Mayangna Participation in the Nicaraguan Civil War

When the Sandinista Revolution arrived on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast in 1979, six different ethnic groups, including the Mayangna, inhabited the region, which had been either a British protectorate or an independent ‘Miskitu Kingdom’ from the early seventeenth century until its official incorporation into Nicaragua in 1860.

Image courtesy of El Nuevo Diario

The region’s traditional isolation had allowed the ten thousand or so Mayangna, second largest of Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples, to survive 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.

The Mayangna ‘Capital’ of Musawas, deep in the jungles of northern Nicaragua

But that all changed with the arrival of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. The Revolution brought new roads, schools, and clinics to an area that previous Nicaraguan governments had treated as an internal colony, exploiting the region’s resources but otherwise neglecting it. But as the Sandinistas attempted to ‘integrate’ the region’s peoples into the revolutionary nation-state, and ‘develop’ the Atlantic Coast in the image of the Nicaragua they wanted to build, based on the Nicaragua they already knew, they clashed with the independent-minded Miskitu. And the Sandinistas’ failure to understand the unequal power-relations between the dominant Miskitu and the region’s Mayangna minority, allowed the latter to be drawn into a conflict that soon developed into a full-blown civil war, despite their initially positive relations with revolutionary officials…

In 2011, I travelled to Nicaragua to investigate Mayangna participation in this conflict, and its effects on Mayangna cultural and political identities.

My guide, a former anti-Sandinista guerrilla fighter turned Moravian pastor

The results of my research were published as an article in the Bulletin of Latin American Research (click to download).

While working in the Mayangna communities, I also became aware of the severe conflicts that today exist between the Mayangna and thousands of non-indigenous ‘colonists’ who have illegally settled in the region, and are rapidly destroying the thick jungle that once covered it. I wrote about this new threat to the Mayangna – and to the existence of the largest stretch of Latin American rainforest north of the Amazon – in Political Reflection Magazine:

A Spanish-language translation of my research is also available for download here: