The Autonomous Regions
of Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast

The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua is (economically speaking) the poorest region of a very poor country.

It has a distinctive history of conquest, colonization and resource exploitation that has left it underdeveloped and environmentally depleted, with high levels of unemployment and poverty, and low levels of schooling, health and other social services.

This area of Nicaragua now comprises two autonomous regions: R.A.A.N (Región Autónoma Atlántico Norte  - North Atlantic Autonomous Region) and R.A.A.S. (Región Autónoma Atlántico Sur  - South Atlantic Autonomous Region), whose respective capitals are Bilwi (formerly Puerto Cabezas) and Bluefields.

Click on map for detailed images and information on Nicaragua.

The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua comprises 57% of the national territory and has a vast supply of natural resources. The marine life on the Caribbean coast is unparalleled, the coastal rainforests are second only to those in Brazil, and the region's mineral resources have the potential to yield $5 billion. Foreign companies, with concessions granted by the central government in Managua, have extracted vast amounts of these resources - leaving behind only massive pollution, erosion, and contamination. URACCAN intends to provide the basis for the ecologically sound development of abundant seafood, mining, and forestry resources for the benefit of people who live on the Coast.

In contrast to the Pacific Coast region of the country, the social and cultural distinctness of the Caribbean Coast is striking. While the Pacific Coast population is quite homogeneous: 96% Mestizo (of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry), almost 100% Spanish-speaking, and predominantly Roman Catholic, the Caribbean Coast is home to six different ethninc groups speaking four different languages.

The Mayangna (Sumu) and Rama are direct descendents of indigenous peoples now much-reduced in number; only the Mayangna still speak their own language.  The indigenous Miskitu people have, since the 17th Century, undergone a process of inter-marriage with people of African origin and Afro-Caribbean immigrants.  They represent the largest of the Coast's ethnic minorities, and still speak their own language.  Next in size is the population of English-speaking Creoles, descendents of white settlers on the Coast and their African slaves imported in the 18th Century, and of further migrations of Afro-Caribbean workers from Jamaica and Belize.  Spanish-speaking Mestizos, who have migrated from the Pacific Coast region at various periods in search of land or work, now constitute the majority group.  There is also a small population of Black Caribs, descended from black slaves, who ran away or were shipwrecked along Central America's Caribbean Coast in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and who inter-bred with indigenous Carib indians.  Their language (Garifunu) is still alive in the larger Caribbean settlements of Belize and the Bay Islands of Honduras, but the Nicaraguan Caribs speak Creole English.

History of the Caribbean Coast Region

Nicaragua is unique in that it is the only country in Latin America that was colonized by two powers. The western side was colonized by Spain, which implemented a policy that resulted in the complete annihilation of indigenous peoples. The evidence of their culture is now minimal and limited mostly to folklore. Years of colonization has resulted in the destruction of their identity, language and social organization. In their place, a Mestizo, Spanish-speaking, Catholic culture has evolved.

The eastern, or Caribbean coast, however, has a different history. It was colonized by Great Britain, and for its own reasons, which had nothing to do with the interests of indigenous people, Great Britain implemented a policy that in the end resulted in the survival of three indigenous groups, including the Miskitu, Sumu, and Rama, and three multi-ethnic communities, including the Creole and Garifunu.

The differences between the two regions were exacerbated when, in 1894, the Nicaraguan military - with the help of the U.S. military - invaded the Caribbean coast, forcing territorial integration, to which Costeños (people of the Caribbean coast) were resolutely opposed. From that moment on, successive Nicaraguan administrations began implementing policies that sought to impose the primacy and dominance of Mestizo culture. Indigenous cultures and languages of the Caribbean coast were delegitimized by governmental decree. Economic policies based on the granting of licenses and concessions to foreign companies to exploit the natural resources of the region fostered increased resentment and antagonism, as Costeños witnessed the extraction of great wealth without any tangible benefit to the region.

The Autonomy Law, first implemented under the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government in 1987, sought to redress the injustices created by centuries of foreign and internal colonialism. The autonomy process legitimizes and acts upon the demands of the Costeños to reclaim their historic right to the natural resources of the region as well as the right to defend, preserve, and promote their identity, history, culture and traditions.

In this context, URACCAN constitutes an important component of a new strategy for regional development.  It was established to address the unique social and economic needs of the Caribbean Coast.  It aims to promote "equality in diversity" by encouraging equitable and sustainable development while fostering cultural pluralism and strengthening the cultural identity of the local peoples.

Freeman, Jane. A Special Place in History: The Atlantic Coast in the Nicaraguan Revolution. Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, London: 1988. 
ISBN 1 869880 01 3

Gordon, Edmund T.  Disparate Diasporas; Identity and Politics in an African-Nicaraguan Community. University of Texas Press: August 1998. 
ISBN: 0292728190

Pino-Robles, Rodolfo.  Autonomy in Nicaragua and Nunavut: a Comparative Study in Self-Determination.  Master's Thesis, Native Studies, University of Saskatchewan

Romero Vargas, Germán. Historia de la Costa Atlántica. CIDCA-UCA: 1996.

URACCAN Publications

Antonio Mairena, Jose. Sumu-Mayangna: Los Hijos del Sol. URACCAN: Managua, 1998.

Cox, Avelino. Cosmovisión de los Pueblos de Tulu Walpa. URACCAN: Bilwi, 1998.

Gonzalez Pérez, Miguel. Gobiernos Pluriétnicos: La constitución de regiones Autónomas en Nicaragua (Multiethnic Governments: The Constitution of Autonomous Regions in Nicaragua). URACCAN & Editorial Plaza y Valdes S.A. de C.V. Mexico: 1997.
ISBN: 968-856-484-2

María Téllez, Dora. Muera La Gobierna: Colonización en Matagalpa y Jinotega (1820-1890). URACCAN: Managua, 1999.

Caribbean Coast

From URACCAN-Update Newsletter

Atlantic Coast History (excerpt from Opening Address, below)
Coastal Resources - A Catastrophe
Nicaragua's Separatist Fears 
Special Issue: Assimilation, Autonomy or Separation?
III International Symposium on Autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua: Final Declaration
OPENING ADDRESS III International Symposium on the Autonomy of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua



CIDCA- UCA: Centro de Investigaciones y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica / Centre for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast


La Mosquitia/Atlantic Coast: Links (most listed below)

  Derek Parent's Rio Plátano and Mosquitia page. Descriptions and photos of the region, a thorough list of links to other web sites about the region.

  Explorando la Costa Miskita de Nicaragua 

  Sub Ocean Safety is working with Miskitu lobster divers and Miskitu communities in both Honduras and Nicaragua. 

  La Nación Moskitia en Internet. In Spanish. 

  The Development of Autonomy in the Miskitu Nation. Fourth World Bulletin, February 1993 

  Centro para la Investigación y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica (CIDCA). 

  Nicaragua's "GPSistas" Mapping Their Lands on the Caribbean Coast 

ENVIRONMENT-LATAM: Logging Companies Moving into Central America

Languages/Cultures of the Region

  Ethnologue: Nicaragua 

  The ULWA Language Home Page 

  The MAYANGNA (Northern Sumu) Home Page 

  The MISKITU Language Home Page 

  Indigenous Groups of Nicaragua

Environmental Issues:

NYC Protest Focuses on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast Rainforest
Safeguarding "the Path of the Jaguar" in Nicaragua
International Neoliberalists Set to Chainsaw Nicaragua's North Atlantic Coast
Native Forest Network Up-date: Nicaragua 


Interview: Coast Political figure Dorotea Wilson
Land Rights and Autonomy in Nicaragua (Dorotea Wilson)
Noam Chomsky on US policy & the Caribbean Coast
Brief History

Portions of the text on this page were adapted from a web document by the IFCO , and from the book "A Special Place in History" by Jane Freeland.

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