MANAGUA – The NicaraguanCenter for Human Rights (CENIDH) is demanding that the Sandinista government return valuable coffee lands to 54 families who claim their properties were stolen from them in a violent land takeover in 2002.
Armed with machetes, stones and shovels, some 200 Sandinista campesinos in the northern coffee-growing region of Matagalpa took over prized plantation land five years ago in a raid that the displaced farmers – many of them former Sandinistas themselves – say was orchestrated by influential individuals in the Sandinista Front, including three legislators and the former mayor of Matagalpa.
Since the land was taken over, some $1.3 million worth of coffee – Nicaragua’s top export product – has been harvested from the disputed property, said the displaced group leader, Julio Balladares, at a fiery press conference at CENIDH’s Managua office last week.
According to Balladares, the government’s Property Superintendent Yara Pérez last week offered the ousted families the possibility of retribution in the form of alternative land. To avoid conflict, he said, the land would be in another department, perhaps León. Balladares said the group is considering the offer, which he said is an attractive one.
“We’re migrating around to find work,” said Denis Sánchez, a lifelong resident of Dalia,Matagalpa.
During the takeover, Sánchez was kicked off the land he grew up on, while a friend of his was sliced in the stomach with a machete and another was tossed in jail for six months for making death threats.
CENIDH director Bayardo Izabá met with the Government Attorney last week to demand that the land be returned to the displaced farmers, as ordered by a court in 2002. An official investigation is reportedly under way.
Balladares alleges that the government of President Daniel Ortega hasn’t followed through on promises to give back the land and respect private property.
“We could take the land back by force,” Balladares said, “but we don’t want to end up dead or in jail.”
Balladares and the 53 other campesinos were originally awarded the land – 259 manzanas of coffee farmland on a finca known as San Antonio de Kuskawas – by a labor court in 2002, to compensate the workers for two years of unpaid labor during the coffee crisis.
Further complicating the dispute, a third party is claiming rights to the land – a Peruvian investor who told the daily La Prensa this week that he purchased the land from the campesino group’s lawyer.
The Kuskawas case is just one of dozens of land disputes that plague the northern coffeegrowing region of Matagalpa.
In the municipality of La Dalia alone, more than 10,000 manzanas are being disputed in more than 30 unresolved cases, La Dalia Mayor Jaime Arauz told The Nica Times.
Disputes have broken out along political and ethnic lines, many disputes tracing back to the international coffee-price crises that shook the region several years ago, according to Arauz.
Government Attorney Hernán Estrada recently visited the region and pledged to prioritize the government’s fight against “land trafficking,” or property fraud, and restore order in the region, according to Arauz.
José Pallais, Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) legislator and president of the National Assembly’s commission on justice, said he and Estrada plan to present a reform of the country’s Public Registry and Civil Code to better guarantee property rights and discourage attempts to acquire property fraudulently.
“Without legal security, there’s no investment,” Pallais told The Nica Times in an interview this week. “Nicaraguans and foreigners have the right to enjoy their property.”
Property disputes in other parts of the country have also emerged from the 1980s to haunt the current Ortega administration (TT, June 8).
Ortega said during th e campaign last yearthat his government would resolve the land issue, because his government understood the problem better than anyone else.
The Nica Times tried contacting accused Sandinista officials in Matagalpa, but they didn’t respond by press time.
Though Arauz didn’t want to comment on the details of the Kuskawas case, he said he’s “against all types of aggression,” and he’ll do all he can to bring a solution to the conflict.
“This disorder is caused by the inexperience of some officials and the greed of some lawyers,” Arauz said.