Hugging the Caribbean coast of western Honduras into eastern Nicaragua, the Muskitia has long been a storied region. Its rich and conflict-laden history has given the region many names — Muskitia, La Mosquitia or even The Mosquito Coast, like the Paul Theroux novel. For hundreds of years, its jungles have remained shrouded in mystery from the outside world, a place where rogue slaves and renegade buccaneers could disappear.
One of the IAF’s Grassroots Fellowship recipients for 2016-2017 is conducting research in Nicaragua and Honduras, where she is learning to navigate not only this historic land, but also the language of the Miskitu people.
“Viva Yatama! Viva MASTA! Viva Sihkru Tara!”
The cheer went up again and again in Wawa Bar, a small coastal town in Nicaragua’s Muskitia region. The crowd celebrated the annual bi-national festival that brings together the Miskitu indigenous people from Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Sihkru Tara festival happens every August to coincide with the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Yatama is the Miskitu group that organizes Sihkru in Nicaragua. MASTA represents the Miskitu in Honduras. The festival location switches each year between the two countries, which overlap the traditional territory of the Miskitu people. And while the opening and closing events usually take place in the respective “capital” cities of the Muskitia ― Puerto Lempira in Honduras and Bilwi in Nicaragua ― other festival events spread across smaller towns to ensure that more people participate.
Along with enthusiastic cheers and fiery speeches, Sihkru Tara features educational workshops, strategy meetings for leadership, and most importantly, music and dancing. I was invited to join the festivities this year alongside indigenous youth leaders from Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama, and with staff from the newly formed Mesoamerican School of Leaders (MESOLIDER). With support from the nongovernmental organization ICCO and the European Union, MESOLIDER and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) hosted a workshop at Sihkru Tara on territoriality and governance for youth leaders. The workshop included a discussion of the international climate mitigation initiative known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).
A Miskitu researcher with a long history of working on forestry issues and indigenous rights facilitated the workshop. He encouraged participants to recognize that their lands are the subject of discussions at international meetings on REDD+. He emphasized that governments often fail to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples before implementing new programs that affect indigenous land and traditions. He also reminded attendees that indigenous peoples have the ability and power to formulate their own rules and standards to respond to proposed projects and give or withhold consent.
Youth leaders from the Indigenous Network of the Bribrí-Cabécar (RIBCA) in Costa Rica, the Guna Congress in Panama, and the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) in Guatemala shared their views about elements of REDD+ such as payments for ecosystem services and climate change mitigation in indigenous territories. In Costa Rica, RIBCA advanced the idea of an “Indigenous REDD+” and worked with the national government to develop a consultation process for natural resource use. The Guna Congress firmly rejected any effort by the Panamanian government to undertake REDD+ if it involves Guna lands, and it has strong rules about representation and decision-making. At the end of the workshop, a panel of Nicaraguan and Honduran Miskitu youth leaders discussed the challenges they face in making decisions about land use and engagement in national climate change programs.
In Honduras the government granted a collective title to Miskitu lands in April 2016. Now that they have legal rights to their land, Miskitu leaders need to formalize traditional land-use norms and develop positions on questions such as REDD+. On the Nicaraguan side, Miskitu Indigenous Territorial Governments (GTIs) have been recognized for about 10 years, but illegal land invasions and violence have threatened the governments’ ability to protect their forest lands. The Nicaraguan GTIs are seeking new strategies to better control their natural resources. Initiatives such as REDD+ could provide the resources they need to defend their territories.
While the workshop was all business, the next day’s visit to Wawa Bar was all about fun ― and it was quite the adventure! We only meant to go for the day, but we ended up spending the night in this seaside town and making new friends along the way. After eating traditional luk luk (beef bone stew served with rice), we accompanied our hosts to a packed local stadium to watch performances by traditional dance troupes. In the evening the town square became a dance hall with strings of lights and famous Miskitu singers entertaining the crowd well into the night. We all agreed that Yatama certainly knows how to throw a party!
From the workshop to the music, my biggest takeaway from this year’s Sihkru Tara is that the solidarity generated by such an event among indigenous peoples can enhance leadership into the future. While the contexts in which they work are different, the groups that participated in Sihkru Tara share a similar struggle to be seen and heard by their national governments and to be recognized as full, rights-holding partners in their own development. The time and effort that goes into mounting Sihkru Tara every year is immense, but the outcome is much more than simply a festival ― it is an opportunity to build solidarity across ethnic and national borders and to leverage that solidarity into new frontiers of indigenous-led development.
To hear examples of Miskitu music, listen here: