Evolution of the Theory

Along with the end of Cold War 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.


Esta entrada fue publicada en Uncategorized. Guarda el enlace permanente.


Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Salir /  Cambiar )

Google photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google. Salir /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s