Image at all cost
The government is only offering halfway measures
for the outbreaks of violence on the Caribbean coast,
the severe drought in a large part of the country,
and uncertainties about the proposed canal’s
environmental and financial viability.
Hunger and violence have no place
in the image of Nicaragua being peddled.
A “blessed” country attractive to investors
and the dream of the interoceanic canal
are critical to the image that’s expected
to see Ortega reelected once more.
The first days of September brought a new outbreak of violence in Nicaragua’s North Cari¬bbean coast, specifically in indi¬ge¬nous communities of the muni¬ci¬pality of Waspam, along the Río Coco. Waspam is one of the country’s most impoverished municipalities, with more than 80% of its population suffering extreme poverty.
The armed conflicts are between sectors of the Miskitu population and sectors of mestizo settlers who for years have been moving into the indigenous territories, occupying or illegally buying land that by law cannot be bought or sold. Lottie Cunningham, who heads a coast human rights organization called CEJUDHCAN, has told her colleagues in the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) that some 40 Miskitus have been killed so far in land dispute-related incidents.
A first balance sheet of September’s conflicts is five Miskitus and nine mestizos dead and dozens on both sides wounded by firearms and machetes, houses burned down, crops abandoned and hundreds of families fleeing the area to take refuge in Bilwi, capital of the northern autonomous region, or crossing the river into Honduras. The killing on September 14 of Mario Leman Müller, a founder and board member of the regional indigenous political party Yatama, reputedly by individuals linked to the governing party caused particular commotion in Waspam.
Final phase not advancing
The coast’s problems are extremely complex, and have dragged on for decades in the absence of in-depth solutions by the different governments. As rural-world researcher René Mendoza rightly suggests in his article in the Speaking Out section of this issue, solutions will only be found in the long term and will require thinking outside the box.
The most recent conflicts are framed by the lack of fulfillment of the final phase of Law 445 for the demarcation of indigenous territories. This law establishes a final stage of sanea¬miento, or title clearance, for the coast’s original peoples to become authentic owners of their ancestral lands, now demarcated and titled as of several years ago in compliance with that same law. Depending on the land-holding status of each “third party,” most of whom are mestizo settlers, they must either leave the territory or negotiate the conditions under which they may stay with its indigenous owners.
This legal disposition, which seems fair on the face of it, is up against enormous hurdles: the relatively recently arrived mestizos are now an immense majority throughout the two autonomous regions; the world vision of the indigenous peoples is very different from that of the settlers, as is their respective understanding of and relationship to the land; the traditional indigenous community organization has been severely weakened over time and there are many problems with their regional political party, making it harder to negotiate non-conflictive solutions; there are powerful interests in the coast that are external to both populations; and the different claims to the indigenous lands vary widely, from legal, to illegal to blatantly corrupt.
In this complex situation, with the title clearance process going nowhere, at least in the north Caribbean, there are no signs that the government is willing to help enforce it. In fact Miskitu engineer Juan Carlos Ocampo claims that it “has tacitly prohibited international cooperation from working with the territories in that process.” Faced with that impasse, some Miskitu groups decided a while ago to conduct their own title clearances… down the barrel of a gun. While the September operations weren’t the first cases, the ratcheting up of the violence level sounded an alert heard around the country.
After a century-long fight for their territorial rights, which perhaps even more than governmental autonomy was the banner of the indigenous front of the war of the eighties, the passage of Law 445 and the slow but steady demarcation then titling of the coast territories to their indigenous inhabitants understandably created the expectation that the battle had been won and they could finally feel safe and secure in their land. That dashed expectation with the ill-fated bogging down of the last phase created sentiments even more difficult to contain than those felt before the law was passed.
The determination to force the title clearance, now posed in black and white terms, has the coast’s women’s organizations very worried, particularly when contemplated as an armed operation. “Imposing it with that attitude is bringing more violence to the women and is increasing the racism,” argues Rose Cunningham, a Miskitu leader of the Wangki Tangni women’s center. While directly expressed in the killing of men from both bands, that violence has also increased sexual abuse of women and girls, a reality being ignored.
“We have to know
how to negotiate”
In this context there are fortunately some sensible voices seeking to achieve a negotiated coexistence that is fair and beneficial for the indigenous peoples. It’s a complex gamble, given the contradictory economic and political interests running through the coast, including those of drug trafficking, which has deep roots in nearby Honduras and quickly made its way into Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast with the end of the war of the eighties.
In our May 2012 issue, Miskitu agronomist Ceferino Wilson offered the following reflections, revealing a certain degree of resentment, but also common sense and foresight: “We’ve always noted that when non-indigenous people settle on indigenous lands, in a process that some call colonization and others mixing blood, they always get a lot of attention…and quickly. They settle today and tomorrow they already have a school, the next day a church, and not long after that a health center. They quickly acquire what indigenous communities only get after a long time or a major struggle. The municipal and governmental authorities prioritize them. If we look at this reality in the long term, we can see that we’re facing a very gentle form of colonization. Today they’re just a small social group but soon they’ve become a large group with bases rooted in the territory, making it hard to remove or evict them….
“When non-indigenous people realize what the [title clearance] process means, they reject it and start thinking about how to defend themselves to avoid being thrown off those lands. Anyone who knows they’re going to be evicted from where they live is logically going to react in this way. So will knowing they can’t say who can come in and who can stay on what they’ve come to believe is their property. What we’re currently trying to iron out and promote are negotiation channels between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, knowing that we’ll be able to negotiate in some cases and not in others.”
It’s difficult to imagine black and white solutions to the Caribbean coast’s long-standing challenges actually working. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) didn’t know how to find them in the eighties, when it wanted to impose its project for and vision of Nicaragua and the country’s development and in so doing provoked a war.
“People still have a vivid memory of Red Christmas and the forced displacement of Miskitus from the Río Coco to the Tasba Pri resettlement villages in 1982,” says Juan Carlos Arce, who runs CENIDH’s office in Matagalpa and is its human rights promoter in Waspam. “There are Miskitus who repeatedly tell us: ‘The FSLN doesn’t like us because we were the first ones to go to war against it.’”
The first battles against the Sandi¬nista government took place along the Río Coco at the end of 1981, and later extended to the rural zones further inland. Both indigenous people and peasants felt excluded from the revolutionary project. And the FSLN is currently repeating its past errors, tripping up on the same rocks and failing with the same groups.
Autonomy and the alliance
The revolutionary government approved the Autonomy Statute (Law 28) in 1987 in recognition of the demands that largely underlay the coast’s hostility to Managua and fueled the taking up of arms, mainly by Miskitu men in the north. Since the first autonomous elections in 1990, there have been many steps forward in its application—i.e. the governing of the coast by its popu¬lation’s own representatives—but also many steps backward.
Law 445, approved in 2002 to demarcate and title the indigenous territories, was one of the greatest steps forward. This process began during the government of Enrique Bolaños, but picked up speed with the alliance that Daniel Ortega signed in 2006 with Brooklyn Rivera, a long-time Miskitu leader. He was one of the three heads of the indigenous social organization Misurasata formed in 1979, continued to lead it when it took up arms three years later, then remained in a lead role in Yatama, the armed indigenous organization born in 1987 as an amalgamation of three previous ones, including his own, that had been fighting the Sandinista government for years. Yatama came in from the cold in 1989 to participate in the 1990 elections, then morphed into a regional indigenous party, originally representing mainly Miskitus but over time incorporating members of other coast indigenous peoples and ethnic communities.
The FSLN-Yatama alliance allowed Ortega to project himself as a factor of reconciliation in the coast and opened doors for Yatama to place indigenous and other coast professionals linked to the FSLN in strategic central government posts related to forest, fishing and agricultural resources as well as in ministries such as Foreign Affairs. It also enabled Yatama members, Rivera among them, to win National Assembly seats on the FSLN ticket given that regional parties, a category unique to the coast, cannot directly run for national legislative seats.
In their new spaces, the indigenous representatives pushed through some agreements with the central government, although they recognize they didn’t know how to make the best use of them. Ortega had no such problems; he ably administered the quotas of power he assigned them, and successfully coopted many of them.
Alba Forestal vs. autonomy
When Alba Forestal, one of the businesses of the powerful FSLN-run ALBA consortium, came on the scene, the contradictions between the interests of the two sides appeared more clearly. The lumber company first moved into the coast in 2008 to exploit the 1.6 million hectares of trees that had been uprooted by Hurricane Felix’s winds in the northern Caribbean in September of the previous year. In so doing it blithely disregarded a forestry management program the North Caribbean Autonomous Regional Council had approved. It was a major sign that the central government’s interests would override those of the autonomous coast peoples in the alliance.
In his 2012 article for envío, Ceferino Wilson commented on the conflict that Alba Forestal had triggered in Mayangna territory by opening a 5-kilometer highway to extract lumber from the nucleus of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve: “Everyone in Nicaragua, including the coast, knows that Alba Forestal is linked to the presidential family, the country’s greatest power. The only thing indigenous people can do about it is what they did: accompanied by Brooklyn Rivera, Armando Edwin, president of the Matumbak territorial government, went to the National Assembly and took the first step by making public what was happening. Given the Yatama-FSLN relationship, it was interesting that Rivera attended that meeting and charged that indigenous rights had been violated. Could it be a sign that something is happening with that alliance?”
After that first public falling-out, others followed. Meanwhile Alba Forestal continued exploiting lumber in the coast. Are we to believe this company has nothing to do with the 42,000 hectares deforested annually in Bosa¬wás, which in addition to being an important reserve is also ancestral Mayan¬gna territory?
The power in the coast
In the suggestive text by coast academic Miguel González titled “The Coast of Comandante Campbell” published in the Confidencial news bulletin, he writes that “the majority of the FSLN’s important decisions related to the coast pass over the desk of Comandante Lumberto Campbell,” a Creole from Bluefields who was the only coast commander in the FSLN and an “old guard” combatant dating all the way back to the pre-revolution insurrectionary period. “His voice,” writes González, “is the one the top FSLN leadership, especially President Ortega and his close circle, listens to on issues related to the Caribbean Coast.”
The ear Campbell gets is based on the “business” vision he shares with Ortega, which according to González, is one in which “development will only be able to occur if the private economic agents and both national and foreign capital can generate employment, investment and growth, and will materialize through large-scale infrastructure projects [energy generation, extractive industries, agricultural expansion and technological innovation] in which the State will be an efficient facilitator….”
With a business vision
“In the Comandante’s vision,” writes González, “resources exist not to be contemplated, but to be exploited and to generate wealth. Communal property… cannot be opposed to the interoceanic canal project, and thus is expropriable. The Comandante does not believe in harmonic and idealized indigenous communities, but in rational agents that procure the best possible benefits in a context of growing competition. He does not believe in a spectator State, but in its transforming role, and this means mobilizing its centralizing capacity, in which he firmly believes.”
“Politically,” states González, Campbell “is convinced it is necessary to govern with hegemony, with the FSLN in control of the autonomous institutions, and to tolerate dissent that is limited and domesticated through alliances or agreements.” The author concludes that “the power Campbell has succeeded in accumulating is proportional to the reduction of the Autonomous Regions’ power to make their own decisions.”
Charges of irregular land
transactions are ignored
From the business vision Ortega and Campbell share, it’s no surprise that their economic and political government project includes moving onto indigenous lands to exploit their resources. In 2010, the year before reputedly fraudulent elections gave the FSLN an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the Assembly’s Population Commission drafted and presented to the National Police a very detailed investigation of various cases of irregular sales transactions involving indigenous lands that implicated both municipal and police authorities. The government ignored it.
In April of 2012, Assembly representative Agustín Jarquín, at that time an ally of the FSLN whose legislative seat was arbitrarily usurped two years later, wrote directly to Ortega asking him to intervene with respect to the information contained in that investigation, promoted by Jarquín and Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera. But again no response was forthcoming from Ortega or any other government authority.
The scapegoat is tethered
On September 9, when the recent violence in Waspam had already taken place and the rest of Nicaragua had its eyes on the coast, President Ortega referred to these events in an extensive speech. He wanted to fix the idea that the government he presides over had nothing to do with this issue and that the only people responsible for the illegal indigenous land transactions included “community members who have imbibed the poison of speculation,” “swindling community leaders,” “shameless community members”…
A couple of weeks later Ortega slapped a Band-Aid on the conflict: on September 21, in a political operation dressed as a struggle against corruption, Brooklyn Rivera was removed from his National Assembly seat and stripped of his parliamentary immunity in a move as illegal as it was expeditious. It began with FSLN Assembly representative Edwin Castro presenting the Assembly with a huge tome containing the supposed results of an investigation—previously unknown and never shown to Rivera—in which the Yatama leader is accused of having sold 155,629 hectares of lands in titled Miskitu and Mayangna territories. The other 62 members of the FSLN legislative bench immediately voted to strip him of his immunity, without a word of debate. Thus they tethered the scapegoat that would draw attention away from the actions of people much closer to presidential power.
“A settling of scores”
On September 30, the Attorney General’s Office formally accused Rivera and a group of other Yatama leaders as well as lawyers, many of them also from the coast, of larceny by fraud, usurpation of public or communal domain, coercion or displacement, organized crime and related offenses.
Rivera argued that Yatama has always insisted that the government back the title clearance process and called his allies’ maneuver “a political show trial” and a “settling of accounts” for having broken the alliance with the governing party. This refers to Rivera and Elizabeth Enríquez, the other Yatama representative in the Assembly, having declared themselves “independent” of the FSLN back in March 2014, eight years after the signing of that alliance, although it’s not clear what that meant in practice as they kept their seats and have never voted against any of the laws Ortega sent to the Assembly.
What triggered the rupture was Rivera’s accusation that the FSLN had organized a “technical fraud” in that year’s autonomous elections and was “working to annihilate, smash and destroy Yatama.” While that accusation was not pursued by the judicial powers, the FSLN did win a majority of seats in both the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regional Councils for the first time since autonomous elections began to be held on the coast every four years since 1990. It was another turn of the screw in Ortega’s absolute control of the entire state institutionality.
Following the signing of the interoceanic canal law in 2013, Rivera had already begun to come out against that megaproject in various media given its potential environmental destruction, its disrespect for the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples signed by Nicaragua and the fact that the populations directly affected were not consulted, in violation of the autonomy law and several others.
After being accused, Rivera described the mestizo settlers as the “spearhead” of the government authorities, cattle ranchers, mining companies and land-grabbing estate-holders. He also mentioned Alba Forestal’s responsibility in the plundering of lumber from the coast’s forests.
Victim or accomplice?
According to CENIDH’s Juan Carlos Arce, “the people in Waspam say there are over 30 lumber companies, all with central government backing. The people there point to the FSLN rather than Brooklyn as responsible for the pillaging of the coast, although some consider him an accomplice and have lost confidence in Yatama.”
The reality is that the Yatama-FSLN alliance never enjoyed the support of Yatama’s social base given the deep-rooted distrust the Miskitu people have always felt toward the “Spanish” on the Pacific side, including the FSLN.
The calculated pragmatism of both sides in the alliance, together with Rivera’s many errors and opportunistic maneuvers, have eroded his leadership over time. Despite that, he still carries the weight conferred by his 35-year history of struggle since becoming one of the three leaders of Misurasata. It is a halo difficult to knock off given that in Nicaragua longevity attests to a caudillo’s merits, as also demonstrated by Daniel Ortega in the FSLN.
“This could cost Ortega dear”
After critically assessing Rivera’s performance in May 2014, sociologist Salvador García Babini offered this reflection in that month’s envío: “Yatama still has enough social strength to destabilize the region, especially in the north. Yatama not only considers itself the representative of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast—especially the Miskitus—but also maintains an ideological monopoly that can activate the use of violence among hundreds of men who fought in the eighties and feel an historical loyalty. It is this inheritance that Yatama uses as a guarantor in negotiating social stability.”
The instability and violence in the Caribbean region are tarnishing Nica¬ragua’s image as “the safest country in Central America” and thus muddying Daniel Ortega’s project to remain in power. Will the “juridical and legal” Band-Aid he has put over the conflictive situation in the Coast, humiliating Rivera, resolve the conflict? Or might it stir it up further? It is already being rumored in the coast that “this could cost Ortega dear.”
We may not yet know how much this scapegoating of Rivera might cost Ortega, his project or Nicaragua’s image, but it is undeniable that the country’s indigenous peoples and peasants are both being excluded, just as they were in the 1980s. And both are responding with violence, with former indigenous combatants in the coast arming against mestizo settlers who they view as backed by this government, while peasant groups in the north-central part of the country that joined what was called the Contra back then and the Resistance afterward have rearmed to fight this government. In sum, the situation of a good part of both the mestizo and indigenous rural populations that lived through that war is again dramatic.
A dramatic situation
on many levels
In addition to the political tensions, there has been an even worse drought during this year’s rainy season than last year, not only in the “dry corridor” that runs through Central America but also in other areas of the country. Last year’s tragedy has thus repeated itself with losses of crops and livestock, and with increasing hunger, stretching people’s tolerance levels even thinner.
In mid-September, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published an extensive report showing that Nicaragua’s basic grains crop in the first cycle of this agricultural year (May-July) was reduced to half or lost entirely, depending on the region. It predicted that the second cycle (August-October) is at grave risk of being lost due to conditions the FAO calls “exceptionally dry.”
The departments of Matagalpa and Jinotega were major battlegrounds of the war in the eighties and are areas in which the majority of the rural population lives and works today. Both departments include extensive dry zones. Together with Cáritas Nicaragua, the bishops of the two departments, Rolando Álvarez and Carlos Herrera, respectively, have urgently called for the declaration of an emergency. Monsignor Herrera has also asked the mayors of his diocese’s dry zone, most of whom are members of the governing party, to report the drought-related disasters truthfully to the central government. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that the government only gets told what it wants to hear.
The government’s argument in response to this undeniable reality is that Nicaragua’s three climatic zones , with three planting cycles per year in most of them, will produce enough food, with crops in zones where it has rained compensating for the losses in the dry zone. It’s not an argument the FAO included in its report.
Aid with a party bias
Insisting on this argument about the three zones and three cycles, the government has persistently refused to declare a state of alert, emergency, or even calamity, unlike various neighboring countries. Nor has it requested any support from the UN’s World Food Programme.
Both government officials and some big business leaders have declared that the drought is “manageable.” Others, including Michael Healy, president of the Union of Agricultural Producers and Livestock Ranchers (UPANIC), have been more realistic. Healy has expressed to the media more than once his concerns about the devastating effects the lack of rain is having this year.
Like last year, the government is “managing” the drought by giving out food packets to families in the dry corridor. The First Lady has reported that 40,000 packets of basic foodstuffs—beans, maize, rice, cooking oil and salt—would be sent out monthly. But the first ones only began to be distributed in September, well after the failure of the first planting.
Last year, when Monsignor Herrera offered the government an emergency plan to palliate the needs of the thousands of families affected by the drought and resulting hunger, he called for the food to be sent to the communities in bulk and given out without party distinctions. Despite being ignored then, he repeated the same call this year, charging that the aid is not only insufficient but being distributed partisan selectivity.
Why is there so much resistance to turning to international aid to help feed people? Would this belie the image being sold of a “blessed” country, one extremely attractive for foreign investment? Like the reality of violence, a country suffering hunger doesn’t exactly bolster Ortega’s image of Nicaragua and his reelection project.
of climate change
In response to the drought and other social problems, the government’s strategy time after time has been to prioritize handouts, because they beg gratitude and induce submission. Instead of searching for real solutions, particularly ones that engage the population’s agency, the government applies Band-Aids,.
This year’s drought, those of previous years and those that can be predicted in the coming years require reflection, consensus among all social actors and in-depth solutions that go beyond palliative responses. The intensification and recurrence of the droughts are conditioned by climate change, a global reality that is here to stay. It can’t be reversed, only mitigated and adapted to. Neither our climate nor the planet’s will ever return to what it was decades ago, before we saturated the atmosphere with contaminating gases.
We already know that Central America as a whole, including Nicaragua, is one of the planet’s zones most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the most frequent of which are and will continue to be torrential rains that provoke landslides and extreme droughts, both of which provoke crop losses and consequently hunger.
Human beings are
losing out to power
Adaptation to climate change necessarily includes a plan to rationalize the use of the country’s available water. In the dry zones, i.e. the center and northwest, and even those that aren’t so dry, wells are drying up, ground water levels keep on dropping or are already untappable, and many rivers now have little water or are contaminated.
According to an assessment by Nicaragua’s network of Drinking Water and Sanitation Committees, 70% of the 112 wells they administer in the department of Chinandega are drying up. And water researcher Ruth Selma Herrera has told envío that between Rivas and Chinandega, the northernmost and southernmost departments along the Pacific coast, as well as in part of Nicaragua’s north-central region, 90% of the water we use is being taken from the subsoil as river levels have dropped in the rainy season and are almost dry during the other six months.
Worse yet is that big growers use 70% of that water to irrigate enormous extensions of sugarcane, peanuts and rice, which are all export products that enrich only a few. Another 15% is used by industries, including water, beer, liquor, milk and soft drinks bottling companies, also in the hands of big producers. Barely 6% of the water extracted from the subsoil is used for human consumption.
Visitación Sevilla, an engineer with the Central American University’s Nitlapan Institute, insists that in times of drought human consumption of water should take priority over irrigating vast plantations. But human beings are losing out to profit. Sevilla explains that a single hectare of plantains consumes over 31,000 liters of water in a day’s irrigation, the equivalent needed that same day by 2,250 peasant families, or more than 100,000 people. This expert urges the drawing up of an irrigation calendar and the use of drip irrigation systems because they are more efficient.
Listen to the scientists
Water resource expert Salvador Monte¬negro argues that a fundamental solution would be to apply the General Water Law, whose national plan has never been put into operation. Nor have plans been drawn up to administer Nicaragua’s 21 watersheds. “The law was passed seven years ago and so far the objective we sought with it has gone unmet,” he laments.
Such slackness, shortsightedness, inefficiency or “what do I care” posture isn’t unique to this government. What can be attributed to it, however, is the calculated and continual exclusion of plural voices that should be listened to and are valuable when it comes to seeking solutions. For example, some months ago Montenegro himself was the victim of a governing party maneuver to remove him as head of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua’s Center for Aquatic Resources Research (CIRA), which he founded. It was payback for his persistent warnings about the environmental tragedy that would result from constructing an interoceanic canal across our largest water reserve, Lake Coci¬bolca.
According to Víctor Campos of the Centro Humboldt, a Nicaraguan environmentalist nongovernmental organization, “Nicaragua has no national climate change adaptation plan. Years ago there was a regional climate change strategy, and I say ‘was’ because no one even remembers it now. And three or four years ago there was a national environmental and climate change strategy that was a sum of the operational plans of the Ministry of the Environment and National Resources, the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies and other institutions, but it never got off the drawing board. It was never a public administration guide in the municipal governments or the departments and very few people even know about it.”
In July, given the gravity of the situation in the foreseeable future, the government finally took a positive step by requesting support from the government of Taiwan to install an irrigation system in the country’s dry zone. The following month a Taiwanese specialist arrived in Nicaragua to study how the system would work.
A project along the same lines, using water from Lake Cocibolca, has been submitted repeatedly by Nicaraguan scientists for years. They argue that it would be a much more profitable and inexpensive alternative to the interoceanic canal megaproject, which would give over the largest fresh water reserve in Nicaragua and all of Central America to the potentially damaging passage of container ships or, worse, oil super-tankers.
The megaproject of
a bankrupt company
Despite all the arguments against it, the government remains determined to prioritize the canal, which is part of protecting its image at all cost. And again, the cost could be very dear for both its defenders and the country as a whole.
Ten months of total inactivity and near complete silence have followed the “inauguration” of the first canal works last December, which involved nothing more than widening seven or eight kilometers of a dirt road in the isolated coastal area of Brito—the site where it was decided the canal would open into the Pacific Ocean. The only blip on that silent screen was the highly publicized delivery several months ago of a 14-volume environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) by ERM, the British environmental company hired by HKND Group, the canal’s concession holder. After that, the silence resumed.
Finally, on September 24, the Ortega government—surely aware of the financial debacle of businessman Wang Jing, HKND’s founder and CEO, who lost 84% of his capital wealth in China’s stock market—applied another Band-Aid, this time to keep the dream of the canal alive at least until the coming presidential elections. This time the stop-gap measure was what was billed as a “public consultation” in which HKND—curiously not Nica¬ragua’s environmental ministry—communicated aspects of the ESIA to a limited public carefully selected by the government. The next day, it posted a 108-page executive summary of the study on its Internet page (hknd-group.com).
There’s no hiding the environmental damage
The executive summary is revealing. We offer an extremely abbreviated version of its findings below, but it is worth reading carefully to grasp the project’s weaknesses and the proposed recommendations.
From the very outset ERM recognizes that “HKND has not provided a market study indicating its ‘business case’ for the Project.” This failure to demonstrate the project’s commercial viability or provide a business plan or financial study that justifies the construction of this US$50 billion project is one of the holes most constantly pointed out by critics.
ERM confirms that it would be “the largest civil earthmoving operation in history, requiring the excavation of approximately 5,000 million cubic meters (Mm3) of material” and that the set of locks for such a canal would also be “the largest ever constructed,” extending more than 1.5 kilometers in length and measuring more than 400 meters across.
After offering abundant details of the design contracted by HKND, ERM lists what it calls the 10 “key issues or concerns” the project presents, a few of which we synthetize below.
1. Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca)
2. Soil Erosion and Sedimentation
4. Land Expropriation/Resettlement
5. Indigenous Peoples
6. Project-affected Communities
7. Influx and Induced Impacts
8. Cultural Heritage
9. Natural Hazards and Project Safety
10. Trans-boundary Effects
As can be seen, ERM puts in first place the effects the project would have on Lake Cocibolca, stressing that “water availability is a critical concern for the Project, particularly with the uncertainties associated with climate change.” Referring to the possible salinization of Cocibolca’s waters as some salt water would inevitably transfer through the locks along with the ships and could reach the lake, it warns that “HKND intends to provide salinity control, but has not yet selected a specific measure.” In listing the various other ways the lake water could be affected, the report mentions the very ones Nicaraguan scientists have already pointed out in forums and writings.
Commenting at length on the problems related to biodiversity and HKND’s plans to mitigate the effects where possible, ERM concludes that “The Project would cause significant adverse effects on biodiversity, some of which would not be directly miti-gatable,” referring among other things to “the conversion of the Río Punta Gorda from a free flowing natural river system to a system of locks, canals, and impoundments; and the loss of primary forest, creating another barrier along the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.”
With respect to the displacement of some 30,000 families living along the canal route, ERM acknowledges that “Law 840 [the canal law] is not consistent with international standards in respect to compensation and by limiting the rights of property owners to contest many aspects of the expropriation process.” With respect to the effects on the Rama-Kriol people, whose juridically inviolable territory would be rent in two by the canal, ERM reveals that “The Government proposes to lease lands required for the canal rather than acquire them; therefore, there would be no technical loss of indigenous lands, although Indigenous Peoples would lose access to this land for operational and safety reasons.”
Truths vs. rhetoric
ERM essentially recognizes all the environmental, social and cultural problems posed by Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences and environmental organizations since 2013. They are problems the official propaganda never acknowledged and has in fact consistently contradicted with a rhetoric aimed at disqualifying the critics and only portraying the hypothetical benefits. Despite the study’s limitations, which ERM is the first to admit, what it published effectively leaves the government’s enthusiastic pro-canal spokespeople with egg on their face.
ERM’s conclusion is also revealing in that it argues the need for “additional studies,” offering a 7-point list of “data gaps” that these studies need to close given “subject areas that still have an unacceptably high level of uncertainty” that could affect project cost, feasibility and/or design. These include topographical studies, a geotechnical and seismic risk assessment, a study of acid rock drainage, further sediment and bathymetry studies of Lake Nicaragua, water balance and salinity management studies and underwater archaeological studies.
What’s the worst
Warning that the project is “fraught with risks and uncertainties,” it presents hypothetical future scenarios under the current environmental, social and economic trends without a canal, with a canal meeting or not meeting international standards, with a canal not meeting economic forecasts, and even with the possibility of uncompleted canal construction. In brief, the no-canal option, in its view, “is not positive by any measure,” given that there are no clear alternatives for improving Nicaragua’s economy. At the same time, however, it warns that if the project isn’t constructed according to international good practices and properly implemented mitigation measures, the predicted benefits do not occur, or construction is not completed, “Nicaragua may be worse off than doing nothing.”
“It is impossible,” says ERM, “to construct a project of this magnitude, especially in an area with the environmental, social, and cultural sensitivities of southern Nicaragua, without having significant impacts.” The benefits are mainly economic, but are underscored as only potential, indirect and difficult to quantify both because “they are related to the success of international trade, port activity, and the economic benefits associated with infrastructure improvements provided by the Project” and because a modeling of economic impacts was not conducted for the project. ERM then lists the unavoidable adverse impacts and these “potential” economic benefits, with the former more than double the latter in numerical terms.
Finally, after laying out all the pros and cons available to it, ERM washes its hands: “This ESIA does not recommend or oppose construction of the canal; that is a policy decision by the Government of Nicaragua.”
Having argued—as have the most sensible people in Nicaragua—that it will only have the potential to produce positive effects if implemented adequately, ERM demonstrates, without coming right out and saying so, that the improvised and hasty way the project has been managed so far is anything but adequate. Daniel Ortega blindly granted a concession that commits Nicaragua’s sovereignty for at least a century and both he and his spokespeople continuously proclaimed the project’s advantages without the benefit of the necessary studies. Even now, over two years after the law was passed and the contract signed, the list of required studies, gaps and recommendations laid out by ERM is so extensive that it is reasonable to doubt that the time, will, capacity and determination to complete them exists.
The most fantastic Band-Aid
Only days before the executive summary of ERM’s study was made public, Paul Oquist, Ortega’s public policy adviser and most persistent canal spokesperson, went to Washington to argue the project’s viability. He blithely insisted that “lots of misinformation is in the air,” and charged himself with correcting it even though he has personally been responsible for disseminating much of it, particularly grossly exaggerated predictions of preliminary economic and employment growth that have already been proven false. The ERM report can’t have been much help to him in his task.
Then only days after the summary was posted, the Bloomberg economic news agency reported that HKND’s Wang Jing had the dubious honor of being the “worst-performing billionaire” in 2015 and the one most affected by China’s stock exchange crisis. Only US$1.1 billion of his net worth of US$10.2 billion now remains due to the drop in stock value of his telecommunications company XinWei, of which he reportedly owns 35%.
Although he insists that the Nicaraguan canal project will continue, his personal financial crisis will surely affect his capacity to attract investors for a megaproject that could turn out to be the most fantastic of all the Band-Aids applied to guarantee Daniel Ortega’s reelection in November 2016.