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Tucker Student Spotlight

Eliza Rockefeller '17

Eliza Rockefeller
Assistant for Multi-Faith Programs

Major: Religion Major and Studio Art Minor

Hometown: New York City, NY

Read the full interview

Where We Go


Participants on the CCESP will spend the majority of their time in communities surrounding the town of Siuna, a complex and diverse municipality that includes multiple ecosystems and an ethnically diverse population. Raan mapIt is part of the Region Autónoma Atlántico Norte (RAAN), a semi-autonomous region in Nicaragua that has its own unique history of foreign intervention, local environmental challenges, cultural fusion, and vibrant economic development. This page is intended to give those interested a background of some of the history and current facts about Siuna and the Northern Autonomous Region (RAAN).

Ethnicity in the RAAN

There are two ethnic groups in the RAAN — Creole (Afro-Caribbean) and mestizo — and three indigenous groups — Rama, Sumo-Mayangna (sometimes divided by dialect into Panamaska and Tuashka), and Miskito. About one-third of the population is urban, and the other two-thirds are rural.

The autonomous region has seven municipalities (municipios): Puerto Cabezas, Siuna, Waspam, Rosita, Bonanza and Prinzapolka, and Mulukukú. The Costa Atlántica has a long and complicated history which has shaped its current demographics and geopolitics. In the 1700s, the British ruled the region indirectly through mining operations and manipulation of local politics. In the 1800s, however, the British were expelled by the Nicaraguan central government, which had historically been controlled by the Spanish. The then-independent government of Nicaragua began to formally exercise claims over the eastern half of the country, and this region was incorporated into the Nicaraguan state. While there was some migration to the region from the Pacific Coast and internal struggle for natural resource control, little attention was paid to the eastern half of the country for decades.

It was not until the mid-20th century, with the Sandinista Revolution and Contra War, that the region was once again affected by the politics and the wishes of the central government. After some restructuring of departments (departamentos), the former region of Zelaya del Norte, Zelaya del Sur, and Zelaya Centro became the Region Autonoma del Atlantico Norte (RAAN) and the Region Autonoma Atlantico del Sur (RAAS). The year was 1987, and the Contra war was escalating in the north, with major battles in Siuna. Soon afterwards, an autonomy law set into motion a regional government with limited power to write its own laws, control its own system of education, and collect revenues (although the vast majority of government funding still comes from Managua).

Recently, new immigrants from the Pacific coast have established a strong farming and cattle-ranching base, which has replaced the mining and logging economies of the early 20th century. The main religions are Roman Catholicism, and Protestant and Evangelical Christianity.

The Mining Triangle

The History of the Mining Triangle, which includes the towns of Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita, is characterized by the following:

  • The displacement of indigenous communities and rural campesinos with the coffee production boom at the end of the 19th century, which caused these populations to be pushed into formerly virgin forest
  • Transnational companies and the exploitation of natural resources, especially in gold mining
  • The necessity for cheap labor in the mining industry, the exploitation of indigenous populations and the importation of mestizos and creoles from other areas of Nicaragua to fulfill this labor need
  • The forming of semi-urban areas located next to the mines of transnational companies
  • The establishment of the regional seat in Siuna during the Sandinista government, and the incorporation of Rosita and Bonanza as towns, and the building of the road to Managua. Currently, the Regional seat is Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas)


Siuna is situated in a mountainous region about 318 km from Managua and 218 km (by road) from Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) on the Caribbean Coast. During the Sandinista government Siuna was considered the regional seat of government for the Mining Triangle and was the location through which the national government acted in the region. The population is primarily mestizo, who are descendants of immigrants or migrants themselves from the Pacific coast. The mining boom of the mid-twentieth century brought populations of North American, Miskito, Afro-Caribbean and Chinese immigrants to work in the mines and mining administration. The origin of Siuna's "Mercado chino" is in the first Chinese immigrants who established businesses to serve the mining establishment and profited from the influx of cash into the town. It is now the main commercial center of Siuna.

During the earlier part of the twentieth century, the RAAN was originally a large region of unpopulated territory unregulated by the state, which allowed rural pioneers to claim the land and turn it into ranching or farmland. The Sandinista government also allotted 35,000 hectares of land to families, with 50 hectares for each family, and completed a highway from Siuna to Matagalpa, which is today Siuna's only direct connection by road to Managua. Today, Siuna is a municipality (more closely related to the concept of a "county" in the US) which has an urban center and surrounded by small rural villages that consist of small mestizo communities, individual farms, and one indigenous Mayangna community (Sikilta).

All in all, Siuna has more than 60,000 inhabitants, with about a quarter of the population in the urban center and three-quarters scattered among rural communities and individual farms. It was officially incorporated in 1969 and has an area of 1,600 km2, which is about 18% of the RAAN and 5% of the national territory. 15% of Siuna's land is contained in a bioreserve called the Bosawas, located in the Northeastern part of Siuna. There are more than 150 rural communities, each with a dispersed population of primarily farmers and ranchers.  The geographical isolation of some farms and communities, lack of infrastructure and difficulties of transportation especially in the rainy season, pose a problem for residents who must walk long distances (hours or days) to access services. This video is an aerial tour taken by a Dartmouth ’08 of the town of Siuna while doing research for a Fulbright Scholarship in the region.

Origins of Siuna

According to Mayangna oral histories, the first foreigners to enter the Siuna area were a diverse group of Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Basques, and Americans, who the Mayangna found on the banks of the Prinzapolka River looking for gold.  The Mayangna showed the foreigners where they might find deposits of gold in Siuna, and so began the marginalization of this indigenous community.  The first foreigner to contact the Mayangna was Jose Aramburu, a Basque miner interested in gold deposits in the area. Elders in the Mayangna community recount how Siul, a Mayangna woman, gave foreigners knowledge of the location of gold deposits in exchange for Aramburu's freeing of her husband from jail.

Supposedly, the first Mestizo, Miskito, and Afro-Caribbean families built homes on the banks of the Siuna river starting around 1904 while mining began in Siuna around the same time. The company that bought much of the land in Siuna and developed substantial gold mining infrastructure (including roads, an airstrip, and water systems and electricity for mining employees) was La Luz Mining Company, an American and Canadian company.
Augusto Sandino, in his fight to expel American Marines out of Nicaragua, sacked the Siuna mine in the 1920s, but the takeover was brief and the mining boom in the 1930s and 40s saw the expansion of even more foreign interests and immigration into the Siuna region. Between 1935 and 1945, gold exports made up more than half of Nicaragua's export income. The mining company ceased operations in 1968 when a particularly strong rainy season caused the hydroelectric plant to burst, shutting down electricity and all mining operations.

In the 1980s, the Contra War hit Siuna especially hard. Rural campesinos were displaced by conflict, resulting in an increase in the urban population and migration to Honduras.  Since the end of the Contra War, Siuna has become a vibrant small town in the center of a diverse area, and is growing at the rate of 8% per year, mainly due to immigration from the Pacific side of Nicaragua. As of November 2008, the municipality was connected to the national power grid and as of February 2009, a fiber optics cable was installed in the town to allow for phone landlines and Internet access. Urban Siuna has had cell phone service for several years.

The Mine

La Luz Mining Company started mining operations in Siuna at the beginning of the 20th century, but mining became mechanized in the 1940s and 50s. During the Sandinista government, all mining operations were nationalized but by this time the Siuna gold mine was operating at a low capacity because of lack of electricity.  The hydroelectric dam, which supplied both the mine and the Canadian workers colony in Siuna with electricity, burst in 1968 and has never been repaired.  This, coupled with waning interest and profitability, caused La Luz to scale down operation.  In the 1970s, La Luz sold its concessions to mine and abandoned production.

Since nationalization in the 1980s, INMINEH has supported small-scale cooperative mining in the Siuna region, with training for geologists and prospectors, as some Siuna residents have expressed a desire to continue mining operations The work is physically demanding and there is very little gold extracted.
Currently the Yamana Gold Company of Canada has been conducting mineral exploration but has not announced plans for opening a mine. Nonetheless, Yamana holds the concessions of some previous mining companies in Siuna, and could start theoretically begin operations if they decide to do so (although the political fallout of this decision might be costly). Small mining cooperatives now mine the land, since no other transnational corporation currently enforces rights to the land.

Environmental Issues in Siuna

There is a considerable amount of controversy that surrounds the Bosawas, the bioreserve located partially in the northern part of the Department of Siuna.  There are a number of illegal squatters including Mayangna and poor mestizo farmers, who live there due to necessity but they are also periodically driven out of the Bosawas by the government. The Bosawas shelters illegal loggers and drug traffickers, who, according to professors at URACCAN's IREMADES (Institute for Environmental Studies), grow marijuana and take advantage of the lack of control over the Bosawas territory to transport drugs to Honduras. This issue is complicated by the fact that most of Siuna's Mayangna population lives near or inside the Bosawas reserve, as this land was part of Mayangna territory before the reserve's founding in 1998. The government still allows Mayangna to live inside the reserve legally, partly because they live in small communities and practice small-plot agriculture that does not include the burning of large swaths of land.

Although most of the water found in ponds and aquifers in urban Siuna has been contaminated by mining operations, some businesses and homes have running water to use in toilets, sinks and showers, which usually comes from rain water storage tanks.  Other households use latrines and collect rainwater for use in cooking and bathing. Many houses in the town have electricity, but few in rural areas do. In rural areas, water may be collected from a river or rainwater tank, and may or may not be purified using filters or bleach.

Last Updated: 3/22/13