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Land disputes trigger old racial tensions on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

An indigenous community took 12 non-indigenous people hostage, claiming they won't release these 'colonists' until their land is returned to them.

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An eastward push by Nicaraguan cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers looking for cheap land has suddenly met an unexpected hurdle. The country’s marginalized indigenous groups, who have populated the remote Caribbean “Mosquito Coast” long before Nicaragua was even a country, are taking a stand, and calling for respect of autonomy and indigenous rights to land.

Tensions over indigenous property rights have been heating to a slow boil for years, but finally shook the kettle Feb. 9 when the indigenous Miskito community of Lapan (see map here) rose up and captured 12 non-indigenous outsiders, including six volunteer policemen. The indigenous community says it won’t release the hostages until some 600 “colonist” families (non-indigenous Nicaraguans, or Mestizos) leave this land the indigenous see as their own.

The hostage situation has exacerbated racial tensions and stirred memories of a violent past. In the early 1980s, the Sandinistas’ “Red Christmas” massacre and forced relocation of indigenous communities near the Honduran border sparked a bloody Miskito uprising led by an indigenous group known as The Children of the Mother Earth, or YATAMA.

While the recent indigenous push-back against outsiders is nothing on the scale of the Miskito rebellion in the early ‘80s, local leaders warn it has the potential to quickly spiral into violence because the issues are similar.

“This is a time bomb,” Miskito leader Reynaldo Francis, the regional YATAMA leader said in a phone conversation from Bilwi, the capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region on the Caribbean coast.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” Mr. Francis says. “The Nicaraguan government has to respond quickly to this situation because it could get out of hand fast.”

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