Tesis de Maestria 2007
To the indigenous people and Mestizo peasants of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua

After the cold war, Latin America has experienced a change in perception on how to conduct nation-state construction.  It has recognized autonomy as a new tool to solve ethnic conflicts. With autonomy, minority groups put into practice self-government, linguistics, religion, cultural rights, access to resources and equal opportunity. Despite fifteen years of advancement in the Nicaragua’s legislation that favors the exercising of autonomy, the application of those laws remains a challenge in the area of resources and power sharing. The main issue affecting the autonomy implementation is the advancement of the agricultural border. Displaced landless “campesinos” are deforesting and settling in extensive communal lands, changing the political demography of the Atlantic Coast and diminishing the political representation of minorities in the local government. This thesis explores the relationship between the advancement of the agricultural border, as a major indicator of threat of power and resource sharing among minority groups, and autonomy in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.


Throughout the history of ethnic conflict, autonomy has been a tool for conflict resolution. Responses to conflict have ranged from oppression and ethnic cleansing to accommodations of ethnic claims through affirmative policies, special forms of representation, power sharing, and the integration of minorities. However, one of the most sought after and resisted devices for conflict management is autonomy (Ghai 2002).  Autonomy is the attainment of constitutional rights by ethnic groups[1] in relation to a broad society to expedite resource control and power sharing over a territory. The willingness of the national government to transfer power to promote power sharing among ethnic groups is significant to the sustainability of autonomy. However, the most important feature of autonomy is the period of implementation when minority groups build the structures to implement linguistic, religious and cultural rights, self-governance, and access to resources, decision-making and equal opportunity.

Autonomy is indisputably vital in multi-ethnic societies to resolve ethnic conflicts, perhaps more centrally today than ever. According to Monica Dufty (2003), today nearly one third of armed conflicts include an ethnic component. It is a complex phenomenon attributed to the ethnic groups’ historical needs of independence from the central government over control of the territory, natural resources, preservation of their religion and culture. In Nicaragua, as in many multiethnic societies in Latin America, autonomy for minorities[2] (Miskito, Mayagnas, Rama [indigenous], Garifuna, and Creole [African descendants]) has become a key component in the implementation of constitutional rights and socioeconomic well-being.

In Nicaragua, control over the territory and power sharing is contested by various actors including private interests, the government and Mestizo[3] peasants, limiting the right of the minority groups to participate in local government. After 15 years of implementation, autonomy has become unclear and misleading. It has not necessarily resolved the political representation of minorities in the local government, and the environmental and social pressure over the territory and natural resources continues. In the context of globalization, the exercise of autonomy represents a challenge to multiethnic societies. Intensified interest in resolving ethnic conflict in Latin America has renewed a search for autonomy. Additionally, autonomy in Nicaragua is under enormous pressure as a consequence of the advancement of the agricultural border and the rapid expansion of the Mestizo population. According to the official census data (1995) it is estimated that there are about half million mestizos in the region of the Atlantic Coast. The term mestizo peasant is used interchangeably with other expressions such as ‘campesinos’ or ‘small farmers.’ The variety of terms used to refer to mestizo peasants[4] reflects the diversity of their socioeconomic, land tenure, political, cultural and historical circumstances.

Mestizo peasants in the Atlantic Coast live in traditional rural communities that are not considered ethnic groups and whose inhabitants do not claim to be so. During the colonial period, indigenous people (Mestizo peasants) lost their identity as a result of the direct domination of Spain. As stated by Bonfil (2002) the absence of an Indian ethnic identity has much more profound significance because it reveals that a mechanism of identification has been broken, one that allowed the designation of an “us” related to cultural patrimony that was solely indigenous. Although mestizo peasants have lost their ethnicity, there is some reminiscence of their ethnicity that can be traced to some similarities between the indigenous people and the mestizo peasants in term of the organization of the family labor force and the use of the land.

A close examination of traditional rural culture reveals a marked similarity with many aspect of Indigenous group’s culture. In the organization of agricultural work people make use of family solidarity and the cooperation of neighbors, based on reciprocity.  It may be stated that these communities have an Indian culture but have lost the sense of identity that goes with it.

(Bonfil 2002: 44)

Currently, there are problems surrounding management of autonomy. Autonomy has not addressed the territorial issue, which remains prone to conflict. The advancement of the agricultural frontier[5] from the west has reached the urban centers provoking a re-emergence of old tension between the Mestizo population and the minority groups (non-Mestizo residents). Displaced ‘campesinos’ (peasants) with no land from the Pacific Coast are culturally different and not engaged in the autonomy process are deforesting extensive communal lands, changing the political demographic of the Atlantic coast and thus displacing minorities from regional councils.

Nicaragua, located in the center of the Americas, constitutes the largest Central American nation with two historical experiences and two social orders in contrast: the eastern side and the western side. In the Pacific region (western side) of Nicaragua, Spaniards conquered the indigenous people and forced assimilation into the dominant Spaniard culture, transforming the indigenous people into mestizos. In contrast, the Atlantic Coast was never conquered and formed alliances with pirates and later with the English Crown. As a result of the colonial domination of Nicaragua, the materialization of two cultures born were confronted. On one hand, Spain with the direct domination and the Catholicism produced the mestizaje with the Spanish language. On the other hand, the indirect domination preserved the cultural shape of the indigenous groups and introduced Protestantism and the English language.

The situation of the indigenous peoples and ethnically distinct communities of eastern Nicaragua, called locally the Atlantic Coast or the Mosquitia, and by the Miskitos, Miskito Taisbaika, can be understood only within the context of the historical reality of 450 years of British and Spanish colonialism, and the subsequent U.S. dominance of the region since the mid-nineteenth century. For two centuries, roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth, Spanish and British colonial interests were in conflict in the Caribbean. The eastern region of Nicaragua and Honduras formed the frontier between the two competing colonial powers. The indigenous peoples of this region were profoundly transformed by constant warfare, since they became parties to as well as victims of the long-term conflict between these European powers (Dozier, 1985; Floyd, 1987). The role of the Miskito Indians in the region was similar to that of the Iroquois and other Indian peoples in North America who were enveloped in the competition for empire between the French and the British (Ortiz 1987: 206-207).

The alliance of the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast with the English Crown prevented Spain from establishing its domination in the Atlantic Coast. England instituted a protectorate in the Atlantic Coast until 1894, when the government of Nicaragua headed by president Jose Santos Zelaya, imposed the Reincorporation of the Miskito Coast with the support of the armed forces of the United States.

In Nicaragua, the unity of the dominant classes of the Pacific, through a common language, and history, was vital to the national unity and nation-sate construction. In turn, in the Atlantic, the English maintained the control of the government of the reserve through indirect domination.

The renewed interest of the superpowers to establish control of San Juan del Norte, vital point for international maritime traffic[6], favored the dominant classes of the Pacific to control the state and the territory; claiming sovereignty of the territory of the Miskito coast. The contested territory produced a marked competition between the powers of the United States and England to control the traffic inter-oceanic to obtain the supremacy of the commerce, which was intertwine with local dominant classes in struggle to control the Miskito coast. Hence, the territory (for the superpower and the local ruling class), had a strategic worth as a major route of communication along with an intrinsic value because of the wealth on resources and space for population expansion.

Although England justified their presence in the Miskita Coast based on the historical alliances with the ethnic groups. England’s presence in the region was reduced to Belice as a result of the Managua treaty (1860). The United States argued the sovereignty of the State in the hands of the oligarchy, and expelled England from the Atlantic Coast.

The Mosquitia became the frontier of the geographic separation created by the competition for empire between the British and the Spanish. This separation was further reinforced by the establishment of a British protectorate over the Mosquitia from 1824-1860. However, the U.S. government disputed British presence in the region insisting on the “Monroe Doctrine,” and supported the formation of a unified Nicaraguan state, which would include the Eastern region, and, of course, allow easier access to the United States. Therefore, in 1860, through the Treaty of Managua between Great Britain and the incipient Nicaraguan state, the Atlantic Coast was transformed from a British protectorate to the “Mosquito Reserve.” This gave the Nicaraguan state sovereignty over the autonomous territory of the indigenous peoples of the region (Dozier 1985, in Ortiz 1987).

The minority question in Nicaragua gravitates around a historical process of special laws and treaties that claim quota of local power over territory. This process involved minority groups in search for self-determination and specific laws that formed the Government of the Mosquito Reserve or Miskita Nation in 1860 to the autonomy law in 1987.

This thesis looks at how autonomy has served as a tool to distribute power and resource among minorities. There is no question that autonomy is an effective source for the immediate settlement of conflict. However, can autonomy ensure power and resource distribution among minorities in Nicaragua? This study seeks to answer the following question: Although autonomy is an effective source for conflict settlement, can autonomy ensure power and distribution of resources among minorities in Nicaragua?

This thesis describes the current challenges in managing autonomy, providing an interpretation of the major issues that affect the national minority question in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. The data interpretation of the advancement of the agricultural border and the allocation of power contribute to the understanding of the problem. It will be discussed how the advancement of the agricultural border, demographics and political elections have a direct effect on autonomy. Additionally, this thesis analyzes what the relationship is between the advancement of the agricultural border and the power allocation, and consequently the displacement of minorities (Miskito, Summu, Rama, Carifuna, and Creole) from local power and resource sharing.

Despite 15 years of advancement of legislation that favors the exercise of autonomy, the application of autonomy remains a challenge in the area of power sharing and territorial control. Autonomy has not necessarily resolved the political representation of minorities in the local government. Today, the mestizo population controls the regional government. The number of Mestizos, from 1997 to 2005, is considerably greater than the rest of the population in the region. Simultaneously, a major political shift in the regional government in favor of the mestizo peasants occurred in the same period.



Evolution of the Theory

Along with the end of World War II came the partition of the world, reviving ethno political conflict and demands of self-determination based on colonial legacies or territorial arrangements. Historical ethnic territories did not coincide with the new political nation-state boundaries. Several nationalities, under one state and controlled by one majority, demanded autonomy to preserve their territory. Self-determination became synonymous with “secessionism.” To most states self-determination remained a banned theme until the end of the cold war. “The resurgence of ethnicity as a conflictual battle cry in part results from the understandable attempt by many post –1945 states, in particular, to substitute ideology or technocracy for ethnic identity in the multinational society which nearly all new states inherited” (Hannum 1990:6).

Self-determination was perceived by the state as a step toward separation. It was a suspicious concept. Autonomy was also not given a great deal of consideration because the concept was, rightly or not, associated with self-determination struggles. “Outside the colonial context, any self-determination discourse was viewed with great suspicion by the government, seeing it as a first step into that slippery slope that inevitably led towards irredentist or secessionist claims” (Weller and Wolff 2005: 7).

Since the end of the cold war, more emphasis has been given to protect minority rights. Demands for autonomy have increased and more governments have recognized minority rights in their constitutions minority rights. In Latin America, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua reformed their constitutions to recognize various aspects of the rights of ethnic and indigenous people. Although the characteristic and historical evolution is different, the claim is the same: minority and indigenous people demanded autonomy.

Causes of Autonomy

Autonomy is attributed to a changing world with a concern in the national arena for the need of a changing vision of the state from a mono-ethnic entity to a more inclusive vision of a multiethnic society. Ethnic conflict has been most prevalent since the end of the Cold War. However, given that ethnic conflict does not represent a threat to the international balance of power, the international community has not recognized its relevant role and its implication in the changing world.

The use of autonomy as a species of group rights changed the character of international law hitherto denied them. Under the autonomy movement, groups also have obtained recognition, which has given new impetus to the currency of self-determination. At the domestic level, autonomy is beginning to transform our notions of the organization of the state, the rationalization of public power and the homogenizing mission of the state (Ghai 2000: 2).

In Minorities and Nationalistic: Managing Ethnopolitical Conflict in the New Century, Ted Robert Gurr (2001) stated that the claims made by ethno-political groups include material and political demands … (they) draw their strength from cultural and historical bonds, not associational one (P.163). Autonomy is the political framework designed to ensure control over certain territory, access to resource and power among minority groups. Autonomy is a vehicle for peaceful solution to ethnic conflict; minorities in conflict are most likely to favor peaceful solutions to participate in the nation state dynamic.  Autonomy is the term that we use when describing the recognition of power from the state to a regional government to control a territory. “The fundamental assumption today is that the devolution of autonomous decision-making power to an ethno-cultural or ethno racial community creates, in the diffusion of authority, a separate space and confers recognition in self-government pride. It may successfully serve to foster a culture and protect the identity of a people as their resources and environment” (Premdas 2001: 8).

In this regard, autonomy is the political entity that mediates conflicts between the central government and minority groups. Additionally, autonomy is a territorial lead based framework, which seeks to eliminate economic and political disadvantage of minority groups.  “Disadvantage means socially derived inequalities in material well-being, political access or cultural status by comparison with other social groups” (Gurr 2001: 169).

According to Ruth Lapidoth (1997), autonomy is a mean for diffusion of power in order to preserve the unity of a state while respecting the diversity of the population. It has been successful in some cases and failed in others.  In this thesis, I will use a definition of autonomy that “refers to territorial autonomy, which gives an ethnic group self-rule –political authority over a certain territory in order to govern its internal affairs to a determined extent.” (Cornell 2002: 249)

Territorial political autonomy is an arrangement aimed at granting a certain degree of self-identification to a group that differs from the majority of the population in the state, and yet constitutes the majority in a specific region. Autonomy involves a division of power between the central authorities and the autonomous entity (Lapidoth 1997:174-175).

The fundamental assumption is that autonomy refers to a diffusion of power to regulate territory. Autonomy is a tool to balance territorial conflict between the state and an ethnic group or indigenous people. This balance is difficult to achieve because the concept is constructed into each particular situation. Demographics and the territory change from time to time and each historical condition determines the creation of each particular case study of autonomy.

Despite this appreciation of the difficulty to define clearly what autonomy is, political scientist and international lawyers have not hesitated to propose a variety of definitions.  Michael Hechter (2000:114) describes ‘political autonomy’ as a state of affairs falling short of sovereignty. For Ted Robert Gur (1993:292) ‘autonomy means that a minority has a collective power base, usually a regional one, in a plural society.’ Hurst Hannum and Richard Lillich (1980: 859) state in their influential essay ‘The Concept of Autonomy in International Law’, that autonomy is understood to refer to independence of action at the internal or domestic level, as foreign affairs and defense normally are at the hand of the central or national government, but occasionally power to conclude international agreements concerning cultural or economic matters also may reside with the autonomous entity (Weller and Wolff 2005:12-13).

Related Studies

            Traditionally most studies focus on the premise that autonomy is a mean for diffusion of power in order to preserve the unity of a state. It is a method of resolving certain conflicts, and it is not common for regions to demand it (Lapidoth 1997). Responses to ethnic conflicts have ranged from oppression and ethnic cleansing to accommodations of ethnic claims through affirmative policies, special forms of representation, power sharing, and the integration of minorities. One of the most sought after, and resisted, devices for conflict management is autonomy (Ghai 2002). Autonomy seems to provide the path to maintaining unity of a kind, while conceding claims to self-government (Ghai 2002).

My contribution to the body of scholarship is to look at the advancement of the agricultural border as a key component of the territorial issue affecting the conflict settlement in Nicaragua. Brandan O’Leary and John McGarry stated in 1993 that autonomy is a difficult concept to define. Perhaps each historical condition and concrete evolution of the ethnic question overlaps a particular conceptualization. Because each historical evolution of the nation-state construction overlaps a particular concept of autonomy, the thesis will look at the major issue affecting the implementation of autonomy in Nicaragua. Latin American studies on autonomy and most of the arguments of scholars around Nicaraguan autonomy imply that the success of autonomy depends on the regulation of the law to implement the delimitation of the territory. However, the autonomy law of 1987 does not take into consideration the advancement of the agricultural border and its implication on shaping the future of the autonomy process. The social dynamic of Mestizo peasants living in poverty has been pressuring the indigenous lands. Landless peasants have been migrating to the Atlantic Coast, changing the political demography of the autonomous territories[7].

The theoretical contribution and perspective of the study is that autonomy in Nicaragua is a concept that needs to be explored by looking at the conflict that emerges from the territorial issue. In Nicaragua, the struggle is among Mestizo peasants, the central government, and minority groups. The recognition of minority groups to preserve their values and to exercise the autonomous regime are commitments the governments, states, and traditional political parties that retain control of the organization for governing societies do make. Each historical condition and concrete evolution of the ethnic minority question urges an update in framing this theory. In Latin American countries, with multi-ethnic societies such as Nicaragua, it becomes a challenge to build a nation-state and to develop and promote democracy. Internal cohesion and minority competence to govern is in direct relation to the capacity of building an inclusive nation-state. Therefore, a key to successfully build an inclusive nation-state rests on the political condition of the society in general and not entirely on the autonomy law.

It is essential to explore the relationship between minority groups and Mestizo peasants, experiencing discrimination and poverty, when looking at autonomy in multiethnic societies. Mestizo peasants living under these conditions pressure the communal territory for power and resources. Since autonomy is a protection for minority groups, Mestizo peasants’ agricultural practice endangers the livelihood of ethnic identity but also it is being marginalized (Mestizo peasants) from the nation-state framework.

Autonomy in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, autonomy with no territory is not autonomy. The main purpose of autonomy is to preserve the territory to back up minority claims. The special meaning of territory is linked to the preservation of the group identity.  In this regard, the current connection between advancement of the agricultural border and political power are related to the praxis of the concept of autonomy and preservation of minority groups identity that “[t]he political implication of this connection between ethnicity and power is that any ethnic group that is conscious of its uniqueness, and wishes to preserve it, is involved in a struggle for political power –either retaining the measure of political power it possesses or striving to acquire the amount of power that it deems necessary to preserve its identity as a distinct ethnic group that is, to defeat the threats and size opportunity it faces.” (Wolf and Weller 2005:7) The recognition of indigenous identity has been undermined by liberals and conservative government in Nicaragua, according to Diaz Polanco (1997) “To acknowledge such an identity would have implied acceptance of an autonomous way of life for ethnic groups and, especially, respect for their subsistence base, their land and other communal resources, intensely coveted by both conservative and liberals.” (P. 9)

The current consequences of the advancement of the agricultural frontier

have shaped the regional election, shifting the allocation of power in the regional government. Today, the growing control of the Mestizo population over regional government and regional councils

has changed the profile of autonomy to a more Mestizo dominated decision making.

Autonomy implementation is an advantage for the majority (Mestizo peasant) and a disadvantage for the minority groups. Studies on the autonomy of Nicaragua do not examine how the advancement of the agricultural frontier has created community conflict over land between groups that compete for the same resources and power affecting the territorial autonomy.

Today, the advancement of Mestizo peasant into the indigenous territory has created discontent and further complication the autonomy framework. This advancement into communal lands has changed the political demographic of the autonomous regions to the point that the electoral process has become an advantage for political parties and the state to dilute minority claims for autonomy. Given that territory is the source of power for autonomy, the advancement has increased the tension to control the territory between minority groups, Mestizo peasants and the state.

Controlling territory is of great importance to ethnic groups because actors believe their survival depends on it. Nevertheless, each sees the relationship between territorial control and survival differently. For ethnic groups, territory is often a defining attribute of their identity, inseparable from their past and vital to their continued existence as a distinct group. States are defined by borders and therefore tend to view challenges to those borders as threats to their existence (Duffy 2001: 19).

The autonomy scenario is the territory. Monica Duffy Toft (2003) examined the meaning of territory in ethnic conflict and found that there is a close connection between identity and the occupation and control of a self-imagined territory that has largely been forgotten, both in social science theorizing and policy making. She argued that ethnic conflict is a function of how these actors (state and ethnic groups) view territory, which is intricately connected with each type of actor’s conception of survival.

Social groups in conflict exist in a material and cultural territory, defining their history, activities and future aspirations. A number of scholars have looked at autonomy as an exclusive conflict between two actors: the state and minority groups. Looking at the territorial conflict, the study can determine the actors in dispute. The Nicaraguan autonomy suggests that not only ethnic groups are demanding rights over land, but also Mestizo peasants who live in disadvantage and suffer depravation and discrimination. Throughout history, landless Mestizo peasants have sought for resources/territory in autonomous regions and have relied on the advancement of the agricultural border to address their problem.

This thesis contests that part of the solution for poverty, discrimination and human rights violations within the nation state framework in Nicaragua needs to include not only minority groups but also Mestizo peasants living in the same condition of depravation.

International and national tensions have continued after the settlement, but are more accentuated in Latin American countries with weak democracies, emerging from genocide dictatorships and leftist national movements of liberation. In this condition, democracy should ensure not only the implementation of autonomy, but also it should look at the rural society and how it is connected to the minority question. In Nicaragua, landless peasants as well as ethnic groups question democracies in multiethnic societies in terms of power and resource sharing. A close examination of traditional rural culture reveals a marked similarity between Mestizo peasants (and indigenous groups) with many aspect of Indian culture. It may be stated that these communities (Mestizo peasants) have an Indian culture but have lost the sense of identity that goes with it (Bonfil 2002). From time to time, autonomy in these conditions can struggle in its implementation.



This thesis will examine the national minority question in Nicaragua, based on the interpretation the advancement of the agricultural border and how it affects the process of autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. The exploratory research project examines the autonomy issues, particularly documenting the experience of the advancement of the agricultural border and the power allocation in the Regional Councils. This thesis also explores the advancement of the agricultural frontier and the election results to draw conclusions on the relationship between territory and power and how this influences the operation of autonomy in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

Because the ability to implement autonomy should be associated with the possession of certain resources, minority groups commonly define autonomy this way (territorial control and power sharing).  These resources include cultural and religious preservation, population, territory, natural resources, economic well-being, and power allocation, among others. The virtue of this definition makes autonomy appear more concrete and measurable.

This study reviews secondary data to build a case study of the autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua by looking at key factors such as the advancement of the agricultural frontier and electoral results. These key components are used as indicators to measure the level of power and resource sharing among minorities. This study answers the following question: Although autonomy is an effective source for conflict settlement, can autonomy ensure power and resource distribution among minorities in Nicaragua?

The dynamic of the agricultural frontier and local elections are relevant to autonomy, considering the demographic growth of the Mestizo population and the change of the socio-political dynamic of autonomy in Nicaragua.  Data were collected into two themes. The dimension of the first theme was delimited by the advancement of the agricultural frontier (population growth, deforestation, farmed land, and the meaning of territory) as an indicator of threat to territorial autonomy. The second theme is power distribution, as an indicator to measure power allocation among minority groups (the regional election result measure the level of power sharing) in the regional government.

Analysis of documents and existing statistics are the most appropriate methodological approaches, because of the wide range of published interviews, articles and specialized information and budget constrains. Although the work was developed through analysis of documents and existing statistics, it is important to mention that this thesis is an overview of the major factor affecting the autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.  The advancement of the agricultural border and election results are our sample units because they are major issues affecting the implementation of autonomy.

Qualitative explanation takes many forms. A qualitative researcher does not have to choose between a rigid ideographic/ nomothetic dichotomy –that is between describing specific and verifying universal laws. Instead, a researcher develops explanation or generalizations that are close to concrete data and contexts but more than simple descriptions. He or she usually uses a lower level, less abstract theory, which is grounded in concrete details. He or she may build new theory to create a realistic picture of social life and stimulate understanding more than test a casual hypothesis (Neuman 2003: 440).

Locating relevant data that could explain our sample units and relationship was a major focus of the data analysis. Most of the studies and newspaper reports dealt with the issue separately, since the connection between advancement of the agricultural border and the autonomy was not made until 2005.  This connection makes it possible to illustrate the role of the territory and power sharing as a key issue in the autonomy process.

A notebook was used for coding of the documents and data analysis of existing statistic. Writing notes facilitates data recordings as evidence of generalization or explanation building under each category. I reviewed information published in the period of 2000-2006 from books, journals, and newspapers. I recorded specific information on the territorial issue and regional elections.  I, also, collected information from the following sources:

UNDP (United Nation Development Program)

IPADE (Institution for Democracy)

ENVIO and Pensamiento Propio (specialized magazine for the Central American University)

El Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua’s Newspaper)

La Prensa (Nicaragua’s Newspaper)

CIDCA (Center of Information and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast)

CSE (Nicaragua Electoral Council)

INEC (Nicaragua Institute of Statistic and Census),

Regional Government

This exploratory study of autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua was conducted over a period of 12 months February 2006 to February 2007.

Methodological Limitation of the Study

One problem encountered was the ability to find reliable data to determine how the population changes are aggravated by the advancement of the agricultural border are affecting the regional elections. The official data found was the census data of 1995; however the data on the 2004 population is an estimate and is not disaggregated by ethnic origin.

There are not any published empirical studies that have used spatially explicit data, human or physical, to measure or explain the advancement of the agricultural border and the change in the autonomy due to population growth, deforestation, and power displacement. The collection of reliable data is important to assess the advancement of the agricultural border affecting the indigenous people. Since 1995, Nicaragua has not collected official census data on the socioeconomic status of their indigenous population on a regular and consistent basis. Furthermore, the most recent disaggregate official data by ethnic origin is dated to 1995. The criteria used to identify the Mestizo population and the indigenous people is an estimate used by the National Institute of Census and Statistic that projected the population in 2004, but it is not disaggregated by ethnic group and only by sex and rural and urban areas.

Because most of the population growth in the last 15 years has been motored by the migration, this data has implications for both the size and characteristic of indigenous and Mestizo population, living in the indigenous territory. The lack of data hinders comparisons of their socioeconomic and demographic status from one decade to another. The absence of recent socioeconomic and demographic data, including labor market data, disaggregated by ethnic origin, is also an indicator of discrimination.

Another limitation encountered is the inconsistency in the definition of Mestizo population. The criteria used to identify who is Mestizo in the autonomy and how they may have changed over time. Those living before the autonomy 1987 are categorized as ethnic groups and those who came after 1990, with the last wave of migration are categorized as Mestizo peasants. This has implications for both the demography and the political participation in the autonomous regimes. The data collection on demographic data by ethnic origin is inconsistent with the principle of autonomy and the rights for indigenous and ethnic groups; the late wave of Mestizo peasants that came after 1990 changed the criteria of identifying the Mestizo population as an ethnic group and may lead to social polarization and fragmentation. Yet others may wish to exclude these groups from voting in the regional elections.

The collection and disaggregation of the data by ethnic groups make it difficult to develop data for comparative purposes and address a key issue, such as the advancement of the agricultural border. This raises a challenge in terms of the indigenous representation and the accommodation of the Mestizo peasants in the current autonomy framework. The data are important to implement the mechanisms and modality of fair power and resource sharing that would enable the government to channel meaningful and cultural sensitive policies for the stabilization of the advancement of the agricultural border and the accommodation of minority rights.



The information consulted regarding the autonomy of Nicaragua demonstrates that the advancement of the agricultural border is the most salient indicator of threat to territorial autonomy. The findings show the advancement of the agricultural border is associated with higher levels of political displacement within minority groups. Both power sharing and the advancement of the agricultural border are inversely correlated; the more advancement occurs in the indigenous territory, the less power sharing happens among minority groups (Figure 1, 3). Therefore autonomy is not ensuring power and distribution of resources among minorities in Nicaragua. The advancement of the agricultural border is the major factor that fosters political displacement of minority groups.

In the discourses of both indigenous people, NGO-employees and government officials, the expansion of the agricultural frontier has been one of the most important causes for land conflicts on the Coast, as well as for deforestation in Nicaragua. The ownership rights over the land and forest have never been well defined or supervised, making it all the more easy for both small-scale farmers and land speculators to colonize “free” lands in the sparsely populated Atlantic region. On the Pacific side of Nicaragua, many campesinos (small-scale farmers) lost their lands to the extensive cotton and sugar cane plantations in the 1950s and moved towards the agricultural frontiers of the Atlantic Coast. (Rinne 2006: 81)

The data reveal that the population growth and the change in land use are deteriorating the indigenous livelihood. The results of the regional elections indicate that the Mestizo population has become the predominant group in the Regional Councils, and in the last 15 years, this dissimilarity has become more drastic with the advancement of the agricultural border. The advancement of the agricultural border is the result of many underlying factors (historical, demographic, government policies, cultural and economic disparities in rural areas) and cannot be reduced to a particular point or confrontation between state and indigenous groups. The data shows that in Nicaragua indigenous people are experiencing violent acts because of the advancement of the agricultural border. However, this issue is not only restricted to Nicaragua. Equally violent conflicts have erupted in Petén (Guatemala), Chapare (Bolivia) and in many zones of the Brazilian Amazon. (Griffiths 2004; Mendoza 2004)

The Agricultural Border

            According to Maria Critina Hevilla (1998), in her Study of the Frontier in America: A Bibliography Approximation, the agricultural border has currently greater attention. The subject is featured in the mass media, newspapers, and political discourses. At the end of last century, the issue of the border was updated, and with the formation of new economic markets and massive population movements, it acquired a renewed importance, particularly in multiethnic societies.

Figure 1.  The Advancement of the Agricultural Frontier on the Atlantic Coast

Source: (Rinne 2007; Mordt 2002).

The agricultural border consists of penetrating and cleaning the forest to cultivate the land. After clearing and burning it, the agriculturist (Mestizo peasants) harvests grains (beans and rice) for two years before exhausting the land fertility. Forced to advance into new lands, the agriculturalist sells the improved land to the cattle producer who will use it for pasturing. In turn, the new owner uses the land for a limited time until he buys more land, to promote new advancement of the agricultural frontier. The chain of events is the result of a migratory wave, which destroys the forest and introduces the cattle system, thus changing the economic and the demographic make up of the Atlantic Coast.

The highest index of population growth due to migration in Nicaragua is registered in the Atlantic Coast. This is because of the net growth of Mestizo families that systematically, since 1950, have been settling in the agricultural border. Deforestation and land displacement of Mestizo peasants began in the dry tropical forest of the Pacific Coast and it dates back to the colonial period. It continued during the middle of the last century, with the expansion of agriculture and introduction of coffee, cotton, and the sugar cane.

Data on Population

             A Mestizo population increase of half a million in the Atlantic Coast has transformed the indigenous and ethnic groups to minorities in their own territory with minimal representation in regional government (Grigsby 2005). According to the United Nation Development Program (UNDP 2005) Report of Human development in 2005, Nicaragua Assumes its Diversity? This immigration has changed 9 out of 19 municipalities to mono-ethnic (Mestizo) administrative units and their demographic profiles are comparable to the adjacent municipalities of the neighboring cities. (Grigsby 2005)

The data provide evidence that 33% of the population is settling in the urban centers whereas 66.7% are located in the rural areas. Contrary to rest of the regions of the country which register the highest concentration of the population in urban centers, in the Atlantic Coast the population is concentrated in the rural areas.

Table 1. Population of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua
  1987* 1997** 2005***
Mestizo 182,377(65%) 341,818(73.5%) 484,260 (75%)
Indigenous and African descendant People 99,704(35%) 123,150(26.4%) 161,420 (25%)

Total282,081(100%)464,968(100%)645,680 (100%)

The available statistics of the Mestizo and minority groups (indigenous people and African descend population) of the Atlantic Coast estimate the number of the Mestizo population in the Atlantic Coast to be a little more than the minority group population in 1987 (Figure 1). From 1997 to 2005, the number of Mestizo is considerably greater than the rest of the population of the Atlantic Coast. The best comparison to the present study would be the demographic growth of 265% (182,377 to 484,260) of the Mestizo population in the period of 1987-2005 (Figure 1).

According to the national census data, the Autonomous Regions register the highest demographic growth (219.5%) of Nicaragua in the period of 1971-1995. The population growth rate in the region was 4.6%, over the national median, which was 3.1% in the 1990’s.

Although the changes in the political demography of the Atlantic Coast started with the reincorporation, the transformation that has occurred in the last 15 years has been so fast and deep into the indigenous territory and this has distressed the local structure and questioned the implementation of autonomy. Brooklyn Rivera, a miskitu native who 25 years ago fought against the Sandinista government demanding self-determination stated that “the Mestizo immigration from the west of the country is brutal. We do not have the possibility of surviving. The state institutions must respect our spaces. The bottom line is that it is more that just a fight for a seat in the regional assembly, it is a fight for survival, the defense of our identity and our rights as indigenous people.” (El Nuevo Diario 3.19.2006) According to Rivera, the way the Autonomy Law is designed does not favor its good management because it is autonomy of municipal cut, opened to other styles of government and the power centralized in Managua. Hardly has it given consultation and participation to indigenous people.


The data provided evidence that the advancement of the agricultural border is transforming the forest into agricultural land at a fast pace. Recently, in a report for the Center on Investigation for the Communication (CINCO) stated, “in 1950 a technical mission from the United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) presented the first report on the forest resources in Nicaragua. The country registered a forest surface of 6.4 million hectares that represented 47% of the national territory estimated to 137 thousands Km². The cultivated surface was 958 thousand hectares that represented 7 percent of the national territory.”  Half a century later, the forest evaluation of Nicaragua conducted by the technicians and specialist from the Instituto Nacional de Forestación (INAFOR) compared the forest surface with the FAO technical report and found an estimate decreased of 3.2 millions hectares of forest land. “The deforestation is over 32 thousands Km² of area much more that Massachusetts or El Salvador surface” (Trucchi 2006).

Presently, the average deforestation rate is 64 thousand hectares per year, and in the last 50 years, 51 percent of the forest has disappeared (the most significant data are that 35 percent of the forest disappeared since 2000 during the neoliberal governments). Although it is important to understand what happened in the last 50 years, it is also crucial to understand how these changes in demographic and transformation of forests into agricultural land are affecting the autonomy. Between 1952 and 1979, the farmed land area in Nicaragua increased from 2 millions of hectares to 8 millions, with an annual growth of 6%. According to the Nicaraguan National Institute of Census and Statistic (INEC), the rest of the regions of the country experienced a decrease in the rural population between 1952 and 1971. In contrast, the rural areas of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua experienced an annual growth of 7 percent (Ortega 1993).

Furthermore, because the majority of the natural forest was located in the Atlantic Coast, this region experienced the greatest decrease and predictions indicated that if the pace should not change, the forest would disappear in the next 40 years.

The FAO recently published a report (Global Environment Report [GEO] for Latin America), which projected the expansion of agricultural and cattle ranch land at the expense of the loss of the tropical forest in Central and South America. Henning Steinfild, chief of the sub-direction of Politics Information and Analysis of the Cattle Department, stated that the deforestation caused by the big haciendas is one of the main causes of the endangerment of animal species and the loss of vegetation unique in the tropical forest of Central and South America, as well as the emission of carbon to the atmosphere. Additionally, the report estimates that by 2010 the forest coverage in Central America will be reduced by 2.4 millions of hectares, at an annual rate of 1.6 percent. As indicated by the GEO Report for Latin America presented by the FAO, the annual deforestation average in the region is 0.5 percent, more than twice the world annual deforestation; Nicaragua has the highest rate in Central America.

Between 1952 y 1979 the farm surface of Nicaragua went from a little more than 2.11 millions hectares to 5.63 millions. Nicaragua registered an annual growth of 6.2%, twice the amount of the index of the population growth of the same years. In the same way and according with INEC (National Institute of Census and Statistic the official statistic) – meanwhile the rest of the regions of Nicaragua experienced a plunge in the rural population between 1952 y 1971, the rural population of the agricultural frontier zones experienced a growth at an annual pace  of 7% (Ortega 1993:17).

The main indivisible issue between the state and the indigenous people is the recognition of indigenous people’s rights to access to land and natural resources. The data on the deforestation and the demographic changes of the indigenous territory show a relationship between the advancement of the agricultural frontier and the implementation of the autonomy. Data compare the demographic explosion and human activity in the agricultural frontier findings that the major factors affecting the autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua are population growth, reduction of the forest coverage and increase of the farmed land area, causing the displacement of minority groups in their territory and local power sharing.

Power Sharing

This study presents the results of the uneven progress of autonomy and the quality of democracy. There is no question that autonomy has advanced as an institutional attribute. The data collected on the electoral results and the advancement of the agricultural border do not necessarily entail power and land tenure among minorities. The government prerogative to promote public policies on the use of the indigenous land is the major point of discord. At the same time the political rights for minority groups are losing ground at a fast pace. Looking at the advancement of the agricultural border gives rise to a relationship with the allocation of power. The data suggest that the dynamic and interactive effects of the advancement of the agricultural border shape the political identity of the autonomy. This can be explained by comparing the population growth and the minority experiences in the electoral process.

Nicaragua is moving toward a democratic system that claims an inclusive political regime of autonomy for a multiethnic society. However, the system of democracy (single-vote) does not protect the differences that autonomy promotes. This happens because a majority of marginalized peasants have been advancing into the territory putting a new pressure into the regional government. In Nicaragua, especially at the community level, the problem derives in most of the cases from zero-sum competitive majoritarian politics, which confer most benefits and privileges to electoral winners in an invidious game of “winner-takes-all” (Ghai 2001).

With regard to electoral systems, there has been a debate about the appropriate type of electoral system that best promotes inter-communal accommodation of autonomy. Because of their capacity to exclude minorities and entrench majorities, there has been a universal rejection of plurality systems, which confers victory to the candidates with the highest number of votes in single seat constituencies. Some argue instead for proportional representation, which allows for minorities to gain representation, to set the stage for coalition power to share in a consociational order (Ghai 2001).

 Source: (Grigsby 2005)

Table 2. Election Results in the Autonomous Regions
Electoral Periods



































Figure 2 and Table 2 show that the Mestizo population is displacing the indigenous and the rest of ethnic groups in the Atlantic Coast. The victory of the Mestizo in the regional seat is a progressive indicator of direct relationship with the advancement of the agricultural border. In general, the current population growth is far more salient than when it started in 1990. Moreover, if we look specifically at the data from 1990 with a demographic focus, the displacement is also product of the government allocation of demobilized families from the army and the guerrilla contra and displaced families from Costa Rica refugee camps in the period of war.

Additionally, democracy under these circumstances thereby isolates minorities and prevents them from power sharing. Since the installment of the autonomous regime, the general perception by different activists and autonomy advocators was that the autonomy would surpass the negative aspect of the advancement of the agricultural frontier by legalizing the territory in favor of the ethnic and indigenous groups. Nevertheless, scholars never explored this advancement of the agricultural frontier at the lower level of analysis, the system of farms, and the rationale of the Mestizo peasants.

The advancement of the agricultural border has been one of the main motors of migration of the Pacific towards the Caribbean Coast. The Report of Human Development in 2005 explains that for many farmers from the different regions of the country it is attractive to settle down in uncultivated and national soil, supposedly to establish ‘mejoras’ and to possibly sell them (Grigsby 2005).

This movement of peasants demands land and credit, restructured power and allocation of resources in the region. They have greater seat distribution in the regional government because they are the majority single votes. For this reason, it is considerably easier for the Mestizo population to affect the autonomous structures in the decision-making and regional bodies. The system of voting has legitimated the changes on the identity of autonomy, from an indigenous perspective of the use for the land to a more dominated agricultural perspective. The data demonstrates that the driving forces around political requirements are dominated by Mestizo demand for land legalization and credit. This change in the decision-making structures –that favor the majority non-autonomous groups– has created a generalized dissatisfaction among ethnic and indigenous groups.

With regard to institutions and practices of democratic governance, it is clear that new modes of collective decision-making departing from standard zero-sum, winner takes all, exclusionary parliamentary practices in Western democracies are required. Perhaps, the most crucial institutional design points to the need for power sharing in a consensus-oriented order. At all costs, systems that create permanent political minorities often the victims of discrimination and abuse, and with no investment in maintaining order, must be avoided. Nearly all the cases of failed efforts in democratic governance point to institutions and practices derived from competitive and adversarial majoritarian parliamentary politics (Prendas 2001:22).

The argument that autonomy ensures power distribution is far from reality in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. The real challenge is whether the government can ignore the erosion of the indigenous land tenure caused by advancement of the agricultural border and still expect power and resource sharing among minorities. For 15 years, neo-liberal policies that implemented the governments expected high productivity growth and robust economic performance at the expenses of extracting resources and encouraging the advancement of the agricultural border in indigenous lands.

The answer to the losers does not rely on free elections. Rather, what is needed is a public policy to stop the advancement of the agricultural border to implement farm sustainable systems for those who depend on the agricultural production as well as land tenure rights for minority groups. The integration of the Mestizo population in the autonomy dynamic is inevitable as the population is already settled in the territory. The autonomy experience in Nicaragua requires adjustment and changes. It is unclear how autonomy can lead to power and resource sharing among minorities with an inevitable population growth of the Mestizo population, lower participation of minority groups in the regional government, and the territorial conflict. Democracy in this context is harming minority rights.



The agricultural border means a clash of two of cultures: the minority groups (indigenous people and African descendant) and Mestizo peasants. The high Mestizo population is affecting the principles of the statute of autonomy, which was established to ensure a fair representation of minority groups through democratic exercise of historical rights of the indigenous people and ethnic communities. However, the report (UNDP 2005) states that the problem is not simply the border farmer; it also involves a complex process of expulsion of population, primarily farmers originally of the center and north of the country living in extreme poverty, toward the autonomous regions due to the dramatic reduction of the presence and services provided by the State, land speculation, unemployment and the lack of income in the rural sector. The data collected in the literature review suggests that the internal tension caused by the advancement of the agricultural frontier in the Atlantic Coast needs an urgent solution, a comprehensive policy from the regional governments and the central government as well.

The Meaning of the Territory

            Monica Duffy Toft (2003) examined the meaning of territory during ethnic conflict and found that there was a close connection between identity and its occupation. Furthermore, she established that control of a self-imagined territory has largely been forgotten, both in social science theorizing and policy making. Toft argued that ethnic violence is a function of how the actors (state and ethnic groups) view territory, which is intricately connected with each type of conception of survival of the actors. In Nicaragua, the territory is the major factor of ethnic conflict, as it is an indivisible issue not only for the indigenous people and the government but also for Mestizo peasants. It is of great importance for both parties because it is their homeland and identity. Their livelihood depends on its control and access to natural resources. The advancement of the agricultural frontier has altered the social order in the Atlantic Coast population. It has brought discontent to the people, land expropriation, serious environmental devastation and political displacement for the locals in the regional government. Former presidents, in an effort to boost the economy and strengthen Nicaraguan’s unity have promoted the advancement of the agricultural frontier by mixing Mestizo with the indigenous groups in order to dilute regional autonomy loyalties.

A number of scholars have approached the subject of ethnic violence by focusing on the material conditions of ethnic groups within a state. This approach has three major strands: development and modernization, relative deprivation, and intrinsic worth. Political-development and economic-modernization arguments focus on the relative development of regionally concentrated ethnic groups within a state’s borders. As the economy and state structures modernize, individuals should transfer their loyalties from their ethnic group to the state, leading to demise in ethnic identity. This in turn should cause ethnic conflict and violence to diminish. In this theory, any ethnic conflict and violence that remain is the product of uneven development and modernization. Equalize economic development, and ethnic conflict disappears (Duffy 2001: 5).

This advancement policy has created ethnic and political conflicts between campesinos and minority groups. In general, the policy can be summarized as the main cause of the failure of autonomy in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, bringing to the region drug smuggling, extortion and illegal extraction of natural resources. Ethnic differences have often led to conflict, especially in time of economic hardship. In the rural areas of the Atlantic Coast, people are predominately Mestizo, and thus the locals have less access to the regional power. A negative point for the autonomy is the advancement of the agricultural frontier. As a state policy, it is a serious attempt from the state to transfer the indigenous loyalty to the state. However, this transfer has never happened. For centuries, indigenous communities in the Atlantic Coast have established their own structure of social and political organization, different from the rest of Nicaraguan society.

Amongst indigenous groups, the understanding of territory is different from perceptions of the Mestizo peasants who are immersed in the market economy. For minority groups, the tradition is not to pursuit accumulation of wealth or individual success through the labor market.

The native communities of the forest understand “economy” in a very different way from urban dwellers immersed in a market economy. Historically they do not seek to amass wealth or to improve individual standards of living, unlike the Portuguese-Hispanic world. The traditional native economic structure is based on subsistence activities to meet basic needs and maintain their way of life. Guided by a moral order which establishes values, norms and kinship based group solidarity trade is based on sharing all material goods (Basso, 1973, Goldman, 1963; Bodley, 1973 cited by Tresierra 1997:4).

To the Mestizo peasants, the forest is an opposed natural product of agriculture. The concept of “development” of the territory (of agricultural border) represents the domestication of nature by human actions and the forest “is not of value” unless “it is cultivated.” When the forest is transformed into agricultural land, it acquires a value in the market and “is of worth.” (Mendoza, 2004) The rural areas represented an important factor bearing on the accumulation of wealth (Soltow, 1975; Atack and Bateman, 1987, pp. 86-87) and therefore the incentive for migration (Gallaway and Vedder, 1971, p.617; Atack and Bateman, 1987, pp. 76-77; Steckel, 1989, p. 212) was the opportunity to own land. From the traditional mestizo peasant perspective, to own a piece of land and to work it is the opportunity for economic wealth, as the land and its value is the vehicle to overcome poverty.

The indigenous lands are perceived by the Mestizo elite in the government as “national” land, required to be incorporated into the “development” and “colonized” – by “colonos” – on a first come first serve basis. Even though the indigenous territories are demarcated, the assumption will prevail before the non-indigenous world and the owners will continue to lack legitimacy. The arrival of mestizo peasants into the indigenous territory came with a rationale: the right to work the land and the mission to “colonize” and civilize. “Indigenous concepts of well-being and security focus on access to adequate subsistence resources and social and cultural resources within a territory. Indigenous ideas regarding livelihood security, land, food production, social welfare and the maintenance of cultural identity are all closely interconnected.” (Chirif. et al.1991; Davis, 1991; Gray, 1999)

According to the World  Bank, “the ability to use land rights as collateral for credit helps create a stronger investment climate and land rights are thus, at the level of the economy, a pre-condition for the emergence and operation of financial markets.  Property rights to land are one of the cornerstones for the functioning of modern economies.” (Deininger 2006) The role of land in wealth accumulation is best understood from the perspective of the agricultural ladder, which posits a hierarchy of jobs in agriculture to which workers ascended over their life cycles. Land enabled laborers and tenants, those on the lowest rungs, to become farm owners and to accumulate more wealth through rents and capital gains (Stewart 2005).

The mestizo peasant population as a different group, who is also in disadvantage with the indigenous people, has interests that differ in some respect from those stated in the autonomy law. These include the agricultural practice and the rights to influence decisions affecting their agricultural system, in a way that their judgment is adapted to their own culture and methods of decision making (based on the system of farm production). Most of the rational of the mestizo peasant is to obtain equitable access to credit and land tenure, but to do so they also, as the indigenous groups, must be able to exert control over political action at local and national level.

Agricultural Border and Autonomy

The agricultural border is a historical issue; the main drive behind this action is the policy shifts in land reform and the land settlement of mestizo demobilized from the conflict between the Sandinista government, mestizo peasants and indigenous groups. In the past 15 years, the region of the Atlantic Coast has witnessed the rise of the advancement of the agricultural border and indigenous movements that urge a new political agenda within the autonomy framework.

The rates of deforestation are particularly high in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, where the poor quality of the soil has led to advancement of the agricultural border along with the practice of routine clear-cutting to make new soil available for agricultural use. The advancement of the agricultural border is leading to the loss of indigenous territory and the lost of biodiversity. The consequences are the diminishing of minorities’ rights to access power and protect their territory where political parties from the capital (Managua) compete for control of the regional government through free and fair elections, but not ensuring power distribution among minorities. Since autonomy is a claim to implement minority rights through regional elections, autonomy then may serve to legitimate the conflict resolution, but the reality falls far short of the success of autonomy to ensure power and resource distribution among minorities.

The advancement of the agricultural border may continue because of the lack of accountability from the government. The implementation of neo-liberal governments promoting the free market in the context of the globalization has deepened the condition of poverty and social exclusion of the mestizo peasants and indigenous groups.

Data from the United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) indicates that nearly 1.4 millions of Nicaraguan (the 27 percent of the population) lives in malnutrition, this constitutes the highest index in Central America (La Prensa 03.03. 2007).

The data findings show a broad consensus on the advancement of the agricultural border where disforestation, population growth, and the farmed land are clashing with the territorial autonomy despite the gain in the rule of law to protect minority rights and the fact that many Latin American countries have amended their constitutions which for the first time acknowledged the multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual societies and states. Minority rights are still fragile, suggesting that indigenous people and territorial autonomy remains unprotected and vulnerable to the advancement of the agricultural border. “It is for this reason that the loss or fragmentation of traditional territories threatens the cultural integrity and the social fabric of indigenous societies. A territory is valued as an integrated resource that sustains the human community and provides autonomous space for the reproduction of present and future generations” (Griffiths 2004:12).

Reviewing the data reveal that the problem of the advancement of the agricultural border and power distribution among minorities is the result of institutional and societal discrimination. This inequity is rooted in the belief that indigenous culture is a constraint for the development of the neo-liberal model practiced since 1990 in Nicaragua by three governments. Autonomy has been perceived as an obstacle to modernization but the current development of the neo-liberal policies, based on the colonization of the indigenous land through the advancement of the agricultural border, has affected indigenous people to access power and resource distribution. “Liberals in particular considered these groups not only undesirable but also a hindrance to nation building. In the ideology of the learned elites, Indian identities, now differentiated not only from the Spanish but also from the criollo or mestizo, were “colonial.” This character was persistently attributed to indigenous ethnic groups up until twentieth century indigenism.” (Diaz Polanco 1997: 9).

This ideology has been detrimental not only for the autonomy and the indigenous people themselves, but also the cohesion of the nation-state and political stability. One resulting analysis from the data is that the regional governments are voted through free elections, but the control of the mestizo population in the regional government is far from establishing a fair distribution of power among minorities.

Today, the debate urgently needed is about rethinking the autonomy and perhaps the democracy for minority groups. The performance of the autonomy in Nicaragua is questionable. Even though progress has been made in the law concerning institutional aspects such as regional governments and status of constitutional laws, minority groups still struggle under the autonomy framework. The number of minorities in the local power structure has rapidly decreased over the past 15 years. The advancement of the agricultural border and the mestizo population has also rapidly increased over the same period of time. It is alleged in the findings that the advancement of the agricultural border is the main problem of the implementation of the autonomy regime.

In the context of globalization and neo-liberal policies, to implement autonomy remains a challenge. In this debate, the welcome news about the benefits of free trade and how Nicaragua needs a high productivity growth in the agricultural sector to obtain the benefits of globalization and free trade we find the indigenous people in Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. It was discovered the data on poverty, population growth due to internal migration, the farmed land, and disforestation in the last 15 years, autonomy has failed to deliver resource and power for minority groups. It is argued that agriculture and cattle ranching are spread into frontier forests, resulting in deforestation and consolidation of landholdings of big cattle ranch owner. In turn, this consolidation has created a rural exodus of mestizo peasants, leading to even further advancement of forest destruction.          Unfortunately, many autonomy leaders have been more interested in the petty politics with national parties conventions, misinformed about the realities of public life and/or are preoccupied with personal well being. Today, it is more difficult to identify an ethnic group’s community in the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Consequently, traditional electoral strategies will become ineffective in the future. These strategies must be replaced by more broadly defined politics. Issue-based politics will substitute territorial autonomy based, ethnic-specific, partisan politics. The Regional Assembly remains the most viable institution from which to launch policy initiatives, voter registration and education activities. Activating those historical demands for autonomy to a broader audience of Hispanic culture, though, is a daunting, it is an essential task.



            The reluctance to recognize Indian dominion over land and territories lies at the heart of serious obstacles of self-determination encountered in many Latin American countries. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 implemented autonomy for the Atlantic Coast that resulted in major reforms to the constitution of 1987. According to Diaz Polanco (1997), on the Atlantic Coast, Nicaragua implemented the first constitutionally established regime of regional autonomy in Latin America. The process launched by the Sandinista government is an experiment with wide-ranging lessons. However, since conservative governments took power in the 1990s elections, autonomy has not been promoted (the highest migration to indigenous territory has occurred causing the largest deforestation in the Atlantic Coast). The lack of the government’s willingness to support the implementation measures necessary to firmly establish autonomic practices on the Atlantic Coast continue to be the major challenge. Thus, indigenous lands have suffered increasing illegal incursions by mestizo peasants and by transnational companies that undermines the autonomic regimes.

Autonomy in Nicaragua is under enormous pressure resulting from rapid population expansion of the mestizo population, and the increased indifference of the central government to implement the law.  The agricultural frontier, which is advancing from the West, has reached the Atlantic Coast urban centers; this has recharged old tension between the mestizo population and the minority groups. Displaced peasants who are culturally different and not engaged in the autonomy process are deforesting extensive communal lands, changing the political demographic of the Atlantic coast creating conflict by displacing minorities by reducing their possibilities in local elections.

In August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Nicaraguan government and in favor of the Awas Tingni community of Sumo (Mayagna) Indians in a case involving logging operations on communal lands by the Korean transnational Sol del Caribe, S.A. The government had permitted the concession in spite of efforts by the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Coast Autonomous Region to stop the logging (Carlsen 2006).

For centuries, the rich zones of the tropical forest were ignored by the rest of society and functioned as means of subsistence for the indigenous people. Since 1950, this reality has changed rapidly and in a disorganized way. One of the areas with the highest growth in the indigenous territory is the extractive economy carried by external agents. In countries like Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Perú, the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources advances through a method of concessions of the indigenous land. In most cases, ambiguous legislation concerning autonomy and exploitation of the subsoil makes this advancement to continue undermining the autonomy laws. Indigenous organizations claim that the environmental and cultural impact is threatening their livelihood. The neo-liberal government has implemented a concept of development that is employed though the concessions of the indigenous territories rich in natural resources. The indigenous groups perceive their livelihood threatened by the effect that these policies are causing.

In developing countries with diverse ethnic groups it is a challenge to build a nation-state and to develop democracy. The capacity of building an inclusive nation-state is in direct relation to the competence of the central government to put together a political regime that can articulate, through the unity of the territory and the national market, the political participation of minorities in the exercise of power. “[I]t is impossible to understand the so-called indigenous problem (or any other problem having to do with groups distinguished ethnically) apart from the regional and national contexts (political, economic, and socio-cultural) that inform it.” (Diaz Polanco 1997:3)

The national minority question in Nicaragua gravitates around a process of autonomy for minority groups that claims throughout the history of the constitution of the nation state a quota of local power to control the natural resources and the territory. In Nicaragua this process has involved ethnic groups in search of independence from the rest of territory and the state-nation, and self-government. The approach of the central government (host-state) to the ethnic conflict had always ended in the creation of specials laws. However, specials laws are nothing new. Autonomy is a continuation of ethnic conflict where ethnic groups struggle for a quota of local power to exercise control of the territory and the natural resources of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

The different materialization of the specific circumstances of the nation is a historical result of the struggle between the different groups or social entities that constitutes the economic, political, and social dynamic of a particular government. The territorial dimensions, the social composition, and the grade of economic development are linked to the specific conditions and the historical capacities of the ruling class in power to establish political alliances and control the rest of society in a territory arranged by the colonial power which allow them to generate military and administrative power.

The ethnic conflict in a nation is marked in the national struggle, as a result of the exploitation of one group, the hegemonic class, over the rest of society with the objective of establishing their economic control, via the expropriation of the natural resources and having support from the political institutions that legitimate the thinking of the dominant class. The dynamic of the national struggle has a differentiated and combined effect in the ethnics and Mestizo peasants that have been marginalized.

Those unsolved colonial ethnic conflicts were the type of national movements of liberation that most of the time ended with separation or autonomy. At some point and in some specific cases those national movements of liberation could end in a successful autonomous regime, but also the conflict could extend or continue when there is no political solution. “Historically, the importance of ethnicity can be understood only in terms of the process that have determined the makeup of national societies in Latin America and, in particular, guided the emergence of its nation-states” (Diaz Polanco 1997: 3).

Throughout history, the best way for the state to halt separatism and to protect the territory in an ethnically diverse, geographically extensive and divided culture like Nicaragua, particularly in remote communities such as the Atlantic Coast, is to implement specials laws and colonize the territory. Autonomy and the advancement of the agricultural border consequently are not something recent; they have been discussed and it has been happening since the formation of the nation state; however the solution still is a challenge for our time.



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[1] An ethnic group is ‘a type of cultural collectivity, one that emphasizes the role of myths of descent and historical memories, and that is recognized by one or more cultural differences like religion, customs, language, or institutions’ (Smith 1991: 20 cited by Weller 2005). As a self-defined community, ethnic groups are distinguishable by a collective name, a myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more differentiating element of common culture, the association with a specific homeland, and a sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population (Smith 1991: 21 cited by Weller 2005)Ethnic groups are composed of individuals who share (1) a common trait such as language, race, or religion, (2) a belief in a common heritage and destiny, and (3) an association with a given territory (Monica Duffy Tuft  2003: 19).

[2] “According to a definition proposed by an expert in the field, Francesco Capotorti.“a minority is a group which is numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State and in a non-dominant position, whose member possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristic which differ from those of the rest of the population and who, if only implicitly, maintain a sense of solidarity toward preserving their culture, tradition, religion or language” (Lapidoth 1997:10-11). For this thesis we would use the term minority group to refer to the Indigenous People, and ethnic groups living in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

[3] The Pacific Coast of Nicaragua is culturally different from the Atlantic Coast. The vast majority of the people on the Pacific coast are Spanish-speaking Mestizos, descendants from the mix of Spanish and indigenous people. Like the rest of Latin American countries, the mestizaje from Nicaragua is the result of the mix of the indigenous with the Spaniards, originated from a cohabitation marked by the Spanish colonization. The Nicaraguan Mestizo in addition to Spanish, shares with the Spaniards many of the socio-cultural values originated from the initial contact. These were strengthened after the independence with the constitution of the Nicaraguan national state. The nationalism Creole, the language, culture, and costumes are symbols of the mestizaje. The crystallization of the Mestizo nation clashed with the Miskita nation, in which the mestizo was the bearer of the nationality and the miskito was seen as not part of this nationalism.

[4] The mestizo peasants in the Atlantic Coast can be divided by the wave of colonization. Those inhabiting the autonomous territory since 1960 that came with the Land Reform promoted to colonize indigenous territory, and those mestizo peasants that came with the neo-liberal government in 1990.   In Nicaragua according with the UNDP 2005 report there is a strong correlation between being indigenous and mestizo peasant and being poor or extremely poor. Indigenous and mestizo peasants are more likely to have lower incomes, poorer physical living conditions, less access to health care, education, and arrange of other of other services, worse access to labor, land and capital markets as well as political representation in the national level.

[5] A common characteristic in the region of Latin America is the advancement of the agricultural frontier. In other words, the exhaustion of the land dedicated to agricultural and cattle production and the look for new areas. In Nicaragua for example, the Atlantic coast regions (RAAS and RAAN) suffer from a critical deforestation that motivates massive migration to the communal lands where cattle and agricultural settlers are penetrating the protected areas and the indigenous lands. The absence of a state policy that enforce the autonomy law favors the advancement of this colonization fronts introducing predatory practices of the soil with no vocation to agriculture and cattle. The illegal occupation of private lands, in most cases extensive spaces, has increased rapidly in Latin America since 1950 (Mertis, 1996)

[6] The discovery of gold (1848) in California ignited interest of United States to control Central America territory see Flolkman  (2001). Before the construction of the Panama Canal, the territory of the Atlantic Coast was vital point for the U.S. for maritime traffic and the control of the commerce of goods.

[7] Before the first wave of immigration of Mestizo peasants in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (1960) indigenous people and ethnic groups were majority in their territory. With the second wave (1990) the mestizo peasant has grow exponentially. Today indigenous people and ethnic groups are minority in their own regions.

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