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Cowboys vs. Indians in Nicaragua’s ‘WILD EAST’

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The road from Managua to Bonanza, a mining town in the autonomous north-eastern part of Nicaragua, is long and for the most part unpaved. Every summer, clouds of dust accompany the brightly painted buses that run to and from the capital, choking the passengers and turning hands, faces and clothes a startling white, while during the rainy season the same dirt road becomes a sea of mud, slowing traffic to a crawl and making the fifteen-hour journey yet more uncomfortable.

But it is the region’s isolation that has allowed the ten thousand or so Mayangna Indians, second largest of Nicaragua’s indigenous populations, to survive here with their language and culture largely intact, despite the pressures exerted on them by the conquistadores and slave-raiders of the colonial period, the North American mining companies who succeeded them in the early twentieth century, and the constant efforts of the Nicaraguan state to absorb the nation’s Indian groups into a homogenous, ‘national’ mestizo culture.

However, while Bonanza and the neighbouring municipalities of Siuna and Rosita remain remote, pressure on the region’s lands has been building since the 1950s, when thousands of mestizo peasants, displaced by the Somoza dictatorship’s land reforms aimed at ‘modernising’ agriculture, first began to migrate towards the supposedly ‘virgin lands’ of the Atlantic Coast. The problem is that the region’s rainforests, far from being ‘wasteland’ ripe for conversion into ‘productive’ cattle pastures by entrepreneurial mestizo farmers, are essential to traditional Mayangna life, which continues to revolve around hunting, gathering and small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture. While the violence that wracked the Atlantic Coast during the Nicaraguan Civil War in the 1980s largely halted the eastward expansion of what is locally known as the ‘agricultural frontier’, since the early 1990s the economic policies of successive Liberal and ‘neo-Sandinista’ governments, with their emphasis on growth in the agro-exports sector, has accelerated mestizo migration to the area, making new land conflicts inevitable.

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Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 4 No. 1

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