In Nicaragua, a former surgeon fights for Indigenous rights - In conversation with Myrna Cunningham

In Nicaragua, a former surgeon fights for Indigenous rights - In conversation with Myrna Cunningham

the Netherlands - 07 May, 2019
Koen Kusters, Tropenbos InternationalKoen Kusters, Tropenbos International

Myrna Cunningham is the first Miskitu woman to study at a university. In 1973, she received a degree in medicine and returned to her home region in the isolated northeast of Nicaragua, where she was born in a small village surrounded by lush forest. Working as a surgeon, she served in more than one hundred remote villages.


Later, she became involved in politics and quickly became a key figure in establishing an autonomous region for the Miskitu people. She continued working for the recognition of Indigenous rights both nationally and internationally and became Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and board member of the Tenure Facility, just to name a few of her many positions. Here, as part of an ongoing review of community rights to forested lands and key conditions for success, she explains how she joined the struggle for Indigenous rights and reflects on some of the main lessons from the Nicaraguan experience.

Why did you decide to stop working as a surgeon?

“I realized that it was difficult to have a fundamental impact on people’s lives. As a surgeon, you can address some of their problems, but your impact is limited – you can only take out parts of their body. I wanted to do something that could change the lives of communities more structurally. It was a transition. I first moved from surgery to public health, and then from public health, I became involved in politics and Indigenous rights.”

What were the structural problems that people were experiencing?

“One of the main problems that they were facing was related to a lack of food, a lack of adequate nutrition. In the hospital, I would receive children who were hungry because there wasn’t enough to eat. At the time, the economy in the region was dominated by multinationals, which were mostly cultivating banana monocultures. People were completely dependent on the multinationals. They would only eat banana-based products and had forgotten how to plant other products to diversify their diets.”


The dependence of these communities on multinationals was one of the main driving forces behind the push for Indigenous autonomy, says Cunningham. In the mid-1980s, she became actively involved in negotiations between Miskitu Indigenous groups and the Sandinista revolutionary government of Nicaragua, which resulted in about 50 percent of the country’s territory acquiring autonomous status. Cunningham then helped create the first autonomous regional government and served as Miskitu governor of the North Atlantic autonomous region.

Did autonomy improve the health of Indigenous communities by decreasing their dependence on the banana-based economies of the multinationals?

“Yes, it did. After the rights were recognized, communities started to become self-dependent again and diversified their production. They started producing rice, beans and maize, while in other months, they would focus on the cultivation of vegetables, the collection of seeds and fruits from the forest, and hunting and fishing.

“But this was not the only way in which autonomy improved health. We also developed an intercultural autonomous healthcare system, which is free for everyone and based on a combination of traditional and Western medicine. Moreover, after we had established autonomy, we created our own universities, where we are educating our own intercultural health workers.”


The process toward autonomy started with mapping boundaries. Importantly, it was the communities themselves who defined the boundaries of the Indigenous territories. Only after that, the government came in, offering technical assistance to put on paper what the communities had already agreed upon.

The process of mapping and titling the Indigenous territories involved more than 600 meetings to negotiate boundaries, says Cunningham, and it is a continuous process. In addition to negotiations among Indigenous communities, there is also a need to resolve conflicts between Indigenous communities on the one hand and non-Indigenous settlers who have been colonizing parts of the autonomous territories on the other. These negotiations are led by the communities themselves, applying traditional methods of conflict resolution, Cunningham explains.

What are the traditional methods of conflict resolution?

“In each community, there is a group of people who are responsible for bringing together parties that are in conflict. It is a system of mediation that is applied to any type of disagreement, and it is aimed at restoring balance within and between communities. Spirituality is an important component of it. There was recently a meeting between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous settlers, and the negotiations were centered around prayer. They solved their conflicts by emphasizing their spiritual connections and their shared concern for future generations.”

Do the Indigenous communities and the illegal settlers share the same spirituality?

“They don’t. They all pray to their own spirits or god, but they respect each other’s beliefs. Their spirituality functions as a unifying force, because it is based on the same basic principle, which is that human beings are not the center of the universe. Humankind is one element of nature but not necessarily the most important one. This belief is what unites them, and it provides a solid basis for conflict resolution.”


In the autonomous region, the Miskitu have full self-determination. They have the right to make decisions about their land and resources and to define the type of development they want. Moreover, their governance bodies are fully recognized as the legitimate authorities.

Some governments only grant partial rights, because they want to maintain some level of control, especially over forest resources. Are there cases in which partial rights are justified?

“I strongly believe that Indigenous peoples have the fundamental right to full self-determination, but this is still a struggle in many countries. You currently see two movements. You see Indigenous peoples demanding full self-determination, while many governments are providing only partial rights. It indicates that there is still a long way to go.”

What is the relationship between self-determination and forest conservation?

“Self-determination does not automatically result in conservation. Indigenous communities might traditionally know how to manage the forest, but the world has changed. They need money to buy salt and flour, to send kids to school, etc. You cannot expect them to conserve the forest without any development aspirations. This means they might need support and technical assistance to develop income-earning opportunities, but the government, or any other external actor, should never be the one making the decisions.

“So far, conservation organizations have often been harmful to Indigenous communities. They have come in with the idea that they are the ones in control. I think the conservation movement and Indigenous peoples could work together, but only if conservation organizations explicitly recognize the Indigenous right to self-determination. It is their land; no one should be able to tell them what to do.”  


This story also appeared on Landscape news. This series will be continue to be co-published on Landscape News in the lead-up to the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum Bonn, 22-23 June, highlighting the forum's theme of rights.

Cover photo: Typical wooden house in the forests of northern Nicaragua © Martin Schneiter / Adobe Stock