Rights, Resources, and the Social Memory of Struggle: Reflections on a Study of Indigenous and Black Community Land Rights on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast

By Gordon, Edmund T.; Gurdian, Galio C. et al. | Human Organization, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Rights, Resources, and the Social Memory of Struggle: Reflections on a Study of Indigenous and Black Community Land Rights on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast


Gordon, Edmund T., Gurdian, Galio C., Hale, Charles R., Human Organization


In early 1997, the three authors accepted a research contract, funded by the World Bank, to carry out a diagnostico (research and analysis) of the communal land claims of some 130 indigenous, Garifuna, and Afro-Nicaraguan communities on the Atlantic (Caribbean) Coast of Nicaragua. This essay makes the diagnostico itself the subject of analysis, summarizing the research results and examining their impact. After a brief overview of the role of land claims in the history of coast peoples, we present a summary of the research project's conception, methodology, and principal findings. Two substantive analytical sections follow. One examines the contradictory positioning of this research-funded by the World Bank, administered by the state, yet conceived to advance the interests of community members who perceive the state as their long-term adversary. The second reflects on theoretical insights gained from this type of research, in which the very process of data collection transforms the object of inquiry, and in which "research subjects" actively produce the knowledge that forms the basis of the study's analysis and conclusions. Within this second topic, we focus primarily on how coast community members conceive and justify their rights to communal land and how these formulations help us think beyond the morass of "invented traditions," the tension between "essentialist" and "constructed" identities, and other Western social science conundrums. We conclude emphasizing the obstacles and challenges that will lie ahead, as these communities continue their efforts to achieve legal recognition of their communal land claims.

Key words: race, land rights, Nicaragua, Miskitu Indians, Creoles

Since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, political relations within Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast region, and between the region and various external actors, have been exceedingly volatile. More often than not, rights to land and resources have stood at the center of this volatility. Here we report and reflect on a study of indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan, or "Creole," land rights financed by the World Bank. This study emerged from, and was carried out within, a dense thicket of contradictions.

While research and media reports have focused mainly on conflicts between the region and the central government, and between coast communities and transnational companies, the role of multilateral development institutions such as the World Bank has been generally neglected. Yet the bank has exerted a powerful influence in questions of land tenure and rights to resources among coast communities, all the more important because the thrust of this influence at first glance appears counterintuitive. According to standard accounts, the World Bank defends and promotes neoliberal economic development policies, which give precedence to the logic of the capitalist market and tolerate cultural rights only if they do not contravene these first principles. Yet in Nicaragua and elsewhere, especially since the internal reforms of 1991, World Bank policies have provided substantive support for indigenous rights initiatives that appear to challenge aspects of that neoliberal economic framework. (For an analysis of these bank reforms, see Treakle 1998 and Gray 1998.)

Not only did World Bank funds support a research and social process that stood in tension with its own mandate, but the study formed part of a broader effort to nudge the Nicaraguan government toward a more tolerant stance on indigenous cultural and resource rights. The government reluctantly agreed to the study only after being threatened with the freezing of bank funds for other projects. Moreover, the specific bank-funded project-Tecnologia Agropecuaria y Ordenamiento de la Propiedad Agraria (Agricultural and Livestock Technology and the Regulation of Agricultural Property)-from which funding for the study originated had the principal objective of "agricultural modernization" and was undertaken in collaboration with the (now defunct) Nicaraguan government entity called the Institute Nicaraguense de Reforma Agraria (Institute for Agrarian Reform [INRA]). …

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