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Nicaragua’s Grand Canal: 3 –No excavation without consultation

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3. No Excavation without Consultation

While opinion polls still indicate broad support for the canal project, along the canal’s route it’s a different story. Russell White investigates.

The Canal and the Lack of Consultation

The proposed interoceanic canal through Nicaragua has divided public opinion within the country. While opinion polls indicate that the canal has broad public support, there is still a significant minority that is opposed to the canal. 

In a piece for The Telegraph, Nina Lakhani noted that ‘Along the planned route, [the canal] is provoking a blend of anger, fear and defiance not witnessed since the Civil War ended in 1988′. 

“If this is not the people, then where are they? This is what happens for not consulting first with the people, Mr.President! No to nepotism! No to Chinese meddling, invasion and expansionism! No to Russian imperialism!  No to the ‘drugvasion’! We demand respect! We want schools and fewer barracks! We want land and more farm subsidies! We want real Sandinismo. Say no to the fraudulent business deals of a dictatorship.”

Given the issues at stake, particularly the expropriation of land, and the potentially volatile mix of former Contras and former Sandinistas among those most affected, particularly on the Atlantic Coast, it is possible that things could get nasty as the canal project progresses and takes shape. Recent protests in Managua and elsewhere may be a sign of worse to come, as are the recent reports regarding ill-treatment of foreign journalists from Belgium and Spain. Despite claims to the contrary, such stories suggest that the authorities hold little truck with potential dissenters. 

No Consultation

One of the things that has particularly concerned protestors is the lack of consultation prior to the concession being agreed with Wang Jing and HKND. According to critics the project was granted full approval in only seven days.

Opponents of the canal have argued that the concession law was passed without a proper debate and without the appropriate the environmental and financial reports having been undertaken. While various reports have been commissioned by HKND, critics argue that they should have been completed and scrutinised before the go ahead was given. 

Expropriations of Land

As Lahkani acknowledges, resistance to the canal has been particularly pronounced and concentrated along the canal’s route. Pro-Sandinista small-holder indigenous farmers and Pro-contra ranchers have been united in their condemnation of the plans.

Many communities along the route are concerned that they will have their property expropriated and that they will be displaced. HKND estimate that some 29,000 people will have their land expropriated, while other sources including The Telegraph put the figure at closer to 100,000. 

Campesino communities do not know where they would be moving to and they also worry that the compensation that they receive for their land will not be fair. Indeed, many critics have pointed to the fact that any compensation for expropriated land will be based on cadastral rather than market value. This means that compensation will be based on the value of land as set by the local town hall for tax purposes. This is almost always significantly less than the market value of the land. Not only this, but landowners will have no right to appeal the compensation offered by HKND. 

Demonstrations in Managua

Demonstrations involving several thousand protestors have been held in Managua. Protestors from rural areas travelled up to 250km in trucks in order to take part. 

Protestors complained that the authorities and the police tried to stymie the protests by erecting barricades and harassing protestors. Some sources have claimed that the police also threatened to confiscate the driving licences of the truck drivers.

These claims have been rejected by the authorities. Telemaco Televara, the spokesperson for the Canal Commission, told the Associated Press that ‘We have no reason to keep people from marching’. 

Chinese not wanted! Chinese off our land!The protests have also been characterised by anti-Chinese sentiment, much of which is distasteful, and some of it racist. As one demonstrator, Agustín Ruiz, put it to El País ‘I am here because our rights are being violated. The Chinese enter our land without permission, it’s the support of the police and army, whose officials take care of the Chinese invader’.

Vilma Núñez, President of the Nicararaguan Centre of Human Rights (CENIDH), told the demonstrators ‘This is one of the most symbolic fights in the subject of human rights. You are sowing the seeds of freedom in Nicaragua. […] What’s most impressive is the heroism of the farmers, of this people that with all these difficulties turn up in trucks and did not miss their meeting with la patria to repudiate the most infamous project that has been signed in the history of Nicaragua’.

‘Vende Patria’

The anti-Chinese feeling underpinning the protests in Managua is mirrored in the regions affected by the canal. The feeling that the government has sold out and betrayed the nation is very strong in areas directly affected by the plans. 

Protests in the east of the country has seen demonstrators carrying banners proclaiming ‘The land is not for sale’, ‘Nicaragua will not give up!’ and, most damagingly for Ortega, ‘Ortega: vende patria!’ (Ortega: betrayer of the homeland!)’

Ortega Vende-PatriaAs Arnolfo Sequiera told The Telegraph ‘This is one of the most fertile regions in Nicaragua, and the government have sold it behind our backs to the Chinese, they’ve sold our heritage, our sovereignty’. The same report referred to locals blocking HKND census officials from entering their communities. These teams which are often accompanied by Nicaraguan soldiers have been tasked with valuing people’s homes and land.

Through Indigenous Lands

It is not just ranchers that have protested against the canal. Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups have also voiced their concern about the canal. 

The route of the canal passes through the Rama y Kriol territory, part of the Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS). This 407,000 hectare area is home to six indigenous and three Afro-descendant communities – some 15,000 people in total.  

As film-maker Tom Miller put in a piece explaining the context behind his film ‘This Land is for all of We’ which details the issues that the canal presents for the Rama community of Bangkukuk, the canal will ‘force the Rama off their lands, fragment their lands, and threaten their livelihoods and way of life’. For the Rama, ‘trading their territorial rights and traditional way of life for “economic benefits” is a poor bargain, especially for a people whose cultural identity is so closely tied to their land’.  

Critics have pointed out that Law 445 which demarcated indigenous territory stipulated that this land could not be sold or mortgaged or ceded to anyone. Nicaragua’s Autonomy Statute further states that ‘The communal lands are indissoluble; they cannot be donated, sold, leased nor taxed, and they are eternal’ (Article 36, point 1). 

Enshrined in Nicaraguan law is the fact that the territorial government of the Rama y Kriol territory must also approve any use of the land.

In July 2014, the territorial government posted a press release on its website which registered concern that the deep water port due to be built as part of the project threatens to jeopardize the lifestyle of Bang kukuk/Punta del Aguila indigenous community. The press release also pointed to a lack of consultation from the central government in Managua.

While HKND have delivered a series of presentations to communities in affected areas, they admit that no formal consultations have taken place with indigenous communities. 

On the basis that Nicaraguan law had been violated with the establishment via Law of 800 of the Grand Canal Authority, the Rama y Kriol territory government appealed to the Supreme Court in August 2013. 

The government of the territory announced in August 2014 that they were going to appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the basis that the actions of the Ortega administration and HKND violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Organization of American States’ Convention on Human Rights as well as International Labour Organization Convention 169.

The government argues that the land is not being given away in perpetuity and is part of a limited concession – albeit one that is due to last for 100 years.

The government’s response

The government and HKND’s position is that those whose property will be expropriated will be more than adequately compensated and will be better off. As Paul Oquist told The Guardian ‘At the end of the day, everyone’s going to be better off than they were before…The ones who complain will be the ones who miss out’.

The government must surely be calculating that once the anticipated economic benefits of the canal start to filter through, resistance will dissipate.

It is clear that many of the communities that inhabit these areas have a very real attachment to the land. It is difficult to put a price on land that is ancestral or has been held for many generations.

The tone of some of the rhetoric emanating from many of the farming and indigenous communities along the canal’s path suggests that the government will face a difficult task actually removing some of them. There must be a danger that compulsory evictions will turn violent with some communities threatening to take up arms to protect their homes. The government and HKND will need to tread very carefully if it is to maintain support.

It is clear that the protests will continue for some time to come. 

In the next article, Russell White will consider the canal project’s financing.