Nicaraguan Lawyer Fights for Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Miskito people of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua stand to lose access to the Pearl Cays because the ownership of several of the islands is being claimed by a US property developer.

by Alice Cherbonnier

Photo of Maria Acosta
“A STRUGGLE THAT WILL NEVER END,” is how Nicaraguan attorney Maria Luisa Acosta, director of the Center for Legal Assistance for Indigenous Peoples, describes her work. Acosta was in Baltimore in November as part of a national tour to call attention to how her country’s native peoples on the Atlantic coast are losing fishing and fresh water resources because of unconstitutional property transfers to foreign developers. Acosta’s husband was tortured and killed in retaliation for her work.
It's a story that's been told and retold hundreds of times around the globe and throughout history: One group of people live simply off the land, without any formalization of ownership of property and natural resources. Another group, with a culture that "legalizes" such details, moves in and finds a way to obtain ownership of what was once, literally, common ground. The payment for transfer might be a few trinkets or beads, or a large lump sum to a member of the first group who claims to speak for the group, but in fact lacks that authority.

This kind of unequal bargaining arrangement is still happening today.

Take the case of the Miskito people of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. They stand to lose access to the Pearl Cays, an archipelago they have relied upon for centuries, because the ownership of several of the islands is being claimed by a US property developer who is, in turn, selling or leasing what he asserts as his rights to the public.

Maria Luisa Acosta, a human rights lawyer who directs the Center for Legal Assistance for Indigenous Peoples (CALPI), has taken up the fight on behalf of the Miskito people. In November, she traveled to several cities in the US to call attention to the case.

Her involvement has transcended mere legalities, for, in the course of this dispute, her husband-Francisco Garcia, 45, a chemistry professor and Chamber of Commerce president for the city of Bluefields-was tortured and murdered in the couple's home on April 8, 2002. Acosta believes the assassins intended to kill her because of her involvement in the ongoing Pearl Cays dispute.

"I'm not angry," said Acosta during a recent interview at the Chronicle office. "I'm just sad. I feel like I need to do something about it." She is working through her grief by raising the profile of the murder case, as well as of the plight of Nicaragua's indigenous peoples, including about 75,000 Miskitos, 9,000 Sumus, 1,750 Garifunas, and 850 Ramas.

Acosta pointed out that the legislature of Nicaragua, in 1987, passed Law No. 28, "Autonomy Statute for the Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua." It calls for recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to the lands they have historically occupied. "These lands were taken out of the realm of commerce," she explained, "and cannot be sold or bought. They are not 'reservations'. It gives them a sort of autonomy." Similar protections are accorded to the indigenous peoples of Colombia and Panama, she noted.

CALPI found that the developer paid $35,000 for the Keys, and is selling them for an aggregate total of about $2.5 million. The seller, said Acosta, did not have title to the land because it is subject to Article 36 of the Nicaraguan constitution

. "Three years ago, people came to my office to report [that] a man was preventing them from coming to these islands, which they use for fishing, fresh water, and coconuts," she related. She found that Peter Tsokos, a US citizen, was claiming to own several of the islands and was attempting to develop, sell or lease them. Guard dogs were on the islands to keep the Miskito people off, and, according to court documents filed by CALPI, National Police officers were paid by the developer to guard them during September and October 2000.

CALPI took the case of the Miskito people, representing 11 communities surrounding the sea basin, and filed a complaint with Nicaragua's Supreme Court objecting to the use of National Police acting as a private police force. CALPI won. Private police were then brought in by the developer to guard the islands.

Since then, the legal battles have continued. On the islands during this period, Acosta charges, the glare of lights, the foraging of security dogs, and construction activities "have altered the habitat of animals, such as harming the turtles' reproductive cycles."

According to an organization called Defend the Islands, part of the Nicaragua Network, Tsokos has "blockaded" a freshwater spring on Water Cay "with a high cement wall." This spring, according to Defend the Islands, has been used by indigenous people for centuries and now is no longer accessible to them. The group further reports that small-scale "eco-lodge" resorts are planned by Tsokos and some of his buyers.

Last year, the developer acquired another piece of land, this time from the Rama Indians, also on the Atlantic coast. "He bought it for $10,000, and is asking $695,000," said Acosta. "We're challenging his papers."

Stories about this case were on the front pages of Nicaragua's newspapers for 15 days until the Attorney General of Environmental Issues ruled in favor of the Rama Indians. In March 2002, the Miskito people granted CALPI power of attorney to pursue their case as well. A month later, Acosta's husband was killed in the couple's home in Bluefields. She believes she was the intended target. She would have been home when the murder occurred, but she had been unexpectedly detained at a meeting of US Pastors for Peace. She arrived home to find her husband's body. "He was tied hands and feet, his mouth was covered. He had been tortured, then shot in the heart. There was no reason to have killed him. He was involved in no controversial activities at all."

Afraid for her life, Acosta has abandoned her home and moved to the other side of Nicaragua. But she has not abandoned her job with CALPI, and she has not given up seeking to bring her husband's killers to justice. One person has been arrested so far, but she believes others were involved and wants to see the case re-opened. She has appealed to human rights organizations outside Nicaragua to assist her and her two children, who she believes are also in danger.

The outreach is bringing results. "I got two thousand letters from AI [Amnesty International]," she said. Outsiders have visited Nicaragua, asked questions, and talked to leaders. "They listened," she said of the politicians and bureaucrats. "Then attitudes changed. They've found more evidence."

The battle has been waged from the other side, as well. Acosta found herself sued for alleged slander and giving false testimony, among other charges. Though these charges were ultimately dismissed, she still faces a lien of the equivalent of $100,000 against her house-far more than it is worth. A civil judge imposed the lien at the behest of Tsokos to cover what he claims are anticipated damages plus legal costs for his defense.

"It is a struggle that will never end," Acosta said matter-of-factly of her work. "But I want to know that I did what I could."

Click here for more information about the Rama Indians.

Gerald Mueller of Four Directions Geographic Consulting writes, "Southeastern Nicaragua is one of the richest natural areas remaining in Central America. The region is blanketed with a tropical rainforest that provides shelter to animals such as jaguar, puma, tapir, scarlet and green macaw, harpy eagle, howler monkey, and poison dart frog. This forest is adjacent to the equally-rich Caribbean coastal waters, inhabited by manatees, sea turtles, shrimp, lobster, and abundant fishes. The rainforests, rivers, beaches, lagoons, and islands of southeastern Nicaragua are also home to a people known as the Rama Indians. Although the Rama have been in contact with people of European descent for hundreds of years, up to now they have largely managed to retain their cultural identity and traditional way of life. While the Rama have survived the diseases brought by early settlers, mistreatment at the hands of the English and neighboring ethnic groups, devastating hurricanes, and Nicaragua's civil war in the 1980s, today they face what is very possibly the greatest challenge to their survival as a people - the loss of their ancestral lands.

"In a situation that echoes the disappearance or displacement of many of North America's indigenous groups that occurred when white settlers expanded westward across the continent, the Rama are being pressured to abandon the riverbanks and forests that they have traditionally inhabited. This pressure is coming from Mestizo settlers along Nicaragua's rapidly advancing agricultural frontier, and from a proposed interoceanic rail line, or "Dry Canal," which would pass through the heart of the Ramas' remaining territory. Despite the existence of international conventions on human rights and sections of the Nicaraguan Constitution that guarantee the protection of indigenous land rights, the theft and deforestation of Rama land is proceeding unchecked."

Note: A Declaration of the United Nations on December 9, 1998 stipulates measures that member nations must take to ensure the protection of persons and organizations that work to promote human rights.

Want to see about 'buying' or 'leasing' an unspoiled island off the coast of Nicaragua?

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This story was published on December 17, 2002.