanish edn PDF), Minority Rights Group International (MRG) takes an incisive look at life today for Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast communities 20 years after winning autonomy.

The study shows that while the formal scope of self-government is impressive it has not significantly changed quality of life for local inhabitants. The area accounts for 70% of the country's forest reserves and 90% of fish exports, yet only 17% of the population has access to electricity compared to the national average of 49%.

Chris Chapman, MRG Conflict Prevention Officer, said, "Indigenous people and afro-descendants lack political power even in their own autonomous regions. Commercial extraction of natural resources goes ahead without their consent and profits do not trickle down to the people most in need."

Inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast, or Costeños as they are collectively known, are drawn from a diversity of ethnic groups including Mayagna, Rama, Miskitu, Garífuna speakers and English-speaking Creoles.

While the insurrection waged by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1980s caught the world's attention, the ensuing armed confrontation between the Sandinista administration and ethnic organizations of the Atlantic Coast escaped the media glare.

From 1981 onwards Costeños, of whom the majority were Miskitu, angered by imposition of the Spanish language, increasing poverty, marginalization and neglect of indigenous culture, became embroiled in a violent conflict with Sandinista troops.

The 1987 signing of an Autonomy Statute for the Atlantic Coast brought the conflict to an end and marked the beginning of self-government for the region. Sweeping changes included constitutional amendments recognizing the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nature of Nicaragua.

The study also suggests that peace in Nicaragua will be more enduring because it was based on broad consultation with the people of the Atlantic Coast. The whole process lasted two years – in stark contrast to the eight-month timetable imposed by the USA to negotiate a new constitution for Iraq.

Chris Chapman added, "The autonomy arrangement successfully ended violent ethnic conflict and the process is a source of good practice which should be considered in similar situations around the world today."

Notes to editors

  1. The new study, From Conflict to Autonomy in Nicaragua: Lessons Learnt can be downloaded here.
  2. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non governmental organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact the MRG Press Office (MRG Press Officer) on +44 (0)207 422 4205 (office) or +44 (0)7989 699984 (mobile) or [email protected]