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  • The Embers of Radical Ecology and Revolutionary Ideology in Nicaragua’s Protests
  • Michael A. Petriello and Audrey J. Joslin

The recent social upheaval and political turbulence in Nicaragua are widely reported as the citizenry’s response to the Daniel Ortega administration’s new policy prescriptions. To date, hundreds of Nicaraguans have fallen victim to alleged extrajudicial killings by pro-government supporters and military police, while nearly 25,000 continue to seek asylum in Costa Rica and an estimated 131,000 have descended into poverty (Fundación Nicaragüense para el Desarrollo Económico y Social [FUNIDES], 2018; Partlow, 2018). Initial reports emphasized that protests arose in response to the government’s proposal to reduce pension benefits while raising social security taxes (Rogers, 2018; Thaler & Mosinger, 2018; Toro & Bosworth, 2018).

Stories have surfaced from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, that protestors have been tearing down a symbol of national unity—the trees of life—that was designed by the current vice president and first lady, Rosario Murillo. These árboles de la vida, many of which still dot the cityscape, embody a multifaceted symbolism that ranges from a simple art project meant to enhance Managua’s colorful urban aesthetic to a representation of Nicaragua’s literal and figurative roots in the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” the country’s tourist and nationalistic motto. However, Nicaraguans are tearing down these trees as symbols of a corrupt regime that is detached from the social realities of its pueblo and tierra.

The smaller demonstrations over the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve that preceded the widespread and violent protests underscore these relationships. From April 3 to April 16, 2018, a wildfire consumed 5,500 hectares of forests in Nicaragua’s Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve. To raise public awareness, environmentalists turned to social media, inspiring the creation of #SOSIndioMaíz on Twitter that fomented peaceful civilian and student protests from April 10 to 13 (Pilz, 2018). Protestors perceived the government’s response to be slow, inadequate, and even counterproductive as officials waited weeks to send firefighting crews to the reserve and reportedly refused firefighting aid from Costa Rica (Agren, 2018). The fire was extinguished within days after the initial protests. Yet, these embers remained on the streets and social media, as on-the-ground and online advocates drew parallels between perceived government neglect of its land in Indio-Maíz and neglect of its people via social security reforms. These connections are visible [End Page 203] through concurrent calls to action using overlapping SOS hashtags on social media that tied together threats from the wildfire (#SOSIndioMaíz) with social security (#SOSINSS) and democracy in Nicaragua (#SOSNicaragua).

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Figure 1.

A landscape of lakes and volcanoes: Ometepe Island, located in Lake Cocibolca in southwestern Nicaragua (photo by Petriello).

The 2018 protests now appear largely disconnected from the Indio-Maíz fires. However, the failure to protect land that is at the heart of Nicaragua’s national imagination, compounded by heavy-handed government responses to protestors, opened political opportunities that precipitated the escalating crisis—all of which highlight the importance of land as a stage for enacting and protecting national identity. In this light, we hope to provide further insight and provoke discussion about a current gap in media coverage: how Nicaragua’s revolutionary environmental history and the Indio-Maíz wildfire relate to the 2018 protests and how they may have opened political space for citizens to voice discontent with the current government and its policies.

Historically, land conflict has been at the heart of revolutionary movements in Nicaragua. The U.S.-supported Anastasio Somoza regime (1937–1979) maintained policies that favored export commodities, continuing the latifundia system that had been integral to Spanish settlers under colonialism. By the start of Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution, 1 [End Page 204] percent of the population owned 50 percent of the land (Faber, 1999). Inequality in land distribution ensured poverty and environmental degradation, prompting social unrest. Despite bountiful harvests, land-poor peasant farmers (campesinos) and workers struggled to subsist on the low wages of the export industry and faced hunger and malnutrition. As large landholders continued to purchase and consolidate prime agricultural properties...