Peasant voices against the canal Project
On October 14 the International Federation for Human Rights, founded in 1922
and thus the oldest worldwide organization defending human rights,
today consisting of 184 national human rights organizations in 112 countries,
presented in Managua a report on the human rights violations represented by
Nicaragua’s interoceanic canal project so far and will represent in the future.
As input for this important document, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center did a field study in communities along the canal route.
Nicaraguan Human Rights Center(CENIDH)
The interoceanic canal project has never consulted the peasant communities along the route of the channel that will split Nicaragua in two. The government has responded to the peasant protests against the project—so far more than eighty local marches and four national ones since 2013—with repression, harassment, militarization of the protesting territories and other human rights violations.
In February and March of this year a team from the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) went to 56 communities located along the canal route to talk with discontented and organized people. We met with and listened to the testimonies of 131 men and women in five focus groups selected together with the National Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, a peasant organization created in 2014 to oppose the Canal Law and its project.
The opponents speak
Each focus group lasted between three and four hours, with an average of 25 people per group. The first one was conducted in Tolesmaida, municipality of Buenos Aires, department of Rivas, the area where the canal would connect with Lake Cocibolca. People from Moyogalpa on the Island of Ometepe, El Cangrejal, Obrajuelos in San Jorge, Veracruz del Zapotal and Playa Gigante participated in this group. Another three focus groups were held in the communities of La Fonseca, La Union and Puerto Príncipe in the municipality of Nueva Guinea, South Caribbean Auton¬o¬mous Region. People from 30 different districts participated in them. The fifth group was conducted with people from El Tule, municipality of San Miguelito, department of Río San Juan, the scene of cruel repression in December 2014.
In Rivas we visited the area around the Miramar farm, located on the road to Brito, where the canal construction would begin with a deep-water Pacific Ocean port. Brito was the site of the project’s “formal” inauguration in December 2014. The first work would be to open a road for the heavy equipment required for this mega-project. We verified that there are no signs of construction, revealing that the inauguration event was a farce. The road was in ruins along with a small wooden bridge, with no sign that either had been used in a long time.
As we drew nearer to these communities we were the object of scare tactics by police agents. Ministry of Education authorities also tried to sabotage the meeting in Tolesmaida by organizing a parents’ meeting about “bullying in school” on the same planned date. According to local leaders, this also often happens when the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty calls meetings. When we visited La Union in Nueva Guinea, the CENIDH team was interrogated by three police officers and followed by an agent the entire day.
Both women and men participated in all the meetings, displaying a lot of interest. In some cases they had traveled long distances to come and share their testimonies. They all agreed to their names being published in the investigation that would receive the stamp and seal of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
No bids and no consultations
Four instruments comprise the canal project’s regulatory framework: the Law of the Interoceanic Nicaragua Canal’s Juridical Regime and Creation of the Nicaragua Inter¬oceanic Grand Canal Authority of Nicaragua (Law 800); the Master Concession Agreement; the Memorandum of Understanding between the Nicaraguan Government and the HKND Group company; and Law 840, the Special Law for the Develop¬ment of Nicaraguan Infrastructure and Transportation Related to the Canal, Free Trade Zones and Associated Infra¬structure.
There was no bidding process for the concession of this project. Nor were studies done on the canal’s environmental and social impact or its economic and financial viability before granting the concession. The entire process was marked by secrecy, discretionality and lack of transparency. The Grand Canal Authority—a Nicaraguan state entity created ad hoc for the project—formally began work in July 2012, when the National Assembly approved Law 800, without following the consultation process established in the legislative branch’s organizational law. In September 2012 the Grand Canal Authority appointed HKND, a company headquartered in Hong Kong with no known experience in this type of work, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its representative, Wang Jing.
In June 2013 the “consultation process” on Law 840 draft by the National Assembly took place in only ten days, which the President limited to the Army, Police and economic power groups within the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Immediately afterward, both Law 840 and the Master Concession Agreement were presented in a National Assembly plenary and approved by the governing party’s absolute majority legislative bench two days later, on June 13, after only three hours of “debate.”
If the institutional consultation was clearly deficient, hasty and virtually null, we confirmed in the field that consultation with the people who would be directly affected by the construction of the Canal was totally absent. All people we spoke with stated that they heard about the approval of the laws and what was going to happen only via the media, civil society organizations and individuals, and only some time later.
“From landowners to slaves of the Chinese”
There is resentment among the people we spoke with about the lack of information. Ronald Henriquez, from the community of Tolesmaida, is quite clear: “This project has trampled our sovereignty and even if the government says ‘the People are President,’ it’s a lie. They didn’t consult us about a law that has us going from owning our land to being slaves of the Chinese...” Henry Caldera, from Rivas, thought the same: “Those people didn’t consult anyone, they didn’t tell people until the scam was all organized.”
The municipal authorities also feel hurt at not being informed. Fatima Duarte, former FSLN councilwoman in the San Jorge municipal government, said to us: “They approved the law and didn’t even consult the Council members of the affected municipalities. And when I asked the mayor about the expropriations and told her about the danger the project represented, she replied that if I continued protesting they would take me out of the Municipal Council.” Months later, Duarte was indeed removed from the position to which she had been publicly elected.
Councilman William Guido García in the community of Puerto Principe also felt resentment: “I’m a Municipal Council member and I find out about the Canal mega-project while watching the news on Channel 12, where I see Daniel Ortega and a Chinese man appear with their hands raised and signing an agreement without having consulted us. We deserve to be consulted.”
An attempt was made to disguise the lack of consultation a year after the canal law was approved by having “consultation” meetings in some municipalities. The peasants in San Miguelito were invited to a meeting at the end of 2014 in which they listened to speeches by a commission of government officials that arrived from Managua, led by Canal spokesperson Telemaco Talavera, about the benefits the project would bring, but there were no answers to the concerns that kept everyone anxious: what were the expropriations going to be like, how many would be displaced, where would they resettle?
According to Nury Sequeira, the departmental coordinator of the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, that activity was presented days later by the pro-government media as a meeting backing the project, when in fact it was obvious that the peasants, seeing the lack of response to their concerns, simply abandoned the activity.
A similar meeting was denounced in La Union, Nueva Guinea. They complained about manipulation by the pro-government media and also showed their disagreement with the lack of information when they asked about things that concerned them. Julio Espinoza said to us: “They made everything out to be pretty. But they said nothing about buying our land or where they would be sending us.”
Law and studies approved quickly
The speed of the approval of the canal law and the failure to consult those affected has run parallel to an unwillingness to listen to the opinion of national and international experts. In December 2014, the media announced the approval by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, in only 24 hours, of a 572-page environmental impact study prepared for HKND by the British consultancy firm Environmental Resources Management.
The government’s last “public consultation” was held on September 24, 2015, with access restricted to only pro-government media. Sectors allied with the government, businessmen and some members of the diplomatic corps attended the meeting. The way the information of such a significant project was treated caused the official HKND spokesperson, Bolivian Ronald McLean-Abaroa, to resign his position in January 2016: “A low profile and information austerity policy has been imposed on the company that I am not in agreement with and it is causing it to lose credibility.” McLean-Abaroa didn’t reveal who was imposing the “information austerity.”
HKND and government representatives have also consistently refused to participate in dialogue initiatives about the project. In November 2014 and again in November 2015, representatives of the government and the concessionary company were invited to deliver papers and listen to other voices in two forums with international experts from different scientific fields organized by the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua and the Central American University (UCA). The consequences the canal construction would have on the environment, society, economy and national security were examined from different angles. No public official or concessionary company representative attended either forum. They didn’t even respond to the invitation.
ILO Convention 169 and the rights of indigenous territories
More than half of the canal route, 52% of its length, crosses the lands of indigenous and Afro-descendant people of the Caribbean Coast, specifically the territory of the Rama and Kriol people and of the Bluefields Creol community. The canal would also cross the territory of five indigenous communities on the Pacific coast side of the country.
Despite this impact, these people were not consulted either. In March 2016, during the hearings of the 154th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Becky McCray, a member of the Rama people, stated: “The State’s omissions in regards to the consultation of the indigenous and Afro-descendant people does not acknowledge the relationship of our territories and social structures, flagrantly violating our territorial rights and our rights to participation and self-determination.”
These people have seen their human rights and the specific rights established in ILO Convention 169 and in the Declaration of the Indigenous and Tribal People of the Nations historically violated, especially via the lack of prior free and informed consultation and the lack of respect for their land and territory.
In the focus group conducted in Tolesmaida, Rivas, Wilfredo Sánchez, secretary of the Monexico Indigenous Council of the Veracruz del Zapotal community, was very clear about the rights that back them: “The people weren’t consulted about the project, therefore violating Convention 169 in the case of the indigenous people. There was no respect for the right to citizen’s participation, despite the fact that the canal is a project that affects customs, culture and nature. It’s a project that will affect everything.” Sánchez also denounced a variety of pressures by the authorities on the indigenous council to prevent his reelection and thus undermine the indigenous struggle against the project.
In January 2016, the indigenous authorities of the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government also charged that they were being pressured to give their approval to the canal project. According to the complaint from the Center for Legal Assistance for Indigenous Peoples, they had to sign a document consenting to a “perpetual lease contract” for the mega-project within the 263 square kilometers of Rama and Kriol territory. The indigenous people mentioned officials from both the executive branch and the regional government as the authors of these maneuvers.
CENIDH had access to the document the government imposed on these communities. Titled “Convention of Prior, Free and Informed Consent for the Implementation of the Development Project of the Grand Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua,” it clearly disobeys ILO Convention 169, as a “perpetual” cession of those territories flagrantly violates the inalienable, unseizable and imprescriptible character of indigenous territories. It also violates the Law of the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and the Coco, Indio and Maiz Rivers (Law 445), which establishes these same three characteristics for the territories of all indigenous and ethnic communities of Nicaragua.
A census with more holes than a sieve
The tension the people of the territories have lived with since 2013 knowing that their farms would be cut through by the canal only got worse the following year with the “property identification” process. Chinese topographers accompanied by Nicaraguan police and army forces, invaded properties, measuring them and leaving boundary markers, without giving the owners any explanation. This generated anxiety and affected their planting and other traditional activities on their farms. A year and a half later the peasants still remember the anxiety that generated, and it hasn’t disappeared.
In October 2014 the government reported that ERM had finished its Environmental and Social Impact Study, and added that a census would be done of the population that would be affected and their land and assets would be classified. That census was taken by experts from the Changing Institute of Survey, Planning, Design and Research Co. Ltd., along with three Nicaraguan institutions: the Attorney General’s Office, the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies and the General Directorate of Revenues.
The government presented the results more than a year and a half after the census was conducted. However, hundreds of people located along the announced canal route have said they were not included in the census or were included only indirectly through governing party activists or officials, and even through teachers in community schools who got information about the number of family members and the location and size of their farms from the children.
The communities of El Tule, Puerto Príncipe, La Union and La Fonseca confirmed this for us. Of the 131 people who participated in our focus groups, only 3 said they had been included in the census. And 80% of the rest said they knew they had been indirectly included in the census through the schools and other methods. Amnesty International classified the way the Nicaragua government has approached this project as “irresponsible,” “reproachable and illegal.”
“What’s going to happen to us now?”
Francisca Ramírez, a peasant from La Fonseca and a leader of the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty described the general feelings of uncertainty being experienced in the communities: “We see that we were owners and were backed by other laws and by the Constitution, but Law 840 killed all the laws and a foreigner came to take what is ours. This has affected our lives and our will to work. We have felt greatly affected psychologically. Many people have had strokes and depression just thinking about how much they’ve struggled and what’s going to happen to their lives now.”
Francisca Ramirez’s leadership is broadly recognized by the peasant sectors organized in the Council, something unheard of, as peasant organizations are usually led by men. Her leadership has now reached national recognition.
Practically all the women and men we talked with in the different communities spoke of uncertainty, anxiety, concern and material and spiritual disruptions. José Sequiera from Quebrada Seca in Río San Juan told us: “I’d lose 63 hectares, 35 of which were given to me by my father and I could never replace that. It would set me back in my work because I’d have to learn a new form of labor as I’ve always lived off agriculture. And our communities are where we’ve made all our friends, where we’ve buried our loved ones in our cemeteries. This situation affects us emotionally; we can’t sleep.”
William Pineda, a Municipal Council member from Puerto Príncipe explains it like this: “It isn’t only the suffering over the loss of their properties. They also have psychological problems because, how are you going to sleep if you’re thinking that in a number of days you could be expropriated? How are you going to eat well if you’re thinking you’re going to leave this place? The peasants aren’t farming, they’re not cultivating their land because they say ‘This area’s going to be expropriated.’ And where will we go?”
The anxiety only worsened with the aerial study done along the canal route, which started in December 2015 and continued until March 2016. It consisted of flights only about fifty meters above the roofs of the houses of many communities located along what would be the canal route. These flights provoked fear in the families because they were reminded of the war years of the 1980s. Those territories were war scenes back then and it’s impossible to not remember the military overflights.
The uncertainty in the zones we visited has caused families to hastily sell their lands and migrate from communities in Nueva Guinea to other areas of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Repression and obstacles against peasant protest
As of the end of 2016 there have been more than eighty peasant marches rejecting the canal project, four of them national, of which two were in Managua, one in Juigalpa and another in Nueva Guinea. That makes this a massive autonomously developed social movement, unheard of in the country.
In 2014 the peasants opposing the project decided to organize the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, which brings together a representation of the affected populations, has local leaders from all along the canal route and leads the protest marches. The Council collected 27,000 signatures to present a citizens’ initiative to the National Assembly demanding that it repeal the canal’s concession law. The majority of the governing party’s legislative representatives dismissed the initiative out of hand.
The government’s repressive response to the peasant movement has been constant, with threats to and harassment of leaders opposing the project. They have also placed various obstacles in the path of almost all the marches: intimidating the drivers of the vehicles transporting the demonstrators and sabotaging their circulation. The government has used police, military and paramilitary forces to repress and impede them during the mobilizations, resulting in arrests and injuries. Most outstanding was the repression of and obstacles against the national marches that came to Managua in October 2014 and February 2015.
“Kicked until I lost consciousness”
The bloodiest of the military repressions took place in Rivas and El Tule in December 2014, with many people wounded, beaten and detained. Manuel Trinidad Avilés tried to persuade the police not to attack them: “They called me a criminal and beat me on my back and neck with their police clubs. I fell to the ground and they started kicking me. They shot rubber bullets and two hit my left leg. They continued clubbing and kicking until I lost consciousness, my eyes and face were swollen from so many blows. I couldn’t even open my eyes; I could only hear. They dragged me onto the bus, where I got dizzy and fainted again until I regained consciousness in the hospital of San Miguelito then two police took me to jail. There they questioned me: Who economically helps you from Managua? Which legislators are visiting you from Managua? Who brings you all the cows for food? They wanted names and since I had no answers they sent me to Managua, where they asked me the same questions and took my picture and my fingerprints.”
In the focus groups we collected the testimonies of two detained women from Tolesmaida. Rutbelia del Socorro Tijerino González narrated this: “The anti-riot police surrounded us, grabbed us and threw us into the pick-ups like animals. They treated us with foul words. They’d say to us: ‘You old sluts, don’t you have anything to do at home? Don’t you have children?’ And we’d answer that we were here fighting for our children because we didn’t want them to be left out on the streets. When we got to Rivas, they beat us on the head and legs with their clubs again. They took our bags and brought us to Managua. They had me face down in the back of the truck for the trip and since there was leftover rotten food on the floor, they made me eat it. They put us in El Chipote prison, calling us ‘new meat.’ They interrogated us several times, asking why we were in the protest, who was paying us and who was the leader of the group.”
“I was in jail for three days in Managua”
This is the testimony of Sonia López, imprisoned the same day: “On December 23, at 6 in the evening, six anti-riot police came down on us together with police from the Sandinista Youth, whom I recognized. They said to us: ‘Bitches, old sluts, this is last time you’ll say No Canal, out with the Chinese!’ We took off running and hid in a house where my mother-in-law, husband and I were staying. They pulled us out of there. One police officer grabbed me by the hair, threw me on the ground, dragged me, put his boot on my spine and said to me: ‘You stay quiet there, or I’ll put a bullet in you.’ They took me to the police station in Rivas. There the police hit me in the head and legs with their clubs and in my back with their fists.
“They put me in jail and took away all my belongings, which they never gave back, and forced me to take all my clothes off. They put me in a women’s cell where we stood with water up to our knees. They took us out to a pick-up and when they put me in back they dumped a bucket of water and garbage on me. My 60-year-old mother-in-law was in the vehicle, also arrested. They threw her and another man on top of me.... I arrived at El Chipote in Managua unable to breathe because everyone was on top of me. They were beating those of us in the pick-up, they’d stomp on our fingers with their boots. In El Chipote they interrogated me I don’t know how many times. I was there three days with no communication with my family, much less with a lawyer.”
“We’re fed up with them”
In some of the territories, the government has searched for information about the properties more cagily, through medical brigades accompanied by soldiers, public school teachers and individuals pressuring to buy the properties.
Daily life in the communities is plagued. Jeronimo Espinoza, inhabitant of Puerto Príncipe in Nueva Guinea, gave us his testimony: “We peasants are fed up with them. They say they’re concerned about giving us health care and send groups of doctors to offer assistance, but it’s only to get our signatures for the canal. It would be better if they just sent supplies to our Health Centers where a lot of peasants come and leave just as bad off as they came or simply are given acetaminophen because there are no medicines.”
In the focus groups we collected testimonies about the presence of soldiers in their communities, on their farms, in the schools... Facundo Jarquin García, from the Esperancita Numero Uno community in Nueva Guinea, relates: “When the Chinese came to do their studies, they came to my property La Ceibita, accompanied by a lot of soldiers. They had been on the property of another family before. I was planting cassava and they came in without permission. One of them told me they were doing studies and that I had to give them some space and let them stay on my farm. I said no because the place was small and it was where I moved my animals after I brought them in from the pastures. They answered that it was the ideal place. With all that pressure, I could do nothing but allow them because I was afraid they’d shoot me. There were about 20 soldiers and police and they stayed for eight to twelve days. This happened again three months later. While the soldiers were on my property they destroyed fences and crops. They walked all over the place and destroyed everything, including the cassava and other crops I had planted.”
“There are militarized communities”
This story is from Medardo Mairena of Punta Gorda, South Caribbean, who’s on the board of the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty: “There are five militarized communities in this zone: Las Flores, El Pejibaye, Flores Uno, Dos and Tres and another community called El Guineo. The children in these communities are afraid to go to school because every day they see soldiers everywhere. They are afraid something might happen to them, and there are no teachers to teach classes in those five schools because the children aren’t going to school. We hold the government accountable for those children’s education and what could happen.
“In El Guineo the soldiers are on private properties. They arrived and took over a shed from a farmer who had complained. All the neighboring houses are being affected. There’s a helicopter that comes almost every day. I don’t know why it comes, but when it lands nobody is allowed to go past and that affects everyone because it’s the only way across. They point an AK at whoever goes by. There’s a lot of fear among the peasants, but also indignation and we don’t know what could happen to those who feel that.... The people tell the soldiers: ‘We don’t need you here, we’re not used to living with you, you threaten us and don’t protect us.’ There’s also a group of soldiers in another place in Punta Gorda called Agua Zarca. We wonder what all these soldiers are doing here. We peasants have no need for the army in our community.”
“We feel oppressed”
The abuses committed by the soldiers cause resentment among the peasants. This is what Moisés Chavarría from Puerto Principe told us: “As a peasant I feel oppressed, with no freedom of expression. We’re oppressed by that small plane that flies over us. We get phone calls where they threaten us; we have the army and police intimidating us. In addition, when we want to go someplace they won’t let us through. One time they denied us the right to meet with our indigenous brothers with whom we eat and share...”
He was referring to a meeting the peasants were going to have with a Rama community. Medardo Mairena told us more: “We were going to have a forum with Rama brothers in Barra de Punta Gorda. But they didn’t let us go, they put up obstacles so we couldn’t pass. So the Ramas came to meet us, wanting to take us there. What did they do to them? They seized their canoe and sent them back walking. They said to them: ‘If you want to go back, go ahead, but you will not pass through here.’ We had to make another great sacrifice. On another occasion we had to walk 15 hours to get there because they wouldn’t let us cross through there.”
Through information from the Council we heard about military presence in three places on the island of Ometepe, two places in Rivas, on a base in San Miguelito where there’s up to a hundred soldiers and other bases in Nueva Guinea.
In September 2014, the government officially acknowledged the work of the police and army accompanying the project’s “experts” to guarantee their safety and integrity. Around those same dates they reported that the Russian government had offered to provide “safety and protection during the canal’s construction process.”
Why these peasants are fighting back
Even in the face of so many obstacles, repression and threats, the peasant movement is continuing to fight to defend not only their own lands, but also Lake Cocibolca, a strategic fresh water reserve for Nicaragua and all of Central America, and the national sovereignty of the country where they were born. During the field trip, we heard all the following motivations from those participating in this exemplary struggle:
– “What I have has cost me a lot, it’s my children’s inheritance, it’s how I make a living. I would give my life up to defend it.”
– “It’s in defense of the water and natural resources.”
– “It’s in defense of our culture.”
– “It’s for my right to not be anyone’s slave.”
– “It’s for my right to have my own land, to be independent, to not work for anyone.”
– “This is Sandino’s same struggle for sovereignty.”
– “It’s to defend what belongs to my children.”
– “It’s against persecution and repression from the police for defending what’s mine.”
– “The lack of information, the secrecy, the lies to us peasants is what moves me.”
– “I suffered displacement and limitations in the 1980s and I don’t want my children to suffer the same.”
– “I don’t want my family to have to live in other people’s homes.”
– “I want each person and each child to grow up in their own space and not have to go to live without dignity in a resettlement camp.”
– “I don’t accept them grabbing our properties.”
– “My daughter tells me to fight for what is ours, she asks me where we’re going to go, where our animals are going to go.”
– “I’m fighting for the right for our dead to rest in peace because, with the canal, cemeteries will disappear.”
– “I’m fighting against this because I was born here and I want to die here.”
– “I’m in this because they didn’t consult me, because they treated us worse than animals, as if we weren’t human. But we’re all equal.”
– “That law places all of us in danger because they say they can expropriate any part of the territory. That law gives them, the Chinese, the right to do whatever they want.”
– “Two things motivate me to fight: because the law is unpatriotic and because it takes away our rights to property, to live free and to be bosses not workers.”
– “This is a just struggle.”
– “This isn’t only for the defense of our farms: it’s for the defense of sovereignty because we don’t want this country divided in two. We don’t want to have to pay to cross a bridge from one side to the other. We want a united, indissoluble, country as stated in the Constitution.”
Extracts from CENIDH’s contributions to the investigation: “Concesión del Canal Interoceánico en Nicaragua: Grave Impacto en los Derechos Humanos, Comunidades Campesinas Movilizadas Resisten” (Interoceanic Canal Concession in Nicaragua: Serious Impact on Human Rights. Mobilized Peasant Communities Resist), published by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), particularly from chapter 4, “Criminalization of social protest, population harassment and militarization of communities along the project route.”