Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Monday, 3 August 2009 15:21 UK

Nicaragua's Miskitos seek independence

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Puerto Cabezas

Aerial view of the Mosquito Coast
The Mosquito Coast: Still feels like an isolated outpost today

It takes an hour and a half in a light aircraft to reach the Mosquito Coast from the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

By road it is a journey of almost 20 hours.

You cross 450km (280 miles) of remote terrain; forested mountains and then deserted swampland.

It feels like travelling to another country.


And that is precisely what many of the people who live here say it should be.

For centuries, the Miskito people have made up the majority indigenous population on this bleak, flat coastline. Last April, a group of their elders formally declared independence.

No more, they said, would they pay any heed to the government in Managua. No longer would they pay taxes. Instead their loyalty would be to the "Community Nation of Moskitia".

A flag was designed, and a national anthem composed.

"Every nation has the right to independence," says Oscar Hodgson, a lawyer for the independence movement. "And we are a nation."

His surname, like many in the Miskito community, reveals something of the history of this isolated outpost.

British protectorate

Throughout most of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Miskitos were allied to the British, whose navy provided them with weapons, and encouraged them to launch raids on neighbouring Spanish bases.

Their land, which stretched from what is now Honduras in the north, almost to Costa Rica in the south, became an informal British protectorate.

Oscar Hodgson - a lawyer for the independence movement
Lawyer Oscar Hodgson says the Miskitos should be independent

But in 1894, by which time the protectors had other priorities, the territory was annexed by Nicaragua.

The current leader of the Miskitos is an affable, avuncular man called Hector Williams. His Miskito title is Wihta Tara, or Great Judge.

"The people asked me to lead them, and that is what I shall do," he says, as he stands in the warm evening sun overlooking the Caribbean sea.

The relationship between the Miskito people and the government in Managua has never been easy.

After the Sandinista revolution led by Daniel Ortega succeeded in 1979, many Miskitos were quick to join the US-backed counter-revolutionaries or "contras".

Some found the Marxist route they saw President Ortega following as offensive to their religion and their culture.


But the latest catalyst for conflict is not primarily ideological, but economic.

Specifically, it is the price of lobster.

Fishing boat in port at Puerto Cabezas
Boats in port show the downturn in the fishing industry

Miskitos have traditionally been employed as hired hands on government-licensed lobster fishing vessels along this coast.

In the last few months, their wages have been cut. The foreign owners of the boats say that they are reacting to the fall in global markets. The Miskitos suspect a rip-off.

"They pay us less and take a bigger cut," says Mario, a lobster diver. He is standing on the scrubbed wooden deck of the Puerto Cabezas port. Behind him are dozens of boats, all in harbour because business is so bad.

"The lobsters should be ours anyway," he adds.

His discontent, and that of hundreds of divers like him, has been seized upon by the Miskito leadership in their latest bid for independence.


The movement appears to have been given a sense of urgency by the fact that two oil drilling concessions have recently been granted off the coastline.

"They take everything from us, and give nothing back," says Oscar Hodgson.

A shack along the Mosquito Coast
The region is the poorest part of one of Latin America's poorest nations

But the mayor of Puerto Cabezas, Guillermo Espinozo, doubts that the independence movement is as popular as it claims.

"It's all connected with the lack of employment," he says. "If I called these people...and offered them jobs, they would come here and work. They would soon stop talking about independence."

Puerto Cabezas is the poorest corner of Nicaragua. Unemployment stands at around 80%.

In its municipal square, grown men sit aimlessly on the children's swings. On a concrete block across the road there is a fading poster calling for Daniel Ortega's election in 2006. It is covered with insulting graffiti.

A few blocks away hundreds of Miskitos gather at the indigenous people's community centre.

"Long live independence," they chant. And they sing their national anthem.

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