Growing Hope on the Miskito Coast
An unlikely partnership between Native communities in Saskatchewan and Nicaragua grows hope through the sustainable logging of indigenous forests.
Native communities in snowy Saskatchewan and tropical Nicaragua may seem worlds apart, but Chief Richard Gladue of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council believes these worlds have much in common. Gladue goes so far as to call the relationship “sacred.”
“There are times we take things for granted here in Canada without really thinking about it,” says Chief Gladue. “We think we have a hard life, but we’ve never seen anything like down there. Nobody goes to Nicaragua and comes back the same person. It’s very, very humbling.”
Saskatchewan’s Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) is involved in rural development projects with Indigenous groups in isolated corners of Nicaragua. One of the reasons for this unlikely partnership is Sam Mercado, a Miskito Indian. His story parallels the struggles, strategies and resilience of his people.
A Miskito who grew up in northern Nicaragua, near where the Río Coco forms the border with Honduras, Mercado spent two years in jail during the Sandinista years. “I know all the jails in Nicaragua,” he says, “I became an expert in torture.”
Although the Miskitos initially supported the Sandinistas, worlds did collide when the revolutionary government forced its version of land reform on the country’s North and South Autonomous regions. The Sandinistas tried to dole the land out into parcels that would be owned by individual campesinos, including the local Indigenous people. But Native land was communally held, and some Indigenous groups took up arms during this era of the U.S.-backed Contras.
Mercado, then working for a community group headed by the Sandinistas, was plunged into the personal contradiction of working for a government at war with his own people. Though he didn’t pick up the gun, his resignation from the organization labelled him an enemy of the state. The police barged into his house in the dead of night and hauled him away.
Ironically, his release two years later was a result of international pressure from connections he’d made while in the employ of the Sandinistas. To avoid future imprisonment, Mercado fled with his wife and children to Costa Rica, where he decided to join the armed struggle on the second front against the Sandinistas; the first front was on the Honduran border, fought by the so-called Counter-Revolutionaries or Contras.
In 1988, before the war ended, he and his family made their way to Saskatchewan to start a new chapter in their life, which at one point had Mercado cleaning animal carcasses for a meat packing plant in Moose Jaw.
That Prairie province is where Mercado was introduced to Richard Gladue ten years ago. The Chief had answered a request from the Canadian government for his tribal council to become involved in a forestry venture with a group of Miskitos in Nicaragua. That entreaty was the beginning of a long relationship that is finally bearing fruit.
MLTC is an umbrella organization that delivers services and manages programs on behalf of nine First Nations in Saskatchewan. It is involved in political activities including treaty rights protection and self-government. MLTC also manages around four million hectares of forest. Its mission is to have individual Native communities assume control of their own services and programs and, increasingly, their own economic development. Chief Gladue says the fortunes of the communities he represents only changed after they took charge of their own affairs.
Chief Gladue’s 1996 visit to Nicaragua inspired him to see if MLTC’s sustainable forestry model would take root in Nicaragua’s Indigenous communities where, despite rich timber, agricultural and fisheries resources, 95 percent of the population is unemployed. Access to healthcare and education is limited, running water and electricity sporadic. “When you see the richness of the natural resources [in Nicaragua] it’s hard to believe that it can be so poor,” says Gladue.
After a failed attempt to set up a commercial forestry operation, MLTC created a Canadian not-for-profit corporation, Contigo International, in 1997. MLTC charged it with developing a Nicaraguan scheme that would avoid the oft-repeated foreign aid “dependency cycle.” Enrique Madueno, the First Secretary in Canada’s Embassy in Managua, appreciates the approach. “The program gives the people the tools to improve their income,” he says. “They will choose their priorities themselves.”
With Sam Mercado’s help, Contigo brought together 16 Nicaraguan Indigenous communities to create Consejo Territorial Prinzapolka-Bambana, a management structure similar to a Canadian tribal council. The communities then set up the Limi-Nawah Corporation, the first company to be registered, owned and operated in Nicaragua by Indigenous people. (Limi means jaguar in Miskito and Nawah means jaguar in Mayagnas or Sumu.) These ‘jaguars of the forest’ hope to build an economic base grounded in the sustainable use of natural resources. Limi-Nawah borrowed heavily from MLTC’s successful model.
Limi-Nawah’s money will grow from trees sustainably harvested using a forest management plan that goes so far as to identify and map every tree within the project’s boundaries. Then, rather than selling timber to each community’s síndico or land manager, Limi-Nawah will negotiate higher prices with national and international buyers.
To add value to the trees, Limi-Nawah is building a sawmill near the Río Prinzapolka which will create new jobs. A percentage of profits from timber and lumber sales are to be turned over to the communities to improve health and education services.
Limi-Nawah received a $162,000 grant from Nicaragua’s Institute for Rural Development to build the sawmill, and to cover operating expenses Contigo is lending Limi-Nawah $250,000 from money provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, Canada’s foreign aid wing).
In year one, Limi-Nawah plans to log 1,000 hectares that have forest management plans in place. The company has also arranged to harvest trees from an additional 3,500 hectares located in a community that is not a Limi-Nawah member. In total, the corporation expects to sustainably cut 3,000 cubic metres of round wood, most of it Andiroba, a precious hardwood known locally as cedro macho. Fifty percent of profits from the operation will go to an economic development fund, 35 percent to social development and 15 percent to Contigo for administrative services.
Fifteen of the communities involved are Miskito, the most numerous of Nicaragua’s Indigenous people. The 16th community is Mayagnas (also known as Sumu). In all, some 10,000 people live in the 700,000-hectare area that takes in a large native pine savannah forest. It includes pockets of tropical hardwoods, though the majority of the most valuable trees, mahogany for example, have already been picked over.
Each of the 16 communities has one representative on Limi-Nawah’s board. They’d hoped that 25 percent would be women, but only one woman ran for a position. She won. There is, however, excellent female representation on Limi-Nawah’s various committees. Women, alongside their male counterparts, are being trained to work in the sawmill and in the forest.
Confident because of MLTC’s track record, the powers behind the ambitious undertaking are convinced the model will offer a new path of economic development. But ‘development’ is rarely easy or straightforward.
Steve Gretzinger, who represents the World Wildlife Fund in Central America, worries that while “the concept is splendid, the problem is how they are going about it.” Gretzinger is concerned that Contigo “took the classic approach – they promised everybody everything,” and will have to deal with widespread disappointment because they can’t deliver.
Bob Stewart, Contigo’s general manager, admits they haven’t yet lived up to all the communities’ expectations, but he’s bullish on how the project is moving forward. Limi-Nawah recently presented a plan to Nicaragua’s Foundation for the Technical Development of Agriculture and Forestry asking for $400,000. In total, Limi-Nawah hopes to raise almost $7-million to invest in forestry, agriculture and ecotourism.
Gretzinger of the WWF also worries that the model takes away flexibility since all the communities are expected to sell their forest resources to Limi-Nawah, by-passing the síndicos. While these land managers have been known to abuse their position, Gretzinger would prefer that they were included in the solution. “The corrupt practices of the síndicos,” he suspects, “are the result of their having to operate in a country where there is a lot of corruption.” Limi-Nawah’s approach has, admits Contigo’s Stewart, upset some of the tree brokers.
But the real thorn in the side of Nicaragua’s Indigenous people, Mercado included, is the national government. Tension between politicians in Managua and Native Peoples goes back a long time, and just as in Canada, much of it is centred on land claims. Nicaragua’s Indigenous people live throughout the North and South Atlantic Coast Autonomous Regions that make up eastern Nicaragua. The Autonomous Regions take up more than half the country, but have less than ten percent of Nicaragua’s population.
In Nicaragua, title to crown land is awarded to people who improve it. This encourages poor landless campesinos to squat, cut down trees and farm the land – which is considered an improvement. In reality, once title is granted, many rural citizens sell the cleared land to cattle ranchers. In this way, most of western Nicaragua has been deforested.
While the Sandinista-Contra war of the 1980s slowed this slash-and-burn process down, relative peace since 1990 has led to the practice once again cutting into Nicaragua’s forests. Campesinos have made their way across the mountains and are now making incursions into communal Indigenous lands in both the Autonomous Regions.
Friction has been mounting because politicians in Managua have been unwilling or unable to intervene and stop non-Native farmers from clearing Indigenous land. In February 2004, the situation exploded. Some 100 Indigenous people in Layasiksa (a Limi-Nawah member community) took the law into their own hands. They armed themselves, burned down eight dwellings, injured five and killed two campesinos in the skirmish. Several Miskitos await sentencing as a result.
While he doesn’t condone violence, Mercado sees the current situation as a watershed moment. “Most of the natural resources left in Nicaragua are in this region,” he says. “The government currently has plans to deforest the entire Atlantic Coast.”
Mercado believes the Limi-Nawah programs can prevent this hostile takeover of his people’s traditional land. He hopes to prove that Limi-Nawah’s sustainable forest management plans meet the legal definition of improvement to the land. If successful, the Miskitos and Mayagnas can cement their land claims, protect trees and other natural resources throughout the Atlantic coastal area, and raise their standard of living.
Mercado has been fighting for Native rights for most of his life, and it’s been eight years since he first introduced Meadow Lake Chief Richard Gladue to his people in Nicaragua. Finally, Mercado is allowing himself to believe that the dream may succeed. “Now, we are in a good position,” he says. Like a forest, “it just takes time.”