Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

"Children of the Sun:" the Landmark Nicaraguan Land Rights Case

March 10th, 2011

On February 8, 2011, the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research (CIPR), the Law School’s Payson Center for International Development and the Eason Weinmann Center for Comparative Law welcomed Lottie Cunningham to Tulane University for a lecture on “Indigenous Land Rights and Environmental Protection: the case of Awas Tingni vs. Nicaragua.” Cunningham, a Miskito Indian lawyer from Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast region, played a key role in the historic Awas Tingni vs. Nicaragua case, known today as the first legal victory for an indigenous community at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

To an audience of nearly 60 Tulane students, faculty and community members, Cunningham explained the circumstances that led to the Awas Tingni case: In 1995, the Nicaraguan government granted a logging concession on 62,000 hectares of indigenous communal land in the country’s Atlantic Coast region. The government granted the 30-year concession on the basis that the land is considered national territory. The Awas Tingni community attempted to bring a communal land rights case before a Nicaraguan tribunal court but after years of delay and inaction, the community finally turned to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the Awas Tingni community. The Court considered the right to indigenous ancestral lands a human right. According to Cunningham, the judicial recognition of the “spiritual understanding” between the Awas Tingni community and their ancestral land in Nicaragua was of chief importance for the success of the case. “Without our land, we would disappear,” she made clear. The law of private property has since been revised to include communal rights for indigenous communities.

Asked whether the Awas Tingni community continues to face problems with the current presidential administration, Cunningham explained that the Ortega government has indeed shown more respect to the indigenous community. However, the Nicaraguan government continues to grant mining and oil concessions that are negatively impacting the indigenous community of the Atlantic Coast region.

Cunningham’s inspiring lecture on community level struggles for indigenous rights in Nicaragua is echoed in the documentary film “Children of the Sun,” available at Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies, CIPR and the Law School’s Payson Center for International Development. Please contact angela.reed@tulane.edu for renting details.

Lecture synopsis by: Keri Libby