Words for changing course
This month marks the revolution’s 36th anniversary.
The overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship
allowed us to dream of transforming Nicaragua.
Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’” encyclical
“on care for our common home”
coincided with this new anniversary.
Many of the words in this important text
allow us to reflect on the change of course
Nicaragua needs today.
Social justice and national sovereignty were General Sandino’s rallying cries. Fifty years later, the Sandinista revolution added three more—political pluralism, mixed economy and international nonalignment—to define itself in contrast to the forces dominating the world of that time.
Even without a “green” flag...The flags raised by the 1979 revolution to construct a different Nicaragua never included a “green” one. But while ecological issues weren’t a priority for the revolutionary government or Nicaragua’s society, emerging from such a long dictatorship, and while numerous revolutionary leaders influenced by the Cuban socialist development model were fascinated by large-scale economic projects, the revolution nonetheless did quite a lot in this area.
The first environmental law the revolutionary government passed established that the country’s natural resources belong to the people and prohibited foreign companies from extracting them. The government also created the Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA), which initiated policies and programs to restore and protect the environment. Some 18% of the country’s territory was designated as national parks; soil conservation, flood control, reforestation and alternative technology research proj¬ects were implemented; and the export of endangered animal species was prohibited after Nicaragua had led Central America in their export during the Somocista dictatorship. Some of these programs had to be abandoned as the war against the revolution intensified and the resulting economic crisis forced an increasingly shortsighted approach to government.
The “brown” Left2h>In 1988 the Association of Biologists and Ecologists of Nicaragua created the Nicaraguan Environmentalist Movement (MAN), which it hoped would become a broad-based ecological force. In June 1989, the Fourth Biennial “Fate and Hope of the Earth” Congress was held in Managua. It was the first time this international environmentalist conference had met in any country of the so-called Third World.
Nicaraguan environmentalists believed their country had the political and social conditions to achieve fundamental changes in the development model shared by both rightwing and “real socialist” governments up to then. They trusted that those changes could be realized once the war was over, but its end coincided with the end of the revolution.
Environmental consciousness has never been dominant among the Latin American Left, as the coming to power of progressive governments in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela has more than demonstrated. With variants, all these governments have allied with foreign capital, giving their countries over to mining and agricultural extractivism that is laying waste to their natural resources.
Some have described it as “a Left that was never green, is no longer red and we should call brown.” It’s a description that definitely fits Nica¬ragua’s current government, formally defined as being among the continent’s progressive governments and claiming to be developing the “second stage of the revolution.”
A Christian country In February 2013, in her daily noon address via the official media, First Lady Rosario Murillo, the government’s secretary of communication and citizenship, defined Nicaragua rather peculiarly: “We are the only country in the world that very proudly declares itself Christian. We are Christ’s disciples; we’re trying to imitate him, trying to fulfill his mandate.”
and proud of it
Her statement raises the hope that this government will welcome the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si.’” If so, there is also hope that it will contribute to the change of course Nicaragua needs to construct a national project that once again takes up the dreams of social justice Nicaraguans harbored when the revolutionary triumphed 36 years ago, this time adding environmental responsibility—a mere seed in the eighties currently buried by a development model that’s devastating the environment and worsening social injustices.
An ecological and Francis’ encyclical is a call to reflection and mobilization, an agenda for debate and a tool for struggle. In its ecological dimension, it calls on us all to “dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” In its political dimension it specifically urges those dominating the system to “change course” and political power to “think of the long-term common good.” It offers intelligent and moving religious and spiritual arguments related to both those dimensions. It’s an extensive and complex text packed with messages that resonate with Nica-ragua’s reality.
In the first days of July, an unprecedented event was held in the Vatican, organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the CIDSE international alliance of Catholic development agencies. One of the invited speakers was the brilliant Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein, whose latest book is This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She said of “Laudato Si” that “a new kind of climate movement is fast emerging… based on the most courageous truth expressed in the encyclical: that our current economic system is both fueling the climate crisis and actively preventing us from taking the necessary actions to avert it.… We don’t agree on everything…. But we understand that the stakes are so high, time is so short and the task is so large that we cannot afford to allow those differences to divide us.” Her message is relevant to Nicaragua because our country is one of those most vulnerable to climate change and is today deeply divided.
The canal projectAt the outset, the revolution was a national project, but over the eighties it necessarily lost that unifying dimension as it defined itself ever more clearly, acquired and consolidated more power, and the war divided both the country and society. We are currently commemorating one more anniversary of that historical moment with a party-based project disguised as a national one having been imposed on the country and society. Should the much feted interoceanic canal actually be constructed it will drastically change the nation and physically split Nicaragua in two.
As we approach this July 19, the indispensable preliminary works have yet to begin and the questions remain as months of official silence pass. We are also in the dark as to whether the Chinese government is behind the proposed mega-project. Meanwhile, HKND, the Chinese company that owns the canal project concession, has failed to inform us of any financing; the environmental impact study, recently delivered to the Nicaraguan government, is not available to the public; Costa Rica is demanding to see it because it will also be affected; the official government spokesperson on the project has admitted that the Chinese entrepreneur behind the canal project is under no legal obligation to contribute resources either to reforest the country or compensate those whose land is expropriated; and the protests by peasant farmers and others who will be evicted from the canal route are still protesting.
The National Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty is continuing to organize and mobilize people. With the participation of around 15,000 people from Nueva Guinea, Río San Juan, the South Caribbean and Chontales, as well as other regions that won’t be so directly affected, the anti-canal march on June 13 in Juigalpa was the largest and most energetic of the 47 held so far. “If Sandino were alive he’d be with us!” was one of the chants heard that day.
Land: “A sacred space” The peasants opposing the canal have expressed particularly strong root¬edness to their land. They say they love it and will die on it and for it, a conviction they share with the Caribbean Coast’s Rama and Kriol peoples, whose hard-won titled territory will also be rent in two by the canal.
Pope Francis spoke of this in general in his encyclical. “…it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”
The owners of the farms that will be expropriated to make way for the canal and HKND’s other subprojects reiterate the same position as the encyclical. Both they and the Rama and Kriol people and their territorial government feel offended that they have been ignored as dialogue partners; the latter were even the first to file suit against the canal with the Supreme Court and were roundly ignored. As for the farmers, they’ve only been advised that they will have to leave and still aren’t being told where or if they will be resettled or what they will be paid for their property.
Water: “A condition Pope Francis also spoke of the defense of water in his encyclical, putting special emphasis on the right to water. The encyclical states that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” It refers to the “grave social debt” the world owes the poor who lack access to drinking water, “because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity,” and strongly criticizes those who privatize this resource despite its scarcity, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market.
for other human rights”
This puts the pope in tune with the fundamental dilemma the canal question poses for Nicaragua: How do we want to use the water of Lake Cocibolca, which would be crossed by the canal: for international trade or to guarantee the right to life?
It is calculated that some 200,000 people currently have access to safe water thanks to the treatment of water from the Great Lake Cocibolca. Water researcher Ruth Selma Herrera, who for several years ran the national water and sewage utility, said a year ago in envoi that it was already being forecasted that even Managua, which today has a population of a million and a half, will be using water from Coci-bolca within the next 20 years.
Engineer and scientist Víctor Campos told envío a year earlier that “the possibilities of using the lake for drinking water are inversely proportional to construction of the canal.” The enormous volume of sediments that excavating a channel at the bottom of the lake would churn up would contaminate its water and prevent its treatment for drinking. Pope Francis is unequivocal when he states that any environmental impact analysis must prioritize avoiding jeopardizing water, “a scarce and indispensable resource.”
“Without prejudicing “The use we make of this watershed and lake is crucial,” said Campos, the deputy director of Centro Humboldt, “and should be decided by the nation as a whole, not unilaterally by the government of the day. It’s an issue concerning not only this generation but future generations as well.”
One of the words Pope Francis repeats most in the encyclical is “responsibility.” He calls upon the entire world’s population, and especially governments, businesses and all those with power, to act responsibly with respect to future generations.
The environmental disaster the canal will cause to Lake Cocibolca has captured the attention of environmentalists and scientists all over the world. Cocibolca is the largest fresh water reserve in Central America, the 19th largest lake in the world and the body of fresh water with the greatest reserve of biodiversity on the American continent “Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life,” says the encyclical, adding that “we lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations.”
Handing over this reserve of water for 100 years in exchange for an utterly absurd economic compensation (“up to US$10 million annually,” says the canal law) seems an irresponsible transaction for the future generations.
An environmental impact One of the most frequently heard objections to the canal project, even among its defenders, is the lack of information, the secrecy regarding all technical and financial studies that explain the project… if any have really even been done.
study before and not after
The fact that the recently delivered environmental impact studies haven’t been made available is causing particular consternation, given the predictable ecological disaster of a work of this magnitude—touted by HKND as the “largest engineering work in the history of humanity.”
Some of the paragraphs of the papal encyclical could be specifically directed to the Ortega government, including the following: “An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views. On the other hand, the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favors, usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”
Another paragraph states that “The environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or program. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.” Law 840, the canal concession law, was drawn up, fast-tracked and passed two years ago with virtually no consultation with anyone and without the benefit of any study, environmental or otherwise.
The pope further argues that the studies for any project that affects the environment “should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety.… A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives. The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest. We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘interventions’ to save the environment in favor of policies developed and debated by all interested parties. The participation of the latter also entails being fully informed about such projects and their different risks and possibilities; this includes not just preliminary decisions but also various follow-up activities and continued monitoring.”
Civil society: “Praise Alongside the peasant men and women who have courageously demonstrated against this project and let the gov¬ernment know they will continue doing so, civil society has taken on the task of interdisciplinary questioning. Here as well the encyclical threw down the gauntlet to Nicaragua’s government: “We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”
Last November, Managua’s Central American University hosted 15 international scientists and 7 Nicaraguan colleagues specializing in different disciplines related to the canal project who were invited by the Nicaraguan Academy of Science and the regional branch of the International Council for Science. They came together to analyze the canal’s environmental, political and social risks.
The government allowed none of its officials to accept the invitation to present their arguments, none attended to listen to the opinions of the gathered experts, and none even wanted to meet individually with any of them. The next month envoi published the final document of that prestigious gathering. Stunned by the dearth of information available on the canal, the participants were unable to present conclusions and could only offer a list of indispensable questions they had no way of answering but believe must still be addressed by the government, the concessionaire company and Nica¬ragua’s population
The views of those experts buttressed those of scientists and members of organizations from Nicaraguan civil society who for months had been sensitizing the nation’s population to the risks of the canal. They also added momentum to the clamor of people who from the moment the canal law’s contents were learned branded Daniel Ortega a “vendepatria,” a traitor who had sold the country out to “spurious international interests.”
“The myopia of Why have the canal law and the mega-project itself involved such incredibly limited consultation with interlocutors and why are they so disconnected from the scientists’ warnings and civil society’s laudable contributions about the canal’s risks? In one of the encyc¬lical’s paragraphs with particular resonance for the Ortega government, Pope Francis seems to be providing an answer when he states: “In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to… create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.... True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building.”
From the outset, many people have been convinced the canal will never be constructed and that only the most profitable sub-projects associated with the concession will end up being built, themselves mega-projects for Nica¬ragua’s limited scale. Nonetheless, the canal will probably continue to have pride of place in the government’s propaganda at least until the 2016 presidential elections, given the prestige that fantasy bestows on Ortega for his campaign for a third consecutive term in office. Is the project merely responding to what Francis terms “electoral interests” or are we witnessing the less fleeting but no less destructive “myopia of power politics” based on the dream of the canal construction?
Laws that are Nicaragua has a plentitude of laws and a dearth of authorities who enforce them. Our fairly thorough and advanced set of environmental laws often aren’t obeyed, particularly by the canal project.
a “dead letter”
Law 217, the General Environmental and Natural Resources Law, stipulates that all information having to do with our environment must be public. Contradicting that, the Framework Agreement granting the canal concession to Chinese businessman Wang Jing establishes that all information generated for the canal’s construction will be “confidential.”
Law 800 of 2012, the first one Ortega promoted for a canal project, established the creation of a “grand national” company in a joint venture with non-national ones, in which Nicaragua would hold 51% of the shares. With that stock majority the State of Nicaragua would have the decisive vote on all decisions. Nonetheless, only a year later, Ortega pushed through Law 840 and annulled that previous law. Now it would no longer be a national company that would develop the canal and other associated projects, but a private, foreign one: the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development (HKND) Group. And in contrast to the 51% of the shares the State was to have started out with, it would now start with none and receive 1% each year for 100 years.
And then there is Law 620, the General Water Law, which establishes that Lake Cocibolca “must be considered a natural drinking water reserve, of the highest interest and priority for national security.” All points of that disposition are violated by the canal concession. Not only is the value of the lake for drinking water endangered by the canal, but so is national security and even national sovereignty.
Again Pope Francis seems to be talking about Nicaragua when he denounces the lack of institutionality and the incompliance with laws as a way of causing environmental disasters: “A number of countries,” he writes, “have a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness, which results in greater problems for their people while benefiting those who profit from this situation. Whether in the administration of the State, the various levels of civil society, or the relationships between individuals themselves, lack of respect for the law is becoming more common. Laws may be well framed yet remain a dead letter. Can we hope, then, that in such cases, legislation and regulations dealing with the environment will really prove effective?”
The technocratic paradigmOne idea Francis repeats in many ways throughout the encyclical is that any environmental disaster is at the same time a social disaster, which of course the poor always pay for: “These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.”
Pope Francis denounces the inequity that “affects not only individuals but entire countries” and offers an impassioned critique of the course being taken by the world economy and the economic model prevailing in almost all countries. He refers to it as the “omnipresent technocratic paradigm” in recognition of the fact that it has already been globalized, condemns it for dehumanizing and leading to ignorance, and links it to the “the cult of unlimited human power.”
Manuel Coronel Kautz, who heads Nicaragua’s Canal Authority, offered us a shining example of dehumanized ignorance when in an interview for a documentary by the French-German ARTE chain, he pooh-poohed the importance of the peasant marches against the canal. “Those are uneducated people,” he said; “they know little. They have their own culture, not a universal culture, so the issue of the canal seems strange to them.” And if that didn’t say enough about his own culture and education, he added this about the Rama indigenous people, who have refused to sign their approval for the canal to pass through and destroy their ancestral territory: “That’s how they are. They don’t even know what a serious contract is. And there are few, very few of them. These people have never even seen a dollar.”
The privileged sectors Francis argues that “the lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration,” adding that the defenders of the technocratic paradigm still seem to believe that “the current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue… that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories, which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy.” Such politicians or businesspeople “may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations.”
of poor countries
Today, the resources the Ortega government is dedicating to the production of the social economy, the grassroots economy, are utterly inadequate. Instead it is prioritizing mono-crops, businesses owned by the entrepreneurial elite and the political elite in government, both of which are associated with foreign corporations and other big businesses that receive fiscal privileges, tax exemptions, incentives and kudos. It will be impossible to achieve better wealth distribution in Nicaragua as long as the current unjust tax system is maintained, but this “Christian, socialist and solidary” government has shown no political will to touch it. The result of the way our economy is being handled is an abyss of inequality that is only widening: 210 big capitalists and their government functionary partners with individual personal wealth exceeding US$30 million (up from 180 in 2011, the year Ortega was reelected for the first consecutive time) and 2.2 million people trying to survive on $2.00 or less a day.
Francis criticizes the profligate consumerism of the wealthy countries, but also advises the poor ones that “the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”
There will be social catastrophesThe encyclical is full of dramatic warnings about the disasters climate change could produce. Francis relates these disasters and their causes not just to the emission of greenhouse effect gasses, although he does speak extensively about that, but also to the “dynamic of dominion” and “compulsive consumerism.”
He thus warns, also in a dramatic tone, that “our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”
“A superficial ecology” The pope also denounces “the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness.” In this regard, while recognizing the collective inculture in Nicaragua that lets us cheerfully toss garbage in public spaces and admitting that educating people to change their consciousness is an ongoing task, the way government authorities and some organizations tend to reduce environmental education to “don’t throw garbage” or “plant a little tree” is nonetheless “superficial.” Meanwhile, with gay abandon our government is giving the country away in concessions to mining companies that cause irreversible environmental disasters and caravans of Alba Forestal trucks roll unstopped down the highways, each carrying perhaps a dozen tree trunks from Bosawás and other forest reserves. To insist only on garbage is to put all the blame on those at the bottom, hiding the responsibility of those higher up.
Francis also views what is today called “corporate social responsibility” as an equally “superficial” hype: given the reduction in quality of life due to environmental deterioration, the low quality of food or resource depletion in the midst of economic growth, “talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.” In Nicaragua, the very same business people who buy up vast quantities of land on the cheap for mono-crops (sugar cane, peanuts, African palm…) publicize some of their actions as demonstrating their “environmental commitment.” The pope would seem to be speaking of them when he says that “many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.”
Carbon credits The pope also criticized the “strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits,’” sharing with Naomi Klein the view that it “can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.” He says this system “seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which pres¬ent circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
It is not God’s willOne hears many Nicaraguans, including officials at all levels of our current government, interpret as “God’s design” or “God’s will” phenomena such as the drought that for the second straight year is affecting part of Nicaragua and in fact is an expression of the climate change that is here to stay. This month some officials have even proposed prayer as the only solution to the lack of rain, thus reinforcing the magic thinking of such a large part of our population.
This erroneous argument that environmental disasters are the punishment, testing or simple will of God is far from Pope Francis’ view. The encyclical recognizes innumerable contributions from science to explain these phenomena, which the pope relates directly to human activities, not to divine plans. From start to finish, the text is a passionate call for individuals, societies, politicians and businesses to assume their responsibility to halt the disaster.
A change of course“Laudato Si’”urges a change of course in the world as a whole, and while recognizing that we are at a critical juncture, concludes by energizing us: “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
In Nicaragua a change of course is needed in both the environmental and political spheres. Countries can change course through revolutions or elections. Nicaragua changed by force of arms 36 years ago, in 1979. And it changed again with votes in 1990.
Both of those paths are now closed: the armed one thanks to an awareness that has been winning hearts and minds in favor of citizens’ peaceful efforts and civic struggle; and the ballot box due to a succession of electoral frauds since 2008.
But countries can also change course via the decision of leaders with a national vision. Finding those leaders, constructing them, is the utopia we cling to as we mark the 36th anniversary of the revolution.