Looking south

Armstrong Wiggins is an organizer, not a lawyer. But he does know that
justice has a price. And sometimes going to jail is a part of it.

A Miskito Indian, Wiggins grew up in Karata, a small town on the Caribbean
coast of Nicaragua. Educated as a boy by the Moravian church, he went to
the United States and studied on scholarship at the University of Wisconsin
- a man of ambition intent on one day returning south.

"Non-Indians think that indigenous people cannot become educated, come
back, lead their people, speak three languages, [or] understand and
struggle for their own rights," Wiggins said. "Either you have to be a
Communist when you do that or become a right-wing CIA agent - because
you're educated in the U.S."

Wiggins is neither. Since 1981, he has worked for the Indian Law Resource
Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to establishing national and
international legal standards for protection of Native peoples across the
hemisphere. Coordinator for Central and South America in ILRC's Washington,
D.C. office, Wiggins has worked on cases in Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras and
Brazil while consulting with Native leaders across Latin America about land
and economic rights.

The ILRC led the fight for Awas Tingni, a Mayagna (Sumo) Indian community
in Nicaragua that decided to stand up to illegal logging of its ancestral
lands. When Nicaraguan courts ignored the village's complaints, the ILRC,
which accepts no government funding, managed the case up the judicial
ladder to an international forum.

In 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Nicaragua had
failed to demarcate traditional Sumo territory when granting logging
concessions and ordered Managua to recognize, title, and respect indigenous

More importantly, the decision had bite. The national government paid
$30,000 for legal fees and another $50,000, after consulting with the
community, to build a hostel in Puerto Cabezas where young people attending
high school and university can lodge. Awas Tingni has no educational
facilities beyond the sixth grade.

The legal battle demonstrated that "indigenous people have a right to
develop their own laws according to their history and according to their
culture," said Wiggins, who co-supervised the case for ILRC. "They have a
right to own their land collectively. And they have a right to their
resources, surface and subsurface."

Wiggins isn't enamored of old ideologies. He was jailed for a month as a
political prisoner during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the
1970s. In 1981, before joining ILRC, he was locked up again after a violent
scuffle with Somoza's successor, the Marxist Sandinista government. "I've
been tortured by the physical torture of the right-wing system and by the
psychological torture of the left-wing," he said matter-of-factly, adding
that the Sandinistas were assisted in their labors by the former Stasi
(secret police) of East Germany.

During the Sandinista years, the Miskitos suffered violence and massive
relocation. The Managua government, fighting U.S. - financed Contras,
sought to control a region that had long rejected the centralized power of
church and state. "We were used as cannon fodder between the Reagan
administration and the Cubans and the Soviet Union," Wiggins declared,
describing a bitter struggle that divided both the indigenous and human
rights communities at the end of the Cold War.

In 1984, the Sandinistas decided that Native demands for autonomy were no
longer "counter-revolutionary." Wiggins, living in exile, was approached by
Sandinista authorities. Extensive talks evolved in subsequent years. Today,
he said, indigenous people have prescribed rights in the Nicaraguan
constitution and two special autonomous regions along the Atlantic coast.

The Miskitos, present in the area for some 2,000 years, are the largest
indigenous group on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Having mixed with
slaves and their descendants, Wiggins said, they number about 300,000 today
in a region larger than El Salvador.

A U.S. resident for more than two decades, Wiggins believes Native people
across the hemisphere need to share notes. "What happened in North America
can happen in Central and South America," he warned. "That experience needs
to be given to our leaders so they don't make the same mistakes ... We have
our own land and resources. We don't want to lose them, like what happened
in the U.S. with the parceling and privatizing of Indian land.

"In Central and South America, up until the '90s, we were still fighting
like cowboys and Indians," Wiggins continued. Now, he said, the fight has
moved to new terrain: "The jungle we can handle. But how do you defend
yourself when democracy starts growing, when technology comes in?"

Wiggins urged that Native people be trained in technology management, that
they study law at the national and international levels, and that they
learn all they can about sustainable development. There is much the North
has to teach about these things, he said, even if its people are forced to
recall, somewhat wistfully, that "what they had a long, long time ago still
exists in South America."

Concepts north and south may be similar, if not always the same. Given the
oppressive memory of dictatorships, Wiggins said, many Central Americans
prefer "self-determination" to "sovereignty" as a political watchword.
While some Miskito leaders still talk about independence, Wiggins
personally wonders what good it would do. At the same time, radical
positions advanced by elders help the Miskitos negotiate with Managua, he
admitted, which has granted Indian people a form of limited self-rule.

Across the Americas, indigenous people grapple with the courts to enforce
the claims of tradition. People like Armstrong Wiggins, Rennard Strickland,
Robert Porter, and Lorene Ferguson both challenge and enforce written and
unwritten codes from the past. They know the law can be flexible, even
fickle; that international forums can be useful platforms for change; that
writing the law anew is as important as learning to read it. And that the
law, in one way or another, is always about the land.

"Without land rights, our self-determination cannot survive," Wiggins said.