Box 3.17. Contested reefs in the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua: no co-management in sight ! (adapted from Nietschmann, 1997)
The Miskito people, living on the north-east shore of Nicaragua, are the indigenous owners of one of the largest and least disturbed tracts of coral reef in the near shore Caribbean. The Miskito Shelf contains large expanses of coral patch and bank reefs, large beds of sea grasses and several coastal lagoons and associated wetlands, habitat of rare species such as the manatee and a small coastal-marine dolphin. For a long time, the Miskito control of their reef and shoreline has been a contested matter. Their opponents included foreign powers and commercial fishing businesses (one can count eleven wars against invaders since the early 1970s). More recently, they also included the Sandinista government (at the time of Contra-led insurgencies), resource pirates and drug dealers, and US-supported conservationists attempting to establish a biosphere reserve in the area. With whatever means they could master, the Miskito have consistently opposed the resource management schemes proposed from outside their communities. What they wish is to establish their own indigenous coral reef management system based on customary rights and responsibilities, including regulation of fish catch, number of allowed fisherfolk and access to fishing areas. They also need concrete help to defend themselves against the large-scale exploitation of their marine resources by outsiders.
In 1991, twenty-three coastal Miskito communities, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Natural Resources and an international conservation NGO formally agreed to establish the largest Latin American coastal marine protected area, including the Miskito‘s Reefs. The agreement included provisions for Nicaragua to recognise the Miskito ownership of their ancestral land, lagoons and sea territories, and to assist in protecting them against resource piracy, industrial fishing and drug trafficking. The indigenous communities would manage the protected area with some technical assistance from outside, and receive financial assistance to carry out a number of conservation and development projects.
The Nicaraguan government administration includes people interested in donor funding and tourist revenues (and thus in favour of resource conservation), but also others accustomed to receiving income from the sale of fishing permits and payoffs by resource pirates and drug traffickers. As a result of internal power struggles, the government soon retreated from the initial agreement and attempted to open up to commercial fishing a large corridor that cut in two the original area to be managed. It also declared protected territory an inland area including five communities that had not yet entered the discussions on agreement. As not uncommon in the developing South, the government ministries of Nicaragua had little financial means, poor disposal of technical capacities, and overlapping and conflicting internal authorities (different ministries and branches responsible for conservation, commercial fishing, fishing permits, law enforcement and regional
governance). In addition, they were used to planning for short-term goals only and showing an omnipresent desire to control the natural resources from far away offices. It is not surprising that the interests of the Miskito people found themselves in contradiction with those of the government.
In 1992, a local Miskito NGO was created to protect the local interests in management. The name of the NGO is Mikupia, meaning “Miskito heart”. Despite meagre means, Mikupia managed to foster environmental discussions and organising in several communities. But new and powerful actors soon entered the scene. As soon as the provisional protected area was declared, a number of conservation and development NGOs from the North received some major funding to assist in the management and further their own goals— such as the conservation of local biodiversity but also more prosaic conservation of their own organisations and jobs. About 10% of the financial resources made available by the donors went to the Miskito communities and Mikupia. The remaining 90%— in the name of “community-based development”— was disbursed to US-based non-governmental organisations (with the consent of both the US donors and some branches of the Nicaraguan government). A new biosphere reserve management plan was soon prepared, with no mentioning of the provisions agreed upon in the initial plan— in particular the measures to confront piracy, industrial fishing and drug trafficking, and the conservation and development projects to be carried out by the local communities. On the contrary, the funds meant for those projects were spent to support the operations of the Northern NGO that considered itself the decision-Maker on behalf of the communities and developed the management plan according to its own analysis and understanding.
The Miskito communities eventually learned the truth and realised that the foreign NGOs were more inclined to blame them for resource depletion than to support them in obtaining their resource rights. They banned the NGO from their land, and denounced it to the US donor. An investigation from the US donor was carried out, but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the NGO. This prompted the Miskito communities to ban also the US donor from their region.
Despite these heated conflicts, the US donor decided to invest in the contested project and assigned management responsibility to other international NGOs, again without consultation or agreement with the Miskito people or their local NGO. On their part, the Miskito Reef communities created their own Miskito Community Protected Territory, and are now busy fighting drug trafficking and resource piracy in their area, and mapping their reefs and marine resource. The “colonialist conservationists” are still banned from their territories and no co-management agreement is in sight.