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 undermine 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 helps 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 special laws. However, special 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 constitute 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, land and having support from the political institutions that legitimate the human rights violation of the central government. 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 is still a challenge for our time.