Lottie Cunningham Wren is a lawyer active in the fight to protect the rights of the indigenous people and the afro-descendants in Nicaragua. In 2014, she founded the non-profit organization CEJUDHCAN, which provides educational programs, legal support, and practical assistance to indigenous peoples and afro-descendant communities on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. The organization has documented at least 60 attacks by settlers with firearms against indigenous people and 24 indigenous people killed whilst defending their territories. The attacks have included such criminal offenses as kidnapping and the destruction of property. Entire communities have been forcibly displaced. The violence has been indiscriminate, affecting indigenous leaders, children and families, as well as human rights defenders. For her work, Lottie Cunningham Wren has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award 2020.
Lottie Cunningham Wren, what is your personal situation at the moment? Where are you?
Unfortunately, I have been suffering from intimidations and harassment. Therefore, I cannot share my current location for security reasons.
What are the circumstances of these intimidations?
I have to keep a low profile because the government passed several laws in the last month making the work of my organization more difficult. We have to register as a nonprofit organization because we getfinancial support from international communities. Another law states that we must not express anything related to hate crime or speeches. We don't even know what they mean by hate crime. But they said if we grant interviews or give out information on social media, we would be jailed.
At the same time, Nicaragua is suffering from the consequences of two hurricanes in the last month. The Miskito, settling along the Caribbean coast, were particularly hit.
My people are devastated. That is why we need to let the international community know what is happening, let them know that Nicaraguans are suffering from human rights violations. Especially indigenous people have been suffering. I will continue highlighting this to the international community and continue granting interviews so the world will know the situation of my people and of mother nature.
What is the larger political context of these human rights violations?
The Nicaraguan government has failed in their obligation to the indigenous people and afro-descendants and their right to self-determination. For the past ten years, the authorities have been pushing for permissions for corporations to pursue their extractive activities on indigenous land: Mining and massive deforestation that has led to forced displacement and left a devastating environmental impact on the territory of indigenous people and other protected areas.
Are you speaking about a massive process of land grabbing?
The settlers have been destroying the forest and poisoning the rivers, the source of drinking water for my people. The settlers do not share indigenous values and culture and don’t respect indigenous peoples' tradition and practices. We have been asking the government in the past 10 years to conclude the process of demarcation of indigenous territory to protect the lives, cultural values and territory of indigenous people.
How do the Miskito traditionally live?
My people's traditional activities are hunting and fishing. We have a spiritual connection with our territories. Our healers teach us that the forest has a spirit, that the water and oceans have a spirit. The land grabbing has led to a cultural crisis because the majority of the community members have been forcefully displaced from their territory.
Do these settlers act as individuals or are these groups with corporate or government interests?
The indigenous people and afro-descendants in Nicaragua live in 304 villages in 23 territories, and 90 percent of these face massive invasion by armed settlers. Many of the settlers are ex-military. They are cutting down our forests and mining our minerals. They are pushing indigenous people off their farmland and out of their villages. They are burning our houses, they are killing our people, they are kidnapping. It is a humanitarian crisis.
What are the motives of the settlers?
There is a lot of corruption. The settlers bring other families to occupy indigenous people’s land, they tell these families that this land is better and cheaper. And the government never implements a plan to protect our territory. This is why my organization and others went to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They granted precautionary measures to 12 communities. But the violence didn't stop, it kept increasing.
What did you decide to do then?
We chose the judicial path and sued at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court ordered the Nicaraguan government to implement concrete actions to reduce the violence, to protect indigenous people’s lives and their territory and culture. The Nicaraguan government has compromised itself internationally by saying that they respect indigenous people – when in reality, they don't. What we want is that the government investigate these settlers.
What are other strategies of resistance that you use, apart from the judicial process?
This is a long-term struggle. My people always ask me: Why is justice as slow as a turtle? I tell them that we need to be tolerant – and during this process of tolerance, we need to teach non-indigenous people our vision of mother nature.
And more concretely?
We have for example a program on agroecology with more than 300 indigenous women – to teach them how to have food security and to struggle for life and territory. We also teach them how to reduce domestic violence because this violence increases with extreme poverty. In every village in which we work, we try to create a council of human rights. Another element is our continuous education about leadership and a culture of peace – we need to build new leadership because the government is too corrupt. And one of the most important things that we have done is building partnership and coalition locally, nationally, and internationally. For us, this is a key strategy to survive.
Can you explain the role of women in this struggle?
There is a lot of discrimination against women in the modern world, and we as indigenous people suffer from that in our communities. My values and principles come from my grandmother who raised me. That's why I push for women’s empowerment. Mother nature is a woman, and we need women to change things for the better. The community meetings were always very male dominated. I said, why are women not in these meetings? They said, women don't have to be here. This is land rights and not children’s education. But I insisted because I am a woman.
Can you talk a bit more about your grandmother: What did you learn from her?
My grandmother is gone, but I live with her every day. She taught me to struggle for my people and to protect mother nature. She raised 11 grandchildren. As a young child, I used to hear my grandma speak with the trees when they didn’t bear fruit. She would tell the tree that it came to this earth to provide food and that it must provide food. She showed us how to protect the tree with clean water and organic compost. She taught us to give to the tree and the tree will give back to us.
Everything is connected.
That is what indigenous people believe about nature. We believe that we have to live in harmony with mother nature, that we have to protect nature. My grandma also taught us that we should not kill snakes. She showed us the bad and the good snakes. She said that each animal is here because they have some work to do with mother nature to keep mother nature stable. If we kill these animals, we would cause mother nature to get back at us. She also taught us about the spirit of the river. We used to live in a village at the Rio Lempa, the largest river in central America. My grandma told us that if the river is poisoned, there will come a time when the spirit will get angry because humans are destroying the environment and then the spirit will take away our life.
Which is what is happening.
Now when I see the river, it's so sad for us because the river is dying. We know that the spirit of the river is dying because it's being destroyed. There is poison, there is too much deforestation. The hurricanes of the last weeks have shown: The climate system has been so threatened by human beings that now it's getting back at humanity.
Thank you for the conversation and your inspiring work. And congratulations again for the prize.
Thank you very much for the opportunity. It's very important to discuss these issues because I want the international community to know what is happening with my people struggling and suffering.
Interview by Georg Diez, Editor-In-Chief, at THE NEW INSTITUTE