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Inside Nicaragua’s bloody conflict over indigenous land

Inside Nicaragua’s bloody conflict over indigenous land

As new settlers occupy indigenous lands in Nicaragua, the violence is forcing the native Miskitos to flee to Honduras.

Miskito men cross the Coco River from a refugee community in Honduras back to their native land in Nicaragua [Alex McDougall/Al Jazeera]
 (Aljazeera) – Waspam, Nicaragua – The story that Lina Chale recounts in her native Miskito language is in stark contrast to the blue doves, a symbol of peace, painted on a white wall of a church behind her. “They killed him in such a ghastly way,” says 52-year-old Chale.

On August 18, 2016 , her younger brother Gerardo failed to return home from his farm in the mountains. He had been kidnapped along with another Miskito man from La Esperanza, a village on the Coco River. A few days later, indigenous rangers discovered their decapitated bodies .

For the past two years, a string of violent attacks has plagued Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

According to CEJUDHCAN, a non-governmental organisation defending the rights of indigenous people in this region, 21 indigenous men have been killed since 2014, and dozens more wounded or kidnapped. Women have been raped. More people are still missing. Armed men have attacked several villages, including Polo Paiwas, which was burned to the ground in October 2015. The violence has been at its worst in the area of almost 4,000 square kilometres between the rivers Coco and Wawa, south of the border with Honduras.

The Miskitos, the largest indigenous group on the Caribbean coast, with a population of up to 300,000, blame the attacks on “settlers” coming from other parts of the country and occupying their ancestral territories.

Thousands of Mestizos, Nicaraguans of Spanish descent, have moved into the rainforests, lured by the promise of cheap, fertile land, precious timber and gold. Many are simple farmers or artisanal miners.

The Miskitos have tried to force the newcomers out, but the settlers have been determined to stay. As tension has grown, a wave of violence has erupted, with killings on both sides of the dispute. The brutality of some attacks on the indigenous communities has fuelled suspicions that hired thugs are among the settlers.

Fearing for their lives, almost 3,000 Miskitos have fled their homes since 2015, according to CEJUDHCAN . Many have taken refuge in neighbouring Honduras, where they live in makeshift huts, facing hunger and diseases.

Others have stopped going to the mountains where they have farmed, hunted and fished for generations.

“We have all our livelihood there, but we have abandoned it,” says Chale, who lives in La Esperanza . “We are afraid that we could meet the same fate as my brother.” Her family now has to rely on the generosity of fellow Miskitos with plots closer to the village to provide them with food.

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