Resistance to Dispossession

by Tania Paz, AIDA

"How do I explain do my son that to be a landowner will soon mean to be an employee?" asked a woman who may soon lose her land because of the proposed Nicaraguan Interoceanic Grand Canal. Her question resounds in my head each time I hear news of the canal's construction.

There is nothing more valuable than a piece of land to cultivate, land you’ve dreamed of your whole life, land that your children will some day inherit, land that makes the early mornings and long days working under the hot sun worth it.

People throughout Nicaragua have said "no" to the proposed canal. They have decided to fight because they're not willing to lose their dreams for nothing more than the promise of a job.

A Controversial Canal
The proposed canal will cross Lake Nicaragua, or Cocibolca, the second largest lake in Latin America. It will cut the country in two to connect the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. At 278 kilometers, it will be three times larger than the Panama Canal.

The project's estimated cost is 50 billion dollars. More than just the canal, it will include other megaprojects: an airport, highways, a free trade zone, resorts and two ports—one on the Pacific and the other on the Caribbean.

The magnitude of the project will be reflected in the negative impacts it will cause.

Canal construction will directly affect 119,000 people in 13 municipalities, according to Mónica López Baltodano of Fundación Popol Na. She presented this information at a special hearing on March 16, 2015 before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The hearing was requested by 10 organizations from Nicaragua and the multi-national Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).

"Our greatest worry is that the exact number of citizens who will undergo a process of expropriation [those who will be displaced from their land] remains a state secret, and there are no plans for relocation or the restoration of living conditions," López explained.

Azahelea Solís of the Citizens' Union for Democracy (UCD) added that granting licenses for the project "violates the Constitution of the Republic, various national laws, and more than 10 international environmental treaties signed by Nicaragua." In addition, the canal was approved in the absence of an environmental impact assessment.

The concession was granted to a single company: the Chinese consortium HKND. In the hearing, Louis Carlos Buob of CEJIL explained that the consortium has exclusive rights to "development" and "operation" of the canal, potentially for at least 116 years. The concession gives them "unrestricted rights over natural resources like land, forests, islands, air, surface and groundwater, maritime space and additional resources that could be considered relevant anywhere in the country."

The damage to these natural resources is precisely the most worrying thing about the canal. Its construction will impact Lake Cocibolca, the most important fresh water source in Central America. It also "threatens sensitive marine ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea belonging to Colombia and divides in two the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a loose network of reserves and other land that stretches from the south of Mexico to Panama, which animals such as the jaguar use to cross Central America."

Community Resistance
Those affected by the expropriations have formed the National Council for the Defense of our Lands, Lake and Sovereignty. Through this united front they have expressed their total opposition to the project and have stated that they will not sell their lands for the canal’s construction.

According to the page Nicaragua sin heridas, a citizen's initiative to disclose information on the project, there have been 41 protests against the project, in which 113,500 people have mobilized across 25 territories in just five months.

The community of El Tule, in the department of Rio San Juan, has become an emblem of the anti-canal fight. The citizens there who will be affected by the project have held marches and rallies. On December 24, they were victims of repression at the hands of the National Police—the crowd was beaten and 33 people, including leaders of the movement, were imprisoned for their protest. In Tule there was no Holy Night, and no Merry Christmas.

A Disastrous Trend
Sadly, the Nicaragua Canal is just one of many projects that gravely affect human rights and the environment in Latin America. In the last 20 years, more than 250 million people have been displaced in the name of "development" for megaprojects, such as dams, or extractive activities, such as mining. [According to a study by the International Network for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, PDF.]

In October 2014, alongside partner organizations, AIDA called Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s attention to forced displacement caused by the inadequate implementation of mining and energy projects in Colombia. On that occasion, we asked the Commission to develop standards on displacement by megaprojects and urged the Colombian government to properly care for the victims.

Megaprojects not only cause forced displacement, but also violate other human rights ranging from the loss of ways of life to the criminalization of social protest, as occurred in El Tule.

In Mexico, the Miguel Augustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights published the report Han Destruido la Vida en Este Lugar (They've Destroyed Life in This Place, 2010), which documents the damage caused by megaprojects and by the exploitation of natural resources. According to the report, in addition to forced displacement, these projects cause harm to ways of life and broken cultural ties. I would add that displacements break community social networks, vital to the exercise of rights.

Left with Questions
What will happen to those whose land is expropriated by the Nicaragua Canal? Are they condemned to be displaced and see their dream of landownership destroyed? Who will guarantee respect for their human rights? In what way can Nicaraguan civil society and those unaffected by the project help them?

Today the canal threatens to become a reality for one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with a recent history of dictatorship and civil war, that is each day more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. How do I explain do my son that to be a landowner will soon mean to be an employee? I still have no answer.


Tania Paz works with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) in the areas of administration and communications out of our Mexico City office. A Nicaraguan, she has a degree in business administration from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), Managua and is studying a Master’s in Public Policy at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico. She has experience in research, community service, rural development, and advocacy and municipalism in public policy. She has been part of the AIDA team since October 2011.

This story first ran May 25 on AIDA.

Photo: A view of Concepción Volcano from Lake Nicaragua. Credit: Ary Chst, Flickr

From our Daily Report:

Nicaragua: protests as canal construction begins
World War 4 Report, Dec. 29, 2014

See also:

by Diego Cupolo, Upside Down World
World War 4 Report, June 2014

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 6, 2015