Nicaraguans Fight to Save Land and Sovereignty from Canal Development

June 13 Protest. Credit: AFP

Francisca Ramirez, coordinator with the National Council in Defense of Our Lake, Land, and Sovereignty, takes a deep breath.  “I was born in Fonseca.  I live in Fonseca.  I want to die in Fonseca.”  If the canal partnership between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Chinese billionaire Wang Jing  comes to fruition, her future home is uncertain.

June 13 2015 No Canal Protest AFPFrancisca Ramirez, coordinator with the National Council in Defense of Our Lake, Land, and Sovereignty, takes a deep breath.  “I was born in Fonseca.  I live in Fonseca.  I want to die in Fonseca.”  If the canal partnership between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Chinese billionaire Wang Jing  comes to fruition, her future home is uncertain.

(Photo: Peasants march against the construction of an inter-oceanic canal in the city of Juigalpa in central Nicaragua on June 13, 2015. (© AFP)

On June 13, 2015, a group of approximately 30,000 demonstrators gathered in Juigalpa, the capital city of the Chontales Department, to show the Ortega administration its opposition to the canal.  Exactly two years earlier, on June 13, 2013, the Nicaraguan national assembly rubber-stamped the legislation, known as Law 840, that granted the concession of canal rights to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND) for up to 100 years.

Law 840 and Canal Development

The law was created and passed in under a week, unamended, with the help of what many see as a government complacent to the will of Daniel Ortega.  There was no citizen involvement in its creation.  This is the opposite of how the process should have been carried out, says Francisca Ramirez of Fonseca, a small township in the Chontales Department.  “This decision is not for the government to make.  It is for the people.”  The passage of Law 840 contrasts sharply with the recent expansion of the Panama Canal, which was approved enthusiastically through a voter referendum in 2006.

Law 840 grants sweeping powers to the HKND group, owned by billionaire Wang Jing.  Mónica López Baltodano, a young Nicaraguan lawyer, was part of a group of 183 Nicaraguans that presented a lawsuit to the Supreme Court of Nicaragua that counted 31 incidences of unconstitutionality in the passage of the law.  Ms. Baltodano detailed an extensive list of irregularities in the legislative process, and argued that the opaque negotiation resulted in an agreement that jeopardizes the environment and sovereignty of Nicaragua for a pittance.

“All use rights of the land, air, water, maritime spaces and natural resources have been handed over, without valuing the importance of environmental integrity to guaranteeing the life of Nicaraguans and with no economically quantified compensation. Even the right to alter and dredge the Great Lake [Lake Nicaragua, also known as Cocibolca], our main drinking water reserve, has been ceded.”

The question of Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest lakes in the Americas, is an important one for Nicaraguans. Nemesia Mejia, a resident of Punta Gorda, the Caribbean terminus of the proposed canal, pointed to the implications of pollution.  “There are more than 200,000 people who are dependent on Lake Nicaragua for water,” he said.  “What will happen if it becomes contaminated?”

On top of the environmental disaster that will result if the canal project is realized, Mejia also pointed the social costs. “Law 840 gives all the rights of Nicaraguans to the Chinese.  Under the law, Nicaraguans can be indicted, but foreigners cannot.  It is a law that will do damage to our environment, our economy, and our sovereignty.”  He is referring to the fact that the contractor, HKND group, cannot be punished under Nicaraguan law for any breach of contract.  If a breach should occur and Nicaragua be left with a partially finished canal, it will suffer all the consequences of that development while the HKND group legally assumes zero responsibility for any environmental or social repercussions.

Development of the canal continues unabated, despite a lack of public environmental studies and doubts about how the $50 billion project will be financed.  Construction began in December 2014, and although both the HKND Group and Nicaraguan leadership remain optimistic about the environmental and social implications of the project, it is clear that many others are not.

A group of international scientists has released a harsh criticism of the only available environmental report, written for HKND by the UK-based organization Environmental Resources Management.  The group of scientists, who gathered in Florida in the spring of 2015, believe that the report has insufficient data on subjects that range from water quality to erosion.  They also stated the two-year period in which the study was completed was inadequate to fully measure the impacts of what the HKND Group calls “the largest civil earth-moving project in history.”

Popular Opposition

There has been a popular storm gathering to protest the canal.  It’s not hard to see why.  What began as a dream of development almost 200 years ago has been transformed into the unconstitutional sale of much of the nation’s sovereignty.  As a result, there have been increasing numbers of demonstrations against the canal.

The events of June 13 were the largest anti-canal demonstration yet, according to Francisca Ramirez.  According to her, 30,000 people attended the protest.  A driving force behind to protests and their organization was the National Council in Defense of Our Lake, Land, and Sovereignty, a grassroots group without a central office, but with strong roots throughout the proposed canal zone.  Created in reaction to the canal, the Council is an organization driven by and for campesinos, and has galvanized an often apolitical group into action.

Ramirez lives in the community of Fonseca, close to Juigalpa, and helped organize 40 trucks from her community to visit the march.  Her actions were mirrored by other organizers. Victor Hugo Tinoco, a representative of the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement), called the demonstration “the largest protest and lifting of the campesinos in the modern history of Nicaragua.”

Born in Fonseca, Ramirez has lived there all her life.  Her tenacity extends to the project she helps organize.  She views the march as just one event in a larger campaign against canal development. “I want to organize every Nicaraguan that is calm [about the canal].”

Maria Marjeliz Sinoco García, from Fonseca and a volunteer with the Council, was stark about the canal’s implications.  No water will be taken from Lake Nicaragua, but García spoke about the consequences of finding water to fill the canal. “They are going to carve a river to build the canal.  They are going to carve the rivers, the lakes, the earth.”

The community of Fonseca, located close to the shores of Lake Nicaragua, knows it will be acutely affected by development.  The river used for drinking water and crops will be diverted to fill the canal.  “We are going to lose our river,” said García.  Without it, the community will be faced with an existential crisis.  García noted that their community is one story among many.  She continued, “Over 250,000 campesinos will lose their land.”

According to Nemesia Mejia of Punta Gorda, the HKND group can expropriate land it deems necessary for construction of the canal at the rate of $14.80 per Manzana of land (roughly 7 square kilometers).  Given that the vast majority of these people depend on their land for income, this will have broad consequences, says Mejia.  “Thousands of people will be unemployed.  Here, the whole world works in agriculture.  The canal will make a few jobs, but it will take away far more.”

Though Law 840, the HKND group has been given carte blanche to destroy the physical and social fiber of these communities by expropriating their land and diverting their rivers.  This led to the events of last month.

On the morning of June 13, residents of Fonseca piled into trucks and drove through communities in the Chontales Department that were similar to their own.  Ramirez explained her community’s motivation:  “We went to Juigalpa because we do not want to loan our land; we don’t want to give it to the Chinese.”  Her colleague, García, detailed some of the events of the day. “We drove from La Colonia Fonseca, through Rama, past San Carlos and San Miguelito.”  Everywhere they saw communities just like theirs.  People from all over the country were heading to Juigalpa.  Some even traveled 12 hours to attend the march.

By any measure, the demonstration was a success.  It showed other Nicaraguans that those affected by canal development were ready to protect their land.  It showed the Ortega administration that the population was ready to move beyond words to protect its environment and sovereignty.  It was non-violent, except for one minor clash with a loyal Sandinista outside FSLN headquarters in Juigalpa.

Ortega refused to acknowledge the demonstration publicly.  However, there have been telling actions that show the government doubling down on its current policies. Octavio Ortega Arena is another coordinator with the Council.  In an interview with La Prensa, a national news outlet, he said that there was a heightened military presence prior to the march to intimidate those who intended to demonstrate.

However the Ortega administration can’t seem to decide whether to intimidate or cajole dissenters.  On July 7, the government dispatched a group of medical personal to the canal zone, ostensibly to strengthen health services to campesinos. On its Facebook page, the Council was outraged.  “All of us campesinos know who sent them [medical personnel] and we ask ourselves if you have to study in the university to be a puppet.”

30,000 is a huge attendance, especially in a country of 6 million (if a similar percentage of the U.S. population attended a march, it would be comprised of 1.5 million people).  Despite this success, organizers haven’t taken a break.  They continue to develop their movement.  Nemesia Mejia spoke of planned actions.  “León is planning one [a march].  Chinandega and Matagalpa, too.  All of these cities are outside the planned route of the canal.”  Although they are outside the route, they understand that the development will profoundly affect every Nicaraguan.

Francisca Ramirez also talked about upcoming events.  “In September we plan to have a march in the capital.”  The campesinos demand a voice in the process, and demand their homes and livelihood not be taken from them. “I was born in Fonseca.  I live in Fonseca.  I want to die in Fonseca.”