In one sense, it doesn’t matter if the potentially environmentally catastrophic 173-mile Nicaragua Grand Canal goes ahead or not. The dubious constitutionality of the law enabling its construction and its adverse impacts on Nicaraguans’ human rights are already being felt, irrespective of whether or not the delayed US$50 billion mega-project materialises.
That is the message Mónica López Baltodano, director of Nicaraguan NGO Fundación Popol Na, gave Diálogo Chino in an interview at the organisation’s office in the capital Managua.
“People say; ‘there’s not even a canal, so what are you fighting for?’” López Baltodano explains. Her response is that the very existence of the canal law (known as Law 840) means the government can legally stifle the right to challenge the project and expropriate land for it.
As a direct consequence of Law 840, 119,000 people living along the canal route face uncertainty, harassment and intimidation from the government, police and army. From the outset, the government came accompanied by security forces “armed to the teeth”, as López Baltodano says, to carry out a census of rural communities affected by the canal’s construction. It has since denied them a meaningful consultation on its impacts, she adds.
There has been media focus on the canal’s lack of progress. However, López Baltodano says this fails to capture the main issue; that rights have been eroded since the project was announced in 2013.
That year, the Nicaraguan government fast-tracked Law 840, granting Chinese telecoms impresario Wang Jing exclusive rights to build and operate the canal, potentially for over 100 years. From then on, López Baltodano –along with other human rights defenders- has exhaustively documented subsequent rights violations of Nicaraguan citizens.
To mark the fourth anniversary of the canal concession, in June this year López Baltodano released a book entitled “Handing over a country: Legal implications of the Nicaragua Canal concession”. She describes the book as a compendium of legal documents, a register of marches (the 91st took place on August 15), petitions (an online “Salva la Selva” petition garnered over 80,000 signatures) and media reports relating to the canal. It also records the intransigence with which she claims the government has met the anti-canal campaign.
“There’s not even a possibility of access to justice [in Nicaragua],” Lopez Baltodano says, recalling the obstacles the joint campaign with rural community organisation the National Council for the Defense of our Land, Lake and Sovereignty, has faced trying to get the canal law repealed. Denied an audience at home, campaigners announced on July 26 that they would take the case to the supranational Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica capital San José, as the IACHR has the power to order national governments that have submitted to its jurisdiction (as Nicaragua has) to comply with its rulings.
But there have been IACHR rulings against Nicaragua before, and they have not always been respected. In 2001, the regional court ordered the Nicaraguan government (then led by the liberal president Arnoldo Alemán) to legally recognise the Awas Tigni indigenous group’s right to ancestral territory, upon which settlers from elsewhere in Nicaragua had unlawfully encroached. The ruling was reflected in national Law 445 but it has yet to be fully implemented, meaning many indigenous groups across Nicaragua still have their territorial integrity violated.
Given this precedent and the lack of due process afforded Nicaraguans, isn’t López Baltodano concerned the government would neglect to comply with any IACHR ruling? And in this instance, what would happen?
“Yes, it’s a possibility. But just because there is no institutionalism, it does not mean citizens should not demand it,” López Baltodano replies. She explains that the point of her book, and its strategy to get Law 840 repealed, is two-fold: Firstly, the process of recording aggressions, campaigning, petitioning and the legal initiative means the government cannot later deny that rural communities and human rights defenders have tried to assert their rights through appropriate channels; secondly, it serves as an organising tool. The campaign has raised communities’ awareness of their rights and has given huge momentum to social movements.
“This was supposed to be the government’s stellar project but it has become its Achilles heel,” Lopez Baltodano says of the canal; “it has generated a social force with a huge reach.”
As a result, the new demands of this movement, though still relatively small in number, present a challenge to the status quo. Normally, political parties co-opt social movements then do little to advance their agendas, López Baltodano says. This is true of ruling party the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and other smaller parties that provide little effective opposition, she adds.
López Baltodano says their legal actions and social movements have been “very significant” in halting the canal. But she fears the measures the alliance of strong business interests and a politically wounded government will enact towards canal opponents.
In Nicaragua, there is faith in the country’s security apparatus after the 1980s Sandinista revolutionary government reformed its role following the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. As such, the country is nowhere near as dangerous for land and environmental rights activists as neighbouring Honduras, where they have been killed in record numbers. Nevertheless, the right to peaceful protest and a proper consultation on the impacts of projects are in jeopardy following the “extremely fast” and “opaque” approval of the canal law, as a new Amnesty International report also identified.
A letter to UK newspaper the Guardian argued that the Amnesty International report did not take into account surveys indicating that opponents of the canal are a minority. It also argued that the history of foreign control over Nicaragua’s economy and high levels of poverty mean that most of its citizens and trade unions believe it would generate local employment and much-needed benefits.
In Nicaragua, the government controls large parts of the media and this could play a part in shaping public opinion. López Baltodano says this is a problem and that transmitting information contesting the government line is difficult, especially in communities with limited internet access or mobile phone signal, such as those affected by the canal. Nevertheless, independent media and social networks have played a relevant role in the effort to overcome this communication barrier, she says.
López Baltodano disagrees with foreign powers interfering in national affairs. But she says anti-imperialist rhetoric in Nicaragua, understandably more common since the US supported Contra counterinsurgency against the Sandinistas in the 1980s, is now used to justify the canal. According to some sections of the left, investment from Russia or China is preferable as it represents counterweight to US power.
Nicaragua does not currently have diplomatic relations with China. However, Central American countries including Costa Rica (2006) and Panama (June 2017), have established formal diplomatic ties, paving the way for a more comprehensive trade and investment relationship.
Though the government frequently takes aim at the US, which recently advanced the process of sanctioning Nicaragua for supporting Nicolás Maduro’s troubled regime in Venezuela, it is not always the focus of a perceived threat to sovereignty.
Since the canal announcement, “people say ‘Chinese out!’ just as they used to say ‘Gringos out!’” Lopez Baltodano says. Regardless of any perception of predatory economic interests, Lopez Baltodano agrees that some of the infrastructure associated with the canal, such as the proposed deep-water port at the Caribbean town of Brito, might benefit the country economically provided they are done with a completely different legal agreement. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
But the point, López Baltodano argues, is that all projects should be assessed on their own merits. They should not be approved sweepingly and without proper consultations nor without independent social, economic, and environmental feasibility studies. For this to happen, the canal law must be repealed, the government must hold proper bidding processes for each project (Wang Jing was the only bidder for the canal concession), carry out impact studies and apply relevant laws.
López Baltodano admits that maintaining the international legal challenge to the canal law is a huge task: “We’ve opened up a box and it requires tremendous documentation throughout a wide extension of Nicaraguan territory. We don’t have the means for it,” she concedes. Despite some fatigue, she remains motivated: “Everyone who’s been part of this movement, and I mean rural communities too, realises that they’re part of something really important.” She adds that previously divided sections of society such as black and mestizo groups, or those from the country and the city, have united behind the campaign:
“We’re part of a national awakening. This is going to have an impact on the country we can’t yet measure”.