Events of 2015

Nicaragua's history, distinct within the region, of both British and Spanish colonialism still shapes the country's social and political landscape today. With the arrival of the first conquistadors in the early sixteenth century, much of the western part of its present-day territory by the Pacific was occupied and its indigenous population decimated or enslaved, with only a few Mayagna communities still surviving in the area. On the eastern, Atlantic side, however, the relatively limited encroachment of Spanish colonizers meant that a larger portion of the indigenous population, including Mayagna and Rama, survived. The subsequent arrival of British colonizers and enslaved Africans was eventually followed, after the abolition of slavery, by that of economic migrants from the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, and led to the formation of a sizeable English-speaking Creole population. Nicaragua's multi-ethnic population is now characterized by a white and mestizo majority, who largely dominate the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, and a variety of indigenous (5 per cent) and Afro-descendant (9 per cent) populations. The relationship between the central government and its minority and indigenous communities has frequently been characterized by tensions over political autonomy, cultural assimilation and other concerns – issues that have at times been reflected in violence and other human rights abuses.

A recurrent source of conflict in recent years has been the state's failure to protect ancestral lands from large-scale development, energy projects and illegal settlement. This includes the Nicaraguan Canal, a controversial programme involving the government and a Chinese company to construct what would be the world's largest canal between the Pacific and the eastern coast. Though the project has struggled with funding in the wake of the stock market slump in China, meaning progress since its ground-breaking ceremony in December 2014 has been slow, the canal will likely have a disastrous impact on pristine local environments, as well as the many indigenous communities whose lands it will pass through. Since the project was approved, without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples it will uproot, protests against the development have been met with violence and repression.

Another ongoing source of conflict within the country is the struggle between Miskitos, an indigenous population with Amerindian and African ancestry, and non-indigenous mestizo peasants settling illegally in their lands. Tensions between the two groups escalated during the year, leaving a number of people dead. Among those killed were two Miskito leaders, Rosmeldo Solórzano and Mario Leman Müller, while many others experienced aggressive tactics and intimidation. Indigenous women have also been targeted in this conflict. In February 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that in the previous four months, besides several killings, kidnappings and house burnings, three indigenous women had been sexually assaulted. Over the years, Miskitos have 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 hundreds of Miskitos have been forcibly displaced within the country or across the border to Honduras.

Two autonomous regions have been created in the North and South Caribbean Coast regions, established under the 1987 Autonomy Act and supported by subsequent legislation, allowing these ethnically diverse regions to manage their own land and resources. Both have the right to design health services with an inter-cultural approach and have developed ten-year regional inter-cultural health programmes, ending in 2015, which combine ancestral and western medical knowledge. These regions also provide education in indigenous languages and there are even tertiary institutions, such as the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN), with inter-cultural teaching models that support the preservation of minority and indigenous knowledge and practices. However, indigenous peoples elsewhere in the country do not enjoy the same legal protections and, as a result, have been more prone to rights violations. To tackle this, a Draft Bill for the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific, Center and North of Nicaragua has been developed, but not yet approved.

Nicaragua's diversity is reflected in a rich legacy of Afro-descendant and indigenous culture that continues to be an important element in the identity of these communities. One of the most well-known celebrations is the annual King Pulanka festival, a Miskito festival with traditional music and dance that subversively mocks the colonizers who historically occupied the country. The celebrations bring together neighbouring groups for a feast hosted by the indigenous community. Other festivities include the Palo de Mayo, held every May on the Caribbean Coast, and the Walagallo, a Garifuna religious celebration rooted in African spirit worship and traditionally carried out to cure disease. These and other celebrations remain an important source of pride and identity today.

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