For her ceaseless dedication to the protection of indigenous lands and communities from exploitation and plunder.
Lottie Cunningham Wren is a lawyer from the Miskito indigenous group in Nicaragua, defending the rights of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples to their land and resources. She has been instrumental in ensuring legal protections, including initiating the process of demarcation and titling of indigenous lands. Cunningham has fought to uphold the human rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, protecting them and their livelihoods from armed settlers.
Through the use of international and domestic law, Cunningham has secured indigenous land rights in Nicaragua, pioneering legal strategies that have been successfully used by indigenous communities around the world to demarcate their lands. Cunningham has also shown that the protection of indigenous land is instrumental to the protection of local ecosystems.
A fierce advocate for her people, Cunningham has also advanced the rights of indigenous women, including establishing programmes to reduce domestic violence and pushing to create space for them in decision-making bodies. She also works to educate youth on how to formally demand respect for their human rights and report violations. Despite threats and intimidation, Cunningham remains unwavering in her commitment to empower and protect indigenous communities from external forces engaged in the exploitation of their lands.
As an indigenous woman in Nicaragua, Lottie Cunningham Wren has personally experienced the violence and destruction that came from the lack of protections for her people and their land. In response, she has taken the plight of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – and won. By combining innovative legal tools and grassroots mutual solidarity, Cunningham found a way to empower and protect long-marginalised indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and beyond.
Indigenous Struggle in Nicaragua
More than 400,000 indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants live along Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast in their ancestral territories and practice their traditional, ecologically sound, economically self-sufficient lifestyles. For centuries, Nicaragua’s indigenous communities have managed their lands and resources sustainably. Today, 304 indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, belonging to 23 territories on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, have their communal land titled. They obtained the legal status for self-determination and autonomy in 1987, after the end of a protracted civil war in the country.
Indigenous communities represent roughly one-tenth of the country’s overall population, yet their region holds important natural resources. Successive Nicaraguan governments have long marginalised these communities and expropriated their land to facilitate illegal natural resource extraction from the autonomous indigenous regions. The 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution granted communities of the Caribbean Coast the legal protection of their private and communal property, but a mechanism was never implemented to demarcate their land. The invasion of companies and miners, which is still ongoing today, has not only devastated their territory but has also caused the displacement of the majority of the communities.
Gaining International and Domestic Legal Protections for Indigenous Lands
Lottie Cunningham Wren has witnessed indigenous suffering first-hand since childhood. Initially trained as a nurse, Cunningham decided to pursue law after seeing the hardships faced by indigenous people. She became a lawyer in 1994 and a year later started focusing on the protection and empowerment of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Nicaragua.
One of Cunningham’s greatest achievements has been her participation in the first legal case demanding collective rights for the indigenous peoples of Nicaragua, brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. As an expert witness in the case of Awas Tingni vs the State of Nicaragua, Cunningham, in collaboration with the Indian Law Resource Center, attained a judgment favouring the community in August 2001. In its judgment, the court concluded that Nicaragua had violated the rights of indigenous communities by granting a concession for the exploitation of forest resources in their traditional territory without prior consent. Additionally, the government had neglected demands by the Awas Tingni community for the demarcation of their territory.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling meant that Nicaragua had to legally demarcate and codify the traditional and autonomous indigenous territories in the country, resulting in the 2003 mechanism for the demarcation and titling of indigenous territories in the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua (Law No. 445). Cunningham designed and implemented this process resulting in 304 indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, belonging to 23 territories on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, having their communal land titled. The ruling and the titling process are frequently cited by other indigenous groups in human rights and land rights court cases and have helped further indigenous land rights worldwide.
Using these experiences, Cunningham has trained indigenous communities around the world to use her innovative strategy of human rights litigation to advance cultural and ecological rights.
Advancing and Protecting Indigenous Rights and Culture
Cunningham has played a central role in protecting indigenous communities from various threats, including armed settlers. She is currently documenting and challenging violent land grabs in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, where the government has encouraged non-native settlers to move into indigenous territories.
In 2003, she created the non-governmental organisation Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN) to elevate her efforts.
Cunningham and CEJUDHCAN are the legal representatives of 97 communal and 9 territorial governments. They act not only as legal defenders, but as community leaders providing support for agricultural, educational, and environmental projects. In addition to legal representation, they support communities fighting for legal rights with material well-being projects including food and water security, sanitation, women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and domestic violence prevention.
Their programmes have strengthened the capacities of the community leadership in understanding and adopting the legal framework that supports the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent. This allows them to demand their human and environmental rights and secure their health and safety.
Cunningham’s strategy builds upon what is at the heart of indigenous communities – mutual solidarity. She has pioneered and promoted the establishment of village-based human rights rapid response teams – teams of seven people in twelve villages – enabling them to prepare their communities with a legal strategy and clear community demands. At a moment’s notice, the rapid response teams are prepared to advocate for the needs of the community in the local, regional, and international arena.
Focus on women and youth
Cunningham has been a strong advocate for the rights of indigenous women within their homes, communities and territories. She has created a programme to help indigenous women get into decision-making positions in communal spaces and territorial governments. To complement these efforts, she has also worked to raise awareness of the importance of having women in positions of power.
Cunningham has also developed a special focus on educating the youth about individual and collective rights. Through the programme, young people are given manuals and training on how to demand their rights and report violations in their communities.
Stopping environmental exploitation
In addition to standing up for indigenous communities under an armed land grab by settlers, Cunningham has been instrumental in opposing colonialist and extractivist policies of the Nicaraguan government, as well as national and international companies. One such effort has seen Cunningham participate in advocating against the proposed Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal, an infrastructure development envisioned to compete with, and surpass, the Panama Canal. The proposed canal in Nicaragua would pass through indigenous Rama and Kriol territories.
Cunningham has worked with these local communities, as well as has taken the case to international fora, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the UN, in order to halt the construction. The development project, led by the Chinese company Wang Jin, would lead to massive deforestation and the destruction of the most important water resources for local communities. Without her efforts and those of her colleagues and partners, the project would severely compromise the integrity of the territories, the natural resources and the cultural and material survival of the indigenous communities.
With her sharp focus and unrelenting commitment, Cunningham has secured legal protections for indigenous peoples’ right to their lands, while highlighting their role as custodians for the environment. Through this, Cunningham has advanced the rights of indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and around the world.