September 1, 2009
Building Bridges (fall 2009) Feature article written by Trina Moyles
“That boy you see over there – ” Primativo says to me, raising his voice over the whine of the engine and pointing towards shore where a young boy navigates his cedar longboat along the river’s edge, “ – he is a Miskito boy.” Primativo waves as our longboat, crammed with cargo and passengers, groans steadily through the brown waters of the Rio Coco. The boy smiles and wildly waves his hand in return.
We are now crossing into indigenous territory of the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve, the largest tract of topical rainforest north of the Amazon basin, located in Northern Nicaragua. It has been a 2-day journey on the Rio Coco, a river that flows 750 km and forms the Honduras-Nicaragua border, passing dense green jungle and small villages of wooden houses built on stilts. On the riverbanks, groups of women glance up as they wash clothes on the rocks, and the children splash and play in the shallow waters.
The Rio Coco is the central vein of transportation in and out of the region, penetrating the isolated depths of BOSAWAS territory, a land that spans 22,000 square kilometres, and is home to hundreds of species of birds, plants, mammals, and insects. The Miskito indigenous peoples who have lived along the river for over four centuries – subsistence farming, fishing, and hunting – know the river as wanki.
Primativo, who was born and raised in Pampkawas, one of the 27 Miskito villages in the region, knows every landmark that the wanki holds. He points to the mountain that rises up like a green thumb, thin red streams that feed into the river, and small black birds that zip by us in bursts of sudden speed, speaking aloud the Miskito meaning.
For the past 12 years he has been journeying in and out of the BOSAWAS to the capital, Managua to represent his people and lobby the Nicaraguan government for recognition of their traditional rights to the land. Over the years, traditional Miskito subsistence practices and ecological balance have been severely threatened by the farming and commercial logging activities of non-indigenous people. It has been a long endured struggle by the Miskito to protect the delicate balance of their ecosystem and the cultural ways of living off the land that have sustained existence for over 300 years. In 2005, after years of experiencing the pressures from imperial forces – suffering land loss, growing rates of poverty and malnutrition, and the degradation of indigenous knowledge – the Nicaraguan government finally recognized the sovereign territory rightfully belonging to indigenous peoples in the BOSAWAS biosphere.
But the long ensued struggle is not with Primativo today, as our longboat surges against the current, cutting towards the shoreline of Pampkawas. He smiles at a world he knows so well, glad to be home after time spent in meetings in Managua. A short, stocky boy, about 12 years old, stands waiting on the rocky bank. He is waiting for his father who has come home. “Julito” – Primativo gestures proudly to his son. Above on the upper ridge of the embankment, dozens of faces emerge from the windows of the small wooden houses. We ascend the bank into Pampkawas, a village of approximately 800 Miskito people.
Over the next two weeks, I listen to the stories of men, women, and children living in Miskito and Mayangna villages of the BOSAWAS reserve. I learn from farmers about the traditional techniques of land clearing and planting of rice, beans, and corn, practices that conserve the fertility of the nutrient-rich rainforest soils. I learn how they have integrated aspects of scientific knowledge and technology into their practices, but maintain the belief that their traditional method of planting (using a long bamboo stick) is more ecologically sound and sustainable. I learn from midwives and healers in the communities who rely on the abundance of medicinal plants, trees, and roots to treat wounds and illnesses. I talk to women who learn from their mothers and by watching to care for labouring women and catch their babies. In the schools, the children learn in both Miskito and Spanish. A preschool teacher tells me how she involves natural objects – like leaves, seeds, flowers, and bark – in her arts and crafts classes with the children. And the children run and play in the natural world around them – swimming, climbing trees, and learning from their older siblings how to pick fruit, haul water, and help with chores.
The land is central in shaping the worldviews of the Miskito indigenous peoples, and despite the many challenges communities have faced – war, relocation, land degradation, natural disasters, and the effects of climate change – they have adapted, survived, and maintained their traditional knowledge of how to live off the land. And this knowledge of land use and preservation has been and continues to be central to the people who, according to Primativo, are used to “living away from the rest of the world.”
For Primativo, as he later confided in me, he hopes for a future where his children and his grandchildren will always know the story and struggle of the Miskito people. “I will die a happy man knowing that my son’s children will be born on indigenous territory.”
On my last day in Pampkawas, I trekked up a steep clay path that led to the highest vantage in the village. Primativo’s son, Julito, led the way. At the top of the hill we stopped to gaze at the world below us – the tiny houses, women carrying buckets full of water on their heads, the school, the small stream snaking through the village and emptying into the Rio Coco. And then he began to point to different parts of his community, saying the Miskito word aloud for me to repeat. Dus – tree. Lapta – sun. wanki – river. Kul – school. Utla – home. Tasba penkira – beautiful land.
I thanked Julito, my maestro – my teacher. He smiled proudly, and I saw something expressed in his face that was not unlike the way of his own father.