Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 387 | Octubre 2013



Will the canal help build the nation or only further fracture it?

This expert on the Caribbean Coast warns of the dangers to the country as a whole, especially the coast, of the concept of building the interoceanic canal at any cost. In particular, he explains the threats to the fragile multiethnic nation-building process.

Manuel Ortega Hegg

The canal concession appeared virtually overnight, approved as law only three days after it was sent to the National Assembly with no serious discussion either inside that legislative body or out of it even though it is perhaps the most important decision in our country’s history. Despite that swift fait accompli, those of us in the Academy of Sciences felt the need for a debate that would provide information and analyses to both society and decision-makers. As one of the Academy’s objectives is precisely to provide the opinions of scientists and specialists that can illuminate national decision-making processes, we decided to hold various forums—we’re now preparing the third—to analyze the risks and opportunities of building a canal through Nicaragua. I was invited to the first forum, held as soon as we could in June after we learned of the law, and would like to share some of the concerns I presented at that time.

The first lawsuit against the canal
came from the Caribbean Coast

As soon as Law 840, the canal concession law, had been passed, suits of unconstitutionality against it began to rain down. The very first one was filed with the Supreme Court of Justice by representatives of the Miskitu and Ulwa indigenous peoples and the Rama-Kriol territorial government authorities in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region. They felt particularly affected because all possible canal routes crossed through their territories. In the suit they argued that Law 840 violated dispositions of both Nicaragua’s Constitution and the coast’s Autonomy Statute, which is the law that establishes the basis of the agreement for building the Nicaraguan nation and recognizes the legitimate rights of the coast peoples and ethnic communities that must be respected and safeguarded by the State to maintain national coexistence.

The canal concession law and this first suit against it sounded warning bells for me. What consequences could the construction of the canal have for the Caribbean Coast if the conditions in which it is being done make the coast people feel their rights are being infringed? Although I’m from the Pacific side of the country, and came to the coast as a greenhorn student in the early eighties, I was later part of the National Autonomy Commission that defined the autonomy regime in those years and have maintained an interest in these regions ever since, following up on that policy and doing studies and surveys with some regularity. At the end of the eighties, I also had the complex experience of being responsible for the regional government based in Bluefields. It was my task to turn over the government of what is today called the South Atlantic Autonomous Region to the first elected autonomous government, which took office in May 1991.

Both the motives presented in the Rama-Kriol territorial government representatives’ suit against the canal concession law and my own experience in this region indicated to me the need to sound an alert: the way the concession has been handled is eroding the effort made in recent years on a difficult issue that is central to the country, even though we hardly ever talk about it: Nicaragua’s multiethnic nation-building. What I want to do here is explain the relationship of that issue to the recent canal concession.

The thinking behind the autonomy law

I began to conduct studies in the coast in the early eighties. In those years of changes and in the middle of the war, the revolution found itself obliged to address in depth an unanticipated issue: the conditions required for building a new multiethnic nation. This issue had to be dealt with precisely because of the fear, mainly in the FSLN leadership, that the armed uprising in the coast and the demands of those who had taken up arms had to do with a plan to secede, to separate these regions from the rest of Nicaragua.

I recall a Congress of the Nicaraguan Association of Social Scientists (ANICS) in 1982 when I publicly defined the Caribbean conflict as an ethnic problem and argued that the solution wasn’t military, but rather involved recognizing autonomy for that region as a comprehensive solution within the nation itself. It turned out that a number of social scientists working with different institutions had all concluded that the Caribbean Coast reality needed to be studied in greater depth. These institutions included the Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA), the Center for Economic Research on the Agrarian Reform (CIERA) and the area I was heading up in the Ministry of Culture’s Center for Cultural Research. It seemed very clear to me that, while we couldn’t discard the possibility that the armed ethnic uprising against the revolution might respond to a separatist plan, the most important thing was that it was being fed by legitimate demands among the different ethnic groups.

In 1984 the Sandinista government created a five-person National Autonomy Commission, made up of the CIDCA and CIERA directors, me and two distinguished intellectuals from the coast. The commission’s greatest challenge was to differentiate the legitimate rights being demanded from what was possibly part of a separatist plan. We tried to offer decision-makers and the country as a whole some key elements to understand the region. The questions guiding our work at that time included: What was the Caribbean Coast history and how does it make the coast different from the rest of the country? Why was there conflict between the national government and that region’s ethnic groups? And above all, why were members of those groups taking up arms as an ethnic front against the revolution? On what basis could we establish a new scheme of national understanding?

The Army helped us separate
the wheat from the chaff

At that time, faithful to a very traditional leftist tendency in the continent, the FSLN National Directorate interpreted anything that didn’t fit within its plans as counterrevolutionary, an “enemy conspiracy,” and it was seeing the Caribbean Coast problematic through that same prism. Naturally it would have been a mistake to completely ignore the possibility that a separatist conspiracy might be hiding behind the demands of some armed sector; it wouldn’t be the first time that colonialism exploited ethnic conflicts in the world with that intention. Nonetheless, we insisted that there were also legitimate historical demands behind the conflict that had to be taken into account.

It’s important to understand that the complexity of the task of identifying those demands lay in the fact that the ethnic aspirations had yet to be developed in a fully explicit way and were being expressed in the midst of the maximum political and social polarization any country could have to deal with: a full-blown war against a revolution. It’s also important to take into account the context of a revolution itself: it’s a historical moment in which one feels everything is possible and bold solutions that don’t seem feasible in ordinary moments can be tested out. And the autonomy project was nothing if not the proposal of a bold solution to a problem of coexistence. I think the coast peoples felt that as well.

We in the Autonomy Commission interviewed a lot of people in the coast in 1984-1985 to enrich and concretize the autonomy project as a comprehensive solution. It must be said that some of the top officers of the Sandinista Popular Army stationed in the coast in those years were the most lucid about the road to solving the problems and deactivating the war. When we consulted them, they agreed that the solution wasn’t military; it had to be a comprehensive policy. “Don’t be afraid of proposing a comprehensive policy,” they advised us. “We’ll take care of the sovereignty part.” That message made it easier to explore the ethnic demands in the area in greater depth.

The historical explanation
for the autonomy law

The autonomy regime for the coast was born on October 30, 1987, with the passage and publication of Law 18, the “Autonomy Statute of the Atlantic Coast Regions of Nicaragua.” It was considered so important that a special majority is required for its reform: like the Constitution itself, it can only be amended with 60% of the National Assembly votes. The Autonomy Statute was seen as establishing a fundamental pillar of the Nicaraguan multiethnic nation.

The need for an autonomy regime for the Caribbean Coast has to be understood by recalling the region’s history. This immense territory was never conquered or colonized by the Spanish Crown. In the colonial period, Nicaragua extended as far as Nueva Segovia to the north and Miskitus dominated from there on to the Caribbean Sea in alliance with the English and other ethnic groups. There were frequent incursions, skirmishes and battles in an imaginary border between the two spaces.

The Atlantic Coast territory enjoyed several particular self-government regimes for over two hundred years during the colonial period. The Miskitus’ formal alliance with the English resulted in the creation of a Miskitu monarchy in 1661 and a strong English influence that had begun with the occupation of part of the territory in 1633. In the 1860 Treaty of Managua, England recognized by-then independent Nicaragua’s sovereignty in the Caribbean region but negotiated the establishment of an autonomous government regime for the coast inhabitants known as the Mosquitia Reserve, still nominally under English tutelage.

The original incorporation
into the nation was by force

That regime ended in 1894 with the incorporation of this vast territory into the Nicaraguan nation-State in a military operation led by Inspector General of Arms Rigoberto Cabezas on orders of the Liberal President of Nicaragua, General José Santos Zelaya. Cabezas used political maneuvers and tricks to get the community headmen to sign what Managua called a “reincorporation” agreement, a term that rankles coast people to this day. Not surprisingly, Cabezas is seen as a hero in the Pacific and a villain in the coast.

That forced incorporation marked the beginning of another historical stage for the region. With assimilation as state policy, the Reserve’s institutions and laws were ignored, as were the uses and customs of the coast’s different ethnic groups. They had to abandon their own identities as a condition of being part of the Nicaraguan nation. In Bluefields, for example, the population was forbidden to speak Creole English and forced to speak only Spanish, as it was believed that speaking different languages hindered nation-building. The nationalist conception that a State corresponds to only one nation implied that these other ethnic groups, or nations if you will, would have to assimilate by abandoning their own culture, languages and characteristics as the only way to become members of the Nicaraguan nation.

The revolution fed the coast’s
age-old distrust and suspicion

The coast people obviously resented that, following their “reincorporation,” governors from Managua who knew nothing about their uses and customs were imposed on them, just as today they resent that, despite having local governors, decisions about their regions are made in Managua. They have also resented throughout their history that the coast resources have been and are still being pillaged to enrich transnational companies, allied to powerful Nicaraguans from the Pacific, that come and set up enclave economies.

That was the reality of distrust and suspicion that the revolution unknowingly walked into in 1979. I recall very well all the deep-rooted resentment toward the people of the Pacific our interviews of coast peoples revealed in the early eighties. They called us “the Spanish”—and in fact still do—identifying us in some way with the historical enemies of their former allies, the English. The revolution’s inclusion of the coast in its attempt to impose a single social organization (the Sandinista Defense Committees), other mass organizations and a single agrarian reform model sparked new conflicts, culminating in the armed uprising of a sector of coast people against the revolution.

The autonomy proposal
sought to rectify that history

The aim of the autonomy project was to create the basis for bringing the coast peoples into the nation in conditions of equality, respecting their particular identities. The small national commission of which I was a part and two much larger regional commissions, one in the north and the other in the south, defined the autonomy proposal based on the broadest consultation possible given the conditions of war. The commissions found that consensus existed for designing the autonomy policy based on three guiding principles: 1) recognition that legitimate demands existed in the coast and that the coast peoples’ rights had to be recognized; 2) this recognition of rights had to be made within a single nation-State; and 3) this new multiethnic nation had to be built by socializing these new principles.

The first principle indicated that the revolution’s proposal to recognize the Nicaraguan people’s rights included specific recognition of the coast peoples rights: economic; cultural, such as the use of their maternal language; political, such as self-government; rights of identity, etc. The consensus regarding the second principle defused any idea that the ethnic conflict in the coast was the fruit of a conspiracy to secede.

The three principles explained

The first principle of the Autonomy Statute (Law 28)—to recognize rights—was a real leap, not only in nation-building but also in building ethnic citizenship. While it’s one thing to concede a demand, it’s quite another to recognize it as a right inherent to the human being individually or collectively that must be respected, protected and enforced in any circumstance, no matter who’s in the central or regional government.

The Autonomy Statute’s second basic principle is that recognition of these legitimate rights must not be an excuse to separate from the nation, but must be exercised in a single nation-State. This concept not only put the FSLN National Directorate at ease, but became a fundamental instrument for indigenous struggles all over the continent given that one excuse used by Latin American governments to refuse to respond to indigenous demands for autonomy in their own countries has been the possibility that a desire to split from the nation-State lay hidden behind those demands. Put crudely, it’s the fear that “if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile.” Nicaragua’s Autonomy Statute showed that there was a model in which indigenous peoples could exercise their rights with no need to secede and create another State, which conversely meant there was no excuse not to recognize their rights. For this reason the Nicaraguan experience in the Caribbean Coast was extremely important to the continent’s indigenous struggles.

In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Spanish colonialism, Nicaragua held counter-commemorative events attended by indigenous and other representatives from all over the Americas, north and south. On that occasion the Autonomy Statute was recognized as a valuable instrument that made it possible to build multiethnic nations, not the mono-ethnic ones we were accustomed to in which mestizos imposed their conditions on the other ethnic groups, obliging them to shed their own identities. Nicaragua showed it was possible to build a multiethnic nation in which the various different ethnic groups, each with its own language, traditions and culture, could feel every bit as full a member of the nation as the others. The impact of Nicaragua’s example on the struggles of the continent’s indigenous peoples and Afro-Americans was very important. It has been evident in the cases of the indigenous struggles of Mexico, Bolivia and Venezuela. We could even go so far as to say that the fundamental principles of Nicaragua’s Autonomy Statute have served as an inspiration for all of Latin America, where the struggles have produced diverse results according to the history and circumstances of each country.

The Statute’s third principle is that the building of a multiethnic nation within a single State is a long-term process that requires the ongoing socialization or education of the entire nation under principles of equality, fraternity, solidarity and respect for the differences, diversities and rights of the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. This socialization process presupposes a new form of school education that involves changing Nicaraguans’ sometimes racist and discriminatory mentality, found even in the history books we learn from in school. Before the approval of the Autonomy Statute, Caribbean Coast history barely appeared as part of the national history. And if it did, it was always related to some conflict in which the coast people were “the bad guys in the movie,” attacking populations of the center or northern part of the country. In more recent history, the coast appeared as a place of exile or banishment of government opponents or the place where rebellions against the governments were initiated. One of the things we recommended in those moments was precisely the revision of our history books and broad, ongoing, long-term socialization, beginning with the schools and extending through the media and into relations among citizens and between the State and the population.

I’ve studied the issue of racism in Nicaragua, and found it recognized by both the coast population and people living in the Pacific and northern-central part of the country. Coast people perceive it more than those in the rest of the country, with up to 70% of those asked acknowledging it. Although its manifestations aren’t as blatant or crude as in other countries, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Territorial rights are pivotal

Among the rights that must be recognized, I want to single out the collective right to territory, because it’s the one that most explains the indigenous armed uprising against the revolution in the eighties. The historical coast people’s right to dominion over their territories and to decide what happens in them and to the resources there is the material basis of their cultural identity. It also must be stressed because disrespect of the right to territory obviously has a lot to do with the alert raised by the possible construction of a canal through these lands.

The one demand by the coast’s indigenous organizations before the armed conflict erupted in the early eighties that the FSLN National Directorate didn’t want to recognize was precisely the communities’ right to territory. Even though that demand didn’t include all ethnic groups at the time and there were other political considerations, the territorial issue was the touchstone of the uprising.

The FSLN leadership believed that agreeing to that demand was the first irretrievable step to separatism, but despite that reticence, the demand was later recognized, albeit reluctantly. Two regions were established in which the autonomous rights would be exercised, and at a more concrete level the indigenous right to communal property was recognized. This was established in the Constitution and developed further in the Autonomy Statute, which detailed the terms of the two autonomous regions self-governed by the coast peoples. As article 36.1 of that statute establishes, “The communal lands are indissoluble; they cannot be donated, sold, leased or taxed, and they are eternal.” In 2003, the “Law of the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Atlantic Coast” (Law 448) developed the right to territory even further, establishing both communal and territorial governments with administrative functions.

Their territory is a large part of their identity

For indigenous peoples, territory isn’t just any old land where they build their house and plant crops. It’s the place where they hunt and fish and find medicinal plants and thus represents the source of their entire subsistence, of life itself. It’s also the place of their ancestors, where the history of their people is kept and where they practice their beliefs. It’s where they reproduce, both materially through food and water and spiritually.

The identity of these peoples has a great deal to do with the territory in which they live. Because it’s such an essential part of their group identity, their land is considered community property; it belongs to the group, not an individual. As a consequence, it can’t be considered merchandise, much less a good that can be privately appropriated or transferred to others.

We should remember what it meant when Miskitus from the Río Coco were moved in late 1981 to another territory with better security, as Miskitu rebels were attacking from Honduras and making transportation on that border river difficult. The people were never happy in the resettlement because they felt far from their Río Coco, their territory, or as they would put it, “where my umbilical cord is buried.” Even though they are as rural as peasants from the Pacific, indigenous people have a very different concept of land. A peasant will say: I live here, but if you give me better land somewhere else, I’ll go… and that’s the end of it. The closest thing in the indigenous cosmovision to our conception isn’t land but rather territory.

The indigenous-nature symbiosis
enriches the nation

The symbiosis between an indigenous person and nature is extraordinary; it transforms that link into identity, into belonging, into an ongoing vitality, into memory and symbol. When you go to the coast you can perceive an enormous cultural strength behind these small, apparently fragile and vulnerable, communities that is very closely linked to their habitat and community culture. This is evident even in numerically small ethnic groups, such as the Rama people; you immediately feel the strength of their culture and identity.

The indigenous peoples’ relationship with nature enriches the Nicaraguan nation. It enriches us all to have in our country communities with such a friendly relationship with nature that they believe there is a citizenship that goes beyond humans, a citizenship of nature, full of other living beings that also have rights, such that they ask permission of a tree before cutting it down. We are enriched by communities that know we have to coexist with nature according to the same principles by which we coexist with other human beings: exercising enormous respect, caring for nature’s life as we should care for human life. It enriches us to have peoples living in Nicaragua that have another conception of development, that reject pillaging development. The search for another kind of development, a nature-friendly one, is now taking place in many parts of the world. Indigenous communities have always lived like that and their way of life has allowed them to conserve the world’s biodiversity, safeguarding natural treasures that would have already been lost under another vision of development.

The mestizo’s invasion of the coast is changing the political demographics…

In 1990, with their legitimate rights now recognized in the Autonomy Statute, the coast’s indigenous peoples and ethnic communities elected their authorities for the first time in the two regions the coast had been divided into for practical administrative purposes: the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The electoral system defined that each Regional Council—the maximum authority of each autonomous region—would include representation of all ethnic groups living in the particular region—Miskitus, Sumu-Mayangnas, Ramas, Creoles, Garífunas and also the mestizos from the Pacific who had settled in the coast over the years—so they could all influence the decisions and protect their group’s rights.

Twenty-three years have now passed since those first governments were elected and 26 since the Autonomy Statute was approved. One of the autonomy project’s great challenges today is the now majority presence of mestizos in the coast. Anywhere in the world autonomy projects always have two major challenges: the relationship between the ethnic groups and the nation-State and the relationship among the different ethnic groups within the autonomous region itself.

In the case of the coast, the demographic and political weight of the six indigenous peoples and ethnic communities living there has changed since the autonomy law was passed, with the mestizo population now the largest in both autonomous regions. One of the many consequences is that the scheme designed for equitable representation of the different ethnic groups in the Regional Councils has been rendered obsolete. There are now many more mestizos than representatives of the traditional ethnic groups in the Councils. This means that the fundamental decisions aren’t being made by the historical groups for whom the autonomy was designed, but by mestizos who have gradually been colonizing the coast.

… and also producing deadly disputes
over dominion of the territories

We’re also seeing an even more accelerated advance of the agricultural frontier—which has now reached as far as Pearl Lagoon whose forest areas have disappeared—largely as the result of mestizos coming from other parts of the country to settle in those territories. In addition to problems related to governmental representation for the traditional peoples, this is also producing fights with them for dominion of their territories. This ongoing dispute over the land resources is in fact one of the strongest conflicts the coast is dealing with today. The invasion of mestizos from the country’s central zone into the Sumu-Mayangna territory has generated serious conflicts over lands, resulting in nearly a death a month. And since municipal mayors, the Regional Council, territorial governments and communal governments all have a role in governing those lands, there’s tremendous confusion, particularly since at the end of the day it’s the central government that really runs things.

All this is causing a lot of resentment, particularly as a sector of coast people is convinced that all central governments from Zelaya’s time right up to the current FSLN government have deliberately promoted mestizo migration to the coast to colonize it and numerically reduce the ethnic populations. In the final analysis, looked at coldly from the economic perspective, autonomies are nothing more than regimes that determine who has dominion over a territory’s resources. The coast autonomy granted that dominion to the traditional coast populations. Now the great challenge for those populations is how to turn that right into reality. There are people, myself included, who are convinced it’s time to reform the Autonomy Statute to return it to its original purpose: to give the ethnic communities the power to govern themselves and have dominion over their resources and territories.

Differences shouldn’t mean inequalities

So autonomy’s major challenge is building not just a multiethnic nation, but also relations of coexistence among the different ethnic groups on the coast. Many different episodes have generated rivalries over the course of history. The best known is the Miskitus, in their moment of greatest expansion, literally hunting down Sumu-Mayangnas and selling them as slaves in the Caribbean islands. That fact is part of the coast’s historic memory and still generates distrust toward the Miskitus. Similar stories and events have marked relations among the other ethnic groups. I’ve always told coast people that integrating into the nation isn’t their only challenge. They also have another great challenge within the coast itself, which is how to bring down the age-old barriers among the ethnic groups based on the new relations opened by the autonomy project.

In a study done some five years ago on the coast I asked various questions about identity and nationality. One of those questions was also asked of people from the Pacific: how different do people from the Pacific feel from those of the Atlantic and vice versa. Among those asked in the Pacific, 66% said that the people from the coast were “very different” while on the coast 74% said they were “very different” from the people of the Pacific.

Those responses indicate awareness of the cultural and other differences between these two areas of the country, but that shouldn’t mean negative discrimination. The women’s movements gave us sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists a great lesson when they taught us that difference shouldn’t be used as an excuse for creating inequality and that women’s rights can be safeguarded without this implying ignoring men’s rights. They also told us it’s possible for women’s rights to be recognized if the traditional machista culture in daily relations between women and men can be changed. Unity in diversity is possible: that’s what women taught us, thus teaching us to see the world differently.

Unity in diversity is also possible among the different ethnic groups and that principle very consciously and expressly guided the work that resulted in the Autonomy Statute. Today it seems normal that everyone in Nicaragua talks about a “multiethnic nation,” but in the early eighties it was a suspect, dangerous idea. Today autonomy seems normal to us but it wasn’t a few years ago. Little by little it’s becoming part of the national culture. We still have a long way to go to make that multiethnic nation a reality, and all the generations will have to permanently sensitize ourselves about that new kind of nation. Yes, there are a lot of differences among us, but being different mustn’t make us unequal, either in rights or in opportunities.

Building a multiethnic nation
must be done with great care

Building a multiethnic nation is a realizable utopia. But it isn’t a simple process; it’s extremely complex and long and must be done with great care. My conviction that continual care is needed in building the Nicaraguan nation was what sounded the alert when I saw how the canal project was rushed through the National Assembly with no serious discussion, particularly since all its possible routes start in the Caribbean Coast.

Building a multiethnic nation is a fragile process. In a text written in the nineties, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who was a United Nations Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that 63 out of a total of 111 conflicts involving States around the world in 1988 were domestic, of which 36 were described as wars of the formation of States—in other words, over half were conflicts in which a government was engaged against an opposition group demanding autonomy or secession for a particular ethnic group or region. He also said the number of inter-state conflicts had dropped while the number of intra-state conflicts had increased, particularly in the third world. This situation remains true today.

Examples of the fragility of the processes of building multiethnic nation-States include the disappearance of Yugoslavia, an important experiment of a multiethnic nation, and Czechoslovakia. I was in Czechoslovakia in the eighties, studying that case to help understand Nicaragua’s, and now it has been replaced by two republics: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic or Slovakia. The largest multiethnic nation-building experiment humanity has ever known, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also disappeared. There’s still the Russian Federation, but the USSR, which brought together 130 different nationalities in one enormous territory with a single political-administrative scheme, is gone. There are currently conflicts of this nature in China, in which the conflictive relationship with Tibet stands out. The same thing is happening in Vietnam and various African countries. There are also conflicts in Canada and in Spain, where the Catalonians are proposing their independence and the Basques tried to obtain it by arms, as well in Italy, with the ongoing conflict with a series of small nationalities in the north struggling to separate.

The multiethnic nation-building process is fragile in that years of apparent tranquility and stability can pass, suggesting that the tensions have been resolved, but conflicts resurface if the process isn’t tended, if the basic principles on which it rests don’t become real and the exercise of rights and mechanisms by which peoples feel themselves in equal conditions within the nation don’t continue consolidating over time. When the process isn’t cared for, the ethnic groups affirm their identity in opposition to the nation-State as a way of maintaining it, and that gives rise to the conflict. When, on the other hand, the nation’s integration is cared for and the recognized rights are respected, maintaining conditions of equality, the ethnic groups have no need to affirm their identity by opposing the nation-State because they feel the value of being part of a State that provides them the conditions to develop while maintaining that identity.

Recent studies have been encouraging

I do a study on the coast roughly every five years. The results of some of the recent ones indicate that the coast’s ethnic groups have been feeling increasingly proud of their identity, without it being in opposition to pride in feeling they are Nicaraguans. In other words, coast identity has grown alongside growth in the sense of belonging to the Nicaraguan nation. People don’t feel the need to oppose their Nicaraguan nationality to affirm their ethnic identity. This is an extraordinary achievement resulting from the autonomy process, and could perhaps be considered its greatest success.

We recently did a broad survey together with the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE) which showed that one of the autonomy project’s most important achievements has been to improve coast people’s confidence in the Nicaraguan State and nation. Comparing such studies over time we can see how confidence has grown. The studies also reveal that people feel autonomy to be the best scheme for coexistence they’ve had in their relations with the nation-State since the military incorporation at the end of the 19th century. This doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t dissatisfied with the results of autonomy, that everything is now functioning well, or that there are no criticisms, some biting, of the autonomy process. When you go to the coast and talk not just to academics but to people in the streets or in the market, everyone will give you chapter and verse about their discontent. But if you then ask, “So are you saying autonomy doesn’t work?”, they’ll usually respond, “Hang on a moment! Autonomy’s worth it, it’s the best thing we’ve had. The problem is that we haven’t been able to get our leaders to govern for us, to get autonomy to function for the coast, because it’s a prisoner of the political parties from the Pacific region and there’s also a lot of corruption.” Coast people say that the FSLN, the PLC or the PLI—the main parties from the Pacific—have all the power in the Regional Councils and that the really big decisions about the coast are made in Managua, not even in the coast itself. They insist the problem isn’t autonomy; that in fact it has to be deepened, including a process of developing their own leaders. Some go so far as to say that the national parties have to get out of the coast.

The canal concession is
an assault on territorial rights

With this whole perspective in mind, let’s go back to the canal concession and the alert it is raising, especially because it’s an assault on the right to territory. Throughout the nineties, after the revolution, other legislation was approved in the process of intensifying the autonomy regime for the coast: the Languages Law, the Traditional Medicine Law, the law regulating the Autonomy Statute… The most fundamental was Law 445, passed in 2002. Private property has had no end of regulations and agrarian reforms, but 445 regulated communal property for the first time in Nicaragua’s history and recognized it as a collective rather than individual good. It also recognized “territorial units” defined as “the geographic areas covering the entire habitat of a group of indigenous or ethnic communities… where they develop in accordance with their customs and traditions,” and assigned administrative functions for both the territorial governments and the individual communal governments.

Law 445 thus expanded the Autonomy Statute because giving authority and functions to the communal and territorial governments transferred the focal point of autonomy and power from the top levels of the Regional Councils and the party representatives to the communities themselves, in other words, to the base, the people. At the same time, however, this made the coast’s political-administrative division even more complex, in that we now have the national government, regional governments, municipal governments, territorial governments and communal governments. It’s not hard to envision how complicated that becomes when trying to reach agreement about some issue that each government level considers its purview and wants to decide on.

The canal concession
disrespects the right to decide

In the coast communities, the people who live there make the decisions together with the leaders. I recall the first time I went to do a study, I went to Karawala, an Ulwa-Sumu community at the mouth of the Río Grande de Matagalpa, and like a good son from the Pacific with sociological and anthropological training, I began to look for a house where I might sleep as there was no other accommodation. I was immediately sent to the community chief who set me up in the school, a place the community had already decided on for visitors.

The residents decide everything that happens in the community, including regulations previously defined by the whole community that the leaders only administer afterwards. Years later, when I was asked to be the interim governor in the coast, I knew that any project, any service, any policy I wanted to implement had to be presented first in a community meeting, where it would be discussed until consensus was reached after the whole community had been informed what it was all about. And once that process was concluded, nothing had to be organized because the community was already organized and all that had to be done was turn the project over to it and, at most, maybe do some follow-up. The sense of community is fundamental in the coast.

The central problem the Autonomy Commission identified in the coast was the longstanding mistrust. Winning the coast peoples’ confidence would only happen by respecting rights the revolution recognized as legitimate. The Autonomy Statute had such an impact that as soon as it was known in the coast the ethnic rebellion against the revolution deactivated. It was the first military front against the revolution to lay down its arms and it happened precisely because of the autonomy project, which was seen as a peace agreement and a great consensus based on the recognition of legitimate rights. The coast population felt that the autonomy project would make it possible to build a new inclusive nation that recognized their rights and allowed them to affirm themselves both as Nicaraguans and as members of different ethnicities within that nation. What will happen if that consensus of principles is broken and those rights are ignored? What message is the canal concession sending the coast by establishing conditions that weren’t consulted with the people, making them feel those rights are being violated?

In the appendix accompanying the canal concession law passed by the FSLN legislators without debate in June is a letter from the RAAS Regional Council endorsing the concession and authorizing the national government to grant it to businessman Wang Jing with all its advantages and privileges. In Bluefields they explained to me how that endorsement was obtained. It went like this: the letter was sent from Managua to the FSLN regional committee in the RAAS already drafted. The next day, FSLN Regional Council members were called to a meeting and told to approve the document without touching so much as a comma. The letter was presented in the Regional Council the day after that and approved with no changes because the FSLN and its allies have a majority. It was then sent back to Managua so it could be attached to the canal concession law. That’s what I was told and I have no reason to doubt it.

The argument of the unconstitutionality suit

The filing of the first unconstitutionality suit against Law 840 with the Supreme Court made public the discontent of some indigenous peoples and ethnic communities regarding what they consider a law that tramples on their rights. They are particularly concerned about article 12 of the law, which establishes that it is in the public interest to expropriate “any real estate or right over real estate that is reasonably necessary to carry out all or part of The Project, whether it be private property, communal property of the Autonomous Regions or of the indigenous communities or property held by any governmental entity.” This article ignores individual owners and communities, establishing the right to be heard only for the regional or municipal government, even though consent or approval by the Regional Council or the municipal government is not required for expropriation processes. The representatives of the Miskito and Ulwa indigenous peoples, the Creole community and the Rama-Kriol territorial government authorities thus consider it an infringement of their property rights over the lands titled in the name of and traditionally occupied by those communities, as well as of their access to the natural resources.

They allege that they weren’t consulted during the drafting of the law and that the contents of articles 5, 12 and 23 infringe their ownership rights over the “inalienable” lands titled and traditionally used by the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples of the RAAS, violate their access to the natural resources and deny their right to decide whether to give free, prior and informed consent to issues that could adversely affect them. This violates 23 articles of Nicaragua’s Political Constitution and the international instruments that promote and protect the human rights of original peoples signed and ratified by the State of Nicaragua. These instruments include the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Organization of American States’ American Convention on Human Rights.

The appellants consider that “through Law 840, the State of Nicaragua has unilaterally anticipated consent for future actions that endanger the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples of the RAAS in their own territory” and that “such approval implies that the State accepts and approves, even before they are done, studies, designs and infrastructure works that would affect the indigenous and Afro-descendent people, who were absent from this process.” Furthermore, they argue that “by promoting and having an interest in the megaproject, the executive and legislative branches are completely failing in their state obligation to monitor and mitigate adverse actions affecting the natural resources of the indigenous and Afro-descendent people’s territories that will occur during the execution of the megaproject, affecting the right of these peoples and communities to a healthy environment as the Political Constitution of Nicaragua orders them to guarantee.” In addition, they consider that Law 840 violates their political rights to participate in governmental management and decision-making while compromising the survival of these peoples and communities in violation of the effective “use and enjoyment of their lands and territories.” They don’t accept the RAAS Regional Council’s authorization to be valid, given that it can’t decide on something that doesn’t belong to it, i.e. the indigenous and Afro-descendent communal lands that will be affected by the canal project.

The Pacific just doesn’t get it,
even after the Awas Tigni ruling

The canal concession law feigns ignorance of the right to collective ownership of the communal lands, which by law cannot be detached or dissolved. The concession itself thus breaks with the indigenous peoples’ conception of their territories as indivisible territory. This conception has never been understood in the Pacific, where indigenous territories have been seen as “empty.” Even in the eighties the revolution gave those “empty” territories over to mestizo peasants as agrarian reform lands, considering them idle lands that could be divvied up. The canal concession reveals that same conception and is repeating the same old history: others deciding about coast territories and resources without taking their true owners into account.

Having come to this point, there’s a precedent worth recalling. It’s the suit that the Sumu-Mayangna community of Awas Tingni, some 142 families, filed against the Nicaraguan State due to a concession the central government granted to the Korean SOLCARSA lumber company to exploit the forest resources in over 60,000 hectares that community claimed belonged to it. The conflict began in 1996, when the indigenous community denounced that outrage in national courts, but its case was ignored; it appealed, and was still ignored; so it took the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. That court finally ruled in the community’s favor, obliging the State to monetarily compensate it for the damages caused by the lumber company, whose concession was annulled. The court’s argument was based on the indigenous community’s right to communal property and the State’s obligation to consult the community prior to making any decision. Based on both national instruments and international ones Nicaragua has ratified, the court agreed with the indigenous community that there had been no prior informed consultation as required by the legislation and that the State had ignored the collective right to ownership of the land. The sentence went even further than that, and in so doing set world-level jurisprudence. The court said that even if communal lands are not titled, the fact that communities have been settled on them ancestrally and are presently inhabiting them is sufficient for their ownership rights to be recognized. The court’s ruling required the State to demarcate and title the coast’s communal lands, a task still going on today, not without difficulties. Law 445 is nothing more or less than a result of the Awas Tigni case.

That case set an extremely important precedent for all of Latin America. Right now indigenous peoples all over the continent are resisting the extractivism and develop¬mentalism offensive that has discovered the final frontier of capital accumulation in the territories where the indigenous communities have preserved very valuable natural resources, including minerals, biodiversity and water sources, thanks to their concept of respect for nature. Powerful mining, oil and other transnationals see the extraction and exploitation of these resources at the service of capital as a magnificent investment opportunity. All Latin American governments moved by developmentalist ambition, and perhaps most intensely those considered progressive or leftist, have enthusiastically welcomed extractive investments, granting a number of concessions to exploit the resources conserved by indigenous peoples in their own territories. From the north, including Canada, all the way to the south, and especially in Mexico, we’re seeing resistance struggles by indigenous communities in defense of their territories and wealth. The precedent set by the Inter-American Court in the Awas Tigni case is a hugely valuable reference point in these struggles. Many of the communities in resistance still don’t have deeds to the lands they’ve inhabited for hundreds of years, but the Awas Tigni precedent gives them the right to those territories.

Will Nicaragua’s laws be reformed
to benefit the canal investors?

Experts say the canal concession law violates more than 40 articles of the Constitution. Thirty-two suits of unconstitutionality have already been filed against it, signed by more than 180 people. One of this law’s many gems is the article that establishes that the Constitution and all of the country’s laws that so require it will have to be reformed in the lapse of 18 months to assure no legal obstacle to the canal project. That clearly includes the Autonomy Statute since the suit filed by the coast peoples charges that the canal concession law clashes with several articles of the Autonomy Statute, including the one establishing that community property cannot be affected.

Will the Autonomy Statute be reformed then, in this case not to create better conditions for the coast people’s integration into the nation, but to facilitate a transnational company’s canal deal and its subprojects involving private businesses? The concession law establishes that the canal isn’t a project involving the State negotiating with the company that will build it, but rather the State ceding all rights to the canal and those of all associated projects—a dry canal, two ports, two free trade zones, an oil pipeline and at least one airport—to a private company that will have usufruct over the canal for the first 50 years, after which the concessionaire, not the State, will decide if it wants to continue for another 50.

Our nation-building is in serious danger

Beyond the reflections we’ve heard in the forums organized by the Academy of Sciences—where in-depth analyses have been offered about different aspects of the canal concession—and beyond the legal considerations, I consider the following reflection to be extremely important: the canal endangers the fragile nation-building that we began as a country with the autonomy project because its concession flagrantly violates the Autonomy Statute and the rights of the coast peoples. Is a canal that becomes an instrument dividing the nation along an east-west axis really worth it?

Other elements of the concession will have a similar effect. A half-kilometer-wide canal running east to west will split the country in two between north and south, not only dividing the territory physically but also altering the entire political-administrative division we know today. Many municipalities will end up with part of their area on either side of the canal. In a country with all the fractures and differences we already have between zones that rank among the poorest in the world and others such as the departmental capitals that could be qualified as having mid-development, this new fracture poses yet another challenge to nation-building: how does one integrate a territory divided by a canal, given that the territory is always the fundamental basis on which nations are built? And if we add the ignoring of the foundations on which the State has been building the Nicaraguan nation in consensus since the eighties, the risk becomes enormous. And I repeat: in consensus. Because the Autonomy Statute was one of the most consulted laws in the history of this country, similar to the 1987 Constitution, which was historic. It was consulted neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, office by office and sector by sector. Even those who had taken up arms were consulted. Turning one’s back on a law like that, which affects fundamental aspects of the autonomy agreement, such as the dominion over the territory of the communities, is very, very serious.

The canal’s possible
social and economic effects…

If the canal is built, it will evidently provoke changes in the country’s social structure, with new economic groups linked to that megaproject and the other associated ones. Will a new class be created? Changes in the economic and productive structures can also be predicted, because some of Chontales’ cattle zones will have to be reconverted into forest to ensure water for the canal.

There are major unanswered questions about the canal’s economic feasibility as well. Some studies show that the canal won’t be profitable because the time for canals through Meso-America may have already passed; as a consequence of global warming, East-West routes through the Arctic will be much more direct and less costly. Capitalist investors don’t care if Nicaragua has a canal or not; they only care if it’s profitable and thus worth investing in. They are also interested—very interested—in assuring that such a costly project has national consensus to reduce its risk level. And in the conditions in which it has been negotiated, this canal project, doesn’t have that consensus.

…and its environmental effects

There’s also the issue of environmental feasibility. A great deal has been said about the effects on our bodies of water, especially Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua). If the canal is built, we’ll have to say goodbye to Granada’s Isletas, because the experts say the locks require raising the lake’s level by at least two meters. This would be done by building an enormous dam where the lake water passes into the Río San Juan. Two meters means the disappearance of the Isletas.

The experts also point out that Cocibolca’s waters could only be used as a means of transport, because the risk of contamination by the huge oil tankers crossing the lake would make other options for its use unviable. At a minimum, it will no longer serve for drinking water, which would affect at least 36 municipalities in five of the country’s departments because they border on Basin 69, the watershed of our two great lakes. Those municipalities are very close to using the lake for drinking water, as Juigalpa and San Juan del Sur are already doing.

Some specialists have proposed alternative uses for Lake Cocibolca’s water that would be even more profitable than using it for interoceanic transport. There are interesting calculations showing how profitable it would be for Nicaragua to sell the lake water to El Salvador and Costa Rica. They indicate that the country would have more resources by doing that than by building a canal that wouldn’t be ours until the end of a hundred years and could even end up embargoed, because the canal law permits the concessionaire to embargo it and any other associated projects. Given that, who knows if we’ll even receive the concession after 50 or 100 years… There are so many unanswered questions. Hopefully the feasibility studies will respond to them all, although the law stipulates that the Nicaraguan population won’t have access to those studies.

Many, many people in the Pacific have raised the alert in defense of Lake Cocibola, and with good reason, because it will be used as a crossing in all of the possible canal routes. So far no one has spoken out in defense of Bluefields Bay, which appears as the canal entrance in the most recommended route. In addition to its scenic beauty and role as a source of small-scale fishing, Bluefieds Bay is one of the wetlands protected by the RAMSAR International Convention thanks to its wealth of biodiversity and its influence on local and world ecosystems.

The canal will just be another enclave economy

The Caribbean Coast has historically been ignored by the nation-State, seen only as a reservoir of natural resources to exploit under enclave economies that never spread benefits to the rest of the country, much less to the coast itself. Mining, lumber and fishing companies all came, made off with the resources and once they were gone the only thing that remained was more poverty. You can still see the abandoned and rusted-out remains of those pillaging projects in some areas. Coast leader Mirna Cunningham once called it “the transnational corporations’ museum of shame.”

The canal will just be another such enclave economy. And it won’t just be that half-kilometer-wide slice through the country starting in the coast, where the damage is very likely to be worse because it’s the region with the most fragile lands. On both sides of the canal there will be a 10-kilometer-wide territory that will function as a special regime for a reforestation effort to generate water for the canal. That protected territory will be the private property of the canal owners, unusable by the rest of the country, even the coast inhabitants.

Given the many pressing concerns, the feasibility studies will have to be very exhaustive to satisfy the specialists who have expressed their concerns and warnings to ensure that the risks the canal poses if it actually goes forward will be minimized. Those feasibility studies must thoroughly and responsibly examine those concerns one by one with scientific diligence.

I’m concerned that some government officials might share the view that we must have the canal “at any cost.” That can’t be the motto. A canal at the cost of the Constitution and the laws of the land? At the cost of dividing the nation? At the cost of the lake? At the cost of coast autonomy and the building of the nation? At the cost of greater social polarization?

This reflection is a warning bell. Building a canal has always been the dream of Nicaragua’s elites. It has been an ever-recurring dream, but only for those elites, who even came to see the canal as the centerpiece of nation-building. So it would be paradoxical if, given the disadvantageous conditions that are so harmful to the rights of the coast’s original populations and not even only to them, the canal turns out instead to be the centerpiece of the nation’s fragmentation.

The speeches and official rhetoric that accompanied the approval of Law 840 and the signing of the concession over to Wang Jing’s company referred to a “fulfilled prophecy.” The day of the signing was called a “day of miracles and wonders.” Upon signing the contract with the Chinese businessman, President Ortega claimed that Nicaragua’s suffering people had finally reached “the promised land.” I don’t believe the expectations for our future development can be conceived as a magic door, evading the medium- and long-term national effort to weave a dense social fabric that includes the real prioritizing of education, support to science and technology, job creation and the building of an authentic multiethnic nation. This must be a nation where we all feel we have equal opportunities, supported by the State to generate and make use of our capacities, a nation in which Nicaraguans of different cultures and features feel part of the same family and have our rights guaranteed.

Manuel Ortega Hegg is a sociologist, a researcher on municpal and Caribbean Coast issues and vice president of Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences.

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