The Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project
Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick
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The letter below is one of a series written by Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix during multiple journeys they took to Nicaragua between 2002 and 2010 to locate people who were the subjects of photos taken by Paul in the 1980s (during the U.S.-sponsored Contra War). Pam and Paul's goal was to document and share with the people of the U.S.—through photographs and testimonies in Nicaraguans' own voices—the horrific long-term effects of the Contra War and ongoing U.S. international policy on the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.  To see a list of all of the letters and their topics, visit the Letters page.  To learn more about the Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project, see About the Book and About the Authors.

In 2011 Pam and Paul published a beautiful 220-page book of photographs and testimonies, NICARAGUA: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy. Order it here!

February 17, 2005   Rio Coco, Pankawas, Rio Bocay, Miskitu and Mayangna indigenous peoples

Including stories about: Richard Boren, Andres, Estebana.

The photos in this letter are Pam's casual digital photos. To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.

Blinking lights cascade down the hill, a welcome sight. We made it to Pankawas, a small indigenous community on the Rio Coco, the river which separates Nicaragua from Honduras. People, some with flashlights in their hands, were coming to greet the boat and gather their cargo.  Our trip started two days earlier with the help of Richard Boren, a friend who had worked in Nicaragua with Paul in the 1980s and was back for two weeks to visit the community of Pankawas, a relationship that began 17 years ago during the U.S.-funded contra war.

This particular day, the third day of our journey, had begun in Las Piedras as 34 people, multiple barrels of gasoline, and many hundred pound sacks of food and other cargo were loaded into a 40+ foot dug-out canoe, another amazing example of travel in Nicaragua.  With a 40 HP motor in the back and two men standing in the front with  long poles, sometimes dragging the canoe, sometimes pushing it off rocks in small rapids, sometimes noting the water depth for the "captain", we traveled for nearly 11 hours. Never once were we comfortable. Periodically we walked on shore around rapids that were a little tricky, or around an area that was too shallow for a loaded canoe.

Paul and I kept hoping, as we tipped from side to side and water gushed in, that there was secondary stability that would keep the canoe upright. Then we came upon a canoe, stuck sideways in a rapid as the crew was pushing their cargo into the river, about 15 pigs. Pigs can swim! We could only see noses and ears pointed upstream as they fought the current. Soon there were pigs scattered on both the Nicaraguan and Honduran shores.
Trip to Pankawas
On the Rio Coco, heading toward Pankawas.

We passengers went on shore and the crew helped the jammed canoe unload its inanimate cargo and save its motor.  Later we heard stories about canoes capsizing, motors being lost, babies drowning. Travel (for the poor) is not easy in Nicaragua, and that's especially true on the Rio Coco.

Probably because of the time spent with this rescue, the last hour of our travel was in the dark.  I could only hope that since the crew had made this trip often they knew the location of most of the rocks and tree snags that could capsize us. With their expertise we managed to reach Pankawas without any major night time bumps.

Andres and Estebana
Paul, in foreground, with Andres and Estebana on the way to their farm.
Andres and his wife, Estebana, are long time friends of Richard and met us on the river bank. It had been 6 years since Richard's last visit and there was great joy in being together again.  They led us up the hill to the building that housed their community communication radio; this would be our home for the next three days. On this trip Paul and I weren't searching out people he had photographed in the 1980s; we were just trying to add an important layer of Nicaraguan history and culture to our experience.

Most of the indigenous people of Nicaragua live on the Atlantic Coast; while most of the Spanish mixed people live on the Pacific Coast.  The communities seldom mix, are separated by mountains and roads which are often unpassable, and they have a long history of not trusting each other.  Historically the Atlantic Coast side was "taken" by the English in the 1600s and the Pacific Coast by the Spanish. Even today people on the Atlantic Coast refer to people on the Pacific Coast as the "Spaniards". I remember Nicaraguans from Managua, in the 1980s, thinking they needed a passport to go to the Atlantic Coast.

Pankawas is one of a series of Miskitu communities along the Rio Coco in the department of Jinotega, more in the middle of the country than where most of the Miskitu communities are located on the Atlantic Coast. Because of their location they did have some contact with Sandino in the early 1900s and, therefore, in the 1980s while the Atlantic Coast Miskitu tended to side with the contra forces, many of the Miskitu from the upper Rio Coco were sympathetic to the Sandinistas and eventually suffered contra attacks.

Further down stream from Pankawas the Bocay River, home for many indigenous Mayangna (Sumo), joins the Rio Coco.  Both community systems are connected to the outside world by river travel only.

What a history they've had.  Until 1961, both sides of the Rio Coco belonged to Nicaragua, and the Miskitu of this area lived mainly on the north side, but farmed and hunted on both sides. In 1961 a World Court decision gave the land north of the Rio Coco to Honduras and the Miskitu, with little warning, had to move to the south side of the river.  In many of their minds Somoza had sold their land to Honduras.  Considering Somoza's history it's easy to see why they would assume this, but it also shows how they were not included, not involved in, not even informed of a decision making process that was going to greatly affect their lives, a common thread for at least the 20th and 21st centuries.

Then in 1982, as the U.S.-funded contra war was heating up and they were experiencing attacks by the contra, the people of Pankawas and nearby communities were again relocated, this time by the Sandinistas, to a state farm further inland from Honduras where they would supposedly be safer.  Most made the 12 day journey on foot through the jungle to their new home, but the children and pregnant women were taken by helicopter - a helicopter that crashed in Ayapal, up the Bocay River. At least 74 of the 75 children on board were killed along with 9 of the 10 pregnant women.  

Those relocated, accustomed to fishing and hunting and small levels of subsistence farming, were divided amongst 44 state owned coffee farms in the departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa. They weren't accustomed to these crowded conditions; when they'd lived along the river they had been scattered, not in tight community clusters. In addition they weren't accustomed to working for someone else and to make matters worse the promised help from the Sandinista party was slow in appearing, though it did eventually arrive.

Life was difficult. While they were supposed to be safer on these state farms, they were actually attacked by contra forces. Andres and Estebana had one son taken by the contra in 1982 and another son killed in a contra attack in 1984.

In 1990, after the war ended, Andres and Estebana and most of the other Miskitu and Mayangna Indians were anxious to return to their homes along the river.  They had memories of fruit trees, fishing, hunting, and a better life. They were ready to rebuild.  But as before, they were desperately poor and medical care was nearly non-existent.  Andres and Estebana lost another son in the mid 1990s, this time due to illness.

After a good night's sleep and breakfast, Andres took us for a walk further inland to a smaller cluster of houses at a higher elevation.

In October 1998 Hurricane Mitch washed across Nicaragua. The Rio Coco rose between 20 and 30 meters and much of Pankawas was washed away. Andres talks about climbing up hill, near the spot where this new cluster of houses sits, and watching as the beloved Rio Coco destroyed his community, washing away houses, fruit trees, animals and crops.  He also talks about the long wait for help.  Much of Nicaragua suffered huge losses from Hurricane Mitch and for several years there was a much needed increase in international assistance.
Andres with banana trees
Andres checks on the new banana trees on his farm.

But unlike many Nicaraguan communities that have now rebuilt and moved on, Pankawas and the other indigenous communities along the upper Rio Coco and the Bocay River are still suffering from the hurricane.   Fishing never returned to anything near it's abundance before the hurricane. This has greatly reduced their access to complete protein. In addition, the river now rises and falls much more quickly. Andres talks about how the "Spaniards" (meaning non-indigenous) started coming to the Honduran side of the river in the 1990s clearing the land with chainsaws to make pasture. For sure there were large groupings of cattle all along the Honduran side of the river. Andres and others in his community feel that now, without the trees, the rain water isn't held by the land but rushes to the river.

We met with a small gathering of people at the new cluster of houses.  It feels "heavy"; they built here to avoid being washed away by another hurricane, but they don't have the river breeze, it's buggier, and they are explaining that they are in a crisis and don't have food for their children.

Yes, they are in a crisis. Again, it's the beans. Again, in the breadbasket of Central America, people are hungry. It's now time to plant their annual bean crop but most of the bean seeds have been eaten.  It's estimated that of the 1,500 indigenous farmers along the Rio Coco and Rio Bocay of Jinotega, only 300 to 500 have been able to plant beans, beans that are generally planted in January and up to mid February. Actually it's almost too late now, as I write this letter.  Last March, during the main harvest, they got an unusual rain which prevented the seeds from drying properly. The production was low and what they did harvest didn't keep for this year's planting.

They lost most of their native bean seed genetic line when hurricane Mitch destroyed their communities. After the hurricane they were forced to plant whatever was donated, seeds that may not survive as well in an area that typically gets 8 to 9 months of rain.  Perhaps nitches of native beans can be located and reproduced, but for now they need seeds to plant today.  Richard has contacted a funding source in the US and hopefully there will be immediate, emergency help.*  Fortunately, the Humboldt Center (excellent German NGO) has a ten year history of working with the Miskitu and Mayagna in the department of Jinotega and, if the $12,000 arrives, they will arrange to buy and transport the seeds to the communities (no easy task by dug out motorized canoe, at $3 a gallon for gas).

We walk back to the center of Pankawas and Andres takes us to the community water supply so we can fill our bucket.  We had fantasies of a clear stream bubbling out from the hill side, but no, it's a muddy pond. There's a steady stream of little girls walking into the pond, filling buckets and jugs, and lugging them back to their homes. Parasites for sure!  

The Organization of American States (OAS) has funded and carried out expensive potable water projects all along the river and, as far as the leaders of the area can tell, not one of them has been successful. One indigenous leader couldn't understand why OAS refused to at least consult with the hugely successful Ben Linder Project before they started these expensive $20,000 (each!) water projects.  Now the money has been spent, the nonfunctioning water systems installed, and each community we visited on this trip is still without potable water.

Andres and tree
Andres with the huge tree he is cutting into planks to build a kitchen.
The next day Andres and Estebana paddled us down river in their smaller, non-motorized dug-out canoe to their family farm. This is land Andres has farmed since he was a child. Beautiful. Large newly planted Banana trees, amazing growth in two years. We walked along the small field of beans he'd planted with last year's seeds, not much growth. Now he'll have to replant, if seed arrives in time.

He took us to a huge tree he was in the process cutting into planks for a kitchen.  In the early 1990s Nicaragua declared an 8,000 sq. km. section of Nicaragua a protected area, the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. This area is bordered by the Rio Coco, is generally forested, has an incredible and important variety of species, and is home to approximately 9,000 Miskitu and Mayangna Indians.  Strict restrictions were placed on use of the land. Were the Miskitu and Mayagna consulted during this process?  You know the answer. The "Spaniards" did it again, they came in and told the indigenous what they could and couldn't do with their land.

Of course the Miskitu and Mayangna were unhappy and refused to comply. Now, after years of organizing for their rights, they have together designed new rules that divide the land into five areas. Some areas the indigenous can use for farming, cutting, or collecting and some areas (the core of the forest) are to be left untouched.  Any farming or extraction is restricted to indigenous groups that have a long history on the land and since 1993 The Nature Conservancy has been doing excellent work helping the Miskitu and Mayangan with this documentation.  They were scheduled to receive these titles from the government the first week of February.  Didn't happen; but they still hope to receive titles in the near future.

Andres' tree is on his land, in the part of the Biosphere where he's allowed to cut and plant. This tree is huge, one that could also have been used for a dug out canoe.  We continued walking Andres' section, listening for birds, amazed by the rich growth, hoping to see more snakes, saddened by the lack of beans.

We returned to Pankawas and early the next day packed up and headed down river to San Andres de Bocay.  We were honored to meet with representatives of the indigenous leadership council for the Jinotega section of the Rio Coco. They are tirelessly working to gain and protect their rights and improve life for all along the river. Their organizing skills and dedication were impressive. We later traveled up the Bocay River where most of the Mayangna live and watched local men practice putting out forest fires Again we found ourselves looking at a jammed, deserted dug out canoe, now a permanent ripple in the river.

Loading canoe to leave
Loading the canoe to leave for San Andres de Bocay.

The indigenous communities along the Rio Coco and Bocay Rivers are facing food insecurity. They don't have potable water, electricity, or easily available health care. Their earlier life of good fishing, hunting, and fairly reliable subsistence farming has changed. They have little access to jobs that provide the cash necessary for seeds, medicines, school supplies, and gas for the transportation. But they are on their own land; it is better than some of the horrible, dangerous neighborhoods in Managua. The grinding poverty is not pretty, but the men still play a little baseball nearly every day, tiny little boys still run full speed, giggling, pulling kites behind them. The little girls?  They haul water, wash clothes by the river, and carry their mother's younger babies, but they are able to be outside with their friends, swim in the river, play in a boat and not be afraid of being attacked by a gang.

If you want to view some of Paul's project photos from the 1980s and a few from our 2002-3 trip, check out the new Photos and Stories page.  Do remember that the photos within this letter are NOT part of the official project; they are non-professional "family" photos taken by Pam!

Any contacts to send our way for our college tour in the fall and winter? We're especially focused on Washington, Oregon, Arizona and southern California right now, but any contacts would be a great help!

Again, thanks for traveling with us!  

Pam and Paul

* P.S. Pam has just written to say "the Peace Development Fund just agreed to send $8,000 in emergency money to assist with bean purchases for the indigenous of Jinotega who live along the Rio Coco and Bocay River. How exciting!"