Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

Indigenous and Afro-Caribbeans say Nicaragua coercing them on canal

Rama-Kriol leaders green light next steps toward consent, but some community leaders say it's under government pressure

Leaders of Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities say government officials are pressuring them to sign a document consenting to the proposed $50 billion Nicaragua Canal passing through their autonomous territory.

Dr. María Luisa Acosta, an attorney for the Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI) who has represented indigenous communities in Nicaragua for the past two decades, said she received a call from Rama-Kriol leaders Rupert Allen Clair Duncan and Santiago Thomas on Saturday.

“They said the government is pressuring them to sign papers and to give up the territory, and they don’t want to,” said Acosta. “But they feel a lot of pressure and they have told them in many ways, ‘We don’t want this. We need a lawyer. We need to know more and we cannot do this this way. We need somebody independent to oversee this process.’ And [the government representatives] just said, ‘Don’t worry — just sign.’”

“It’s a lot of psychological pressure,” she added.

The Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K), the ruling authority over the six Rama (indigenous) and three Kriol (Afro-Caribbean) communities that make up the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) of southeastern Nicaragua, released a statement on Sunday denouncing the pressure, and calling on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to “stop this violation of human rights and constitutional guarantees that the [officials] seek to commit.”

The canal megaproject has been mired in controversy since its beginning, with opponents marking it as a new era of colonialism in Latin America.

In 2013, Chinese telecom billionaire Wang Jing and his HKND Group holding company were granted a 50-year concession — renewable for an additional 50 years — to build and operate the canal. Opponents say the no-bid concession, fast-tracked through the National Assembly in a day, with no public debate, violates Nicaragua’s Constitution as well as international environmental treaties.

With media reports in October of Wang’s plummeting wealth, the feasibility of the ambitious project has been thrown further in question. In late November, HKND announced that construction for the project was on hold until the end of 2016.

With no indication of construction returning anytime soon, it is unclear why the Rama-Kriol people would be pressured to consent at this moment.

The three officials mentioned by name in the statement released Sunday are Michael Campbell of ProNicaribe; Danilo Chang, spokesperson for the Grand Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua megaproject in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS); and Rubén López, chief executive of the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region.

The Rama-Kriol territory consists of more than 1,500 square miles of land and an additional 1,700 square miles of sea territory, as well as 22 keys, or low-lying islands.

The title of full control for their traditional land was transferred by the State of Nicaragua to the nine communities of the Rama-Kriol Territory in a ceremony involving President Daniel Ortega in July 2010. 

In defending their autonomy, the Rama-Kriol and their legal advocates point to Art. 24 of Law 445, in which “the State recognizes the right that indigenous and ethnic communities have over the lands they traditionally occupy … and recognizes and guarantees their inalienability, unseizability, and imprescriptibility.”

In order to dredge the canal through their territory, the Nicaragua government must receive “free, prior and informed” consent from the indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities affected.

The GTR-K have requested legal assistance and an independent international observer to supervise the consent process. They have also asked to see the full documentation from the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of the proposed canal.

According to the GTR-K's statement, “the officials tell them that the lawyer is not necessary and that they will explain the ESIA and send the agreement to the UN once it has been signed, all while continuing to pressure them to sign it.”

‘They said the government is pressuring them to sign papers and to give up the territory and they don’t want to.’

María Luisa Acosta

Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples

Each of the nine Rama-Kriol communities have a seven-member directive board that is democratically elected by the community. For more than a year residents of the Rama-Kriol Territory have spoken of the Nicaragua government creating “parallel governments” that challenge the authority of their local leaders.

The two communities that would be most directly affected by the canal project and its subprojects are Bangkukuk Taik and Monkey Point.

Al Jazeera America visited the Rama village of Bangkukuk Taik, the proposed site for a 5.4-square-mile deepwater port, in February 2015. At that time, apprehension among residents was high.

In December, Carlos Wilson Billis was ousted as president of the Rama community of Bangkukuk Taik, the proposed site for a massive deepwater port for the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal. His supporters say it was because he opposes the canal.
Alex Garcia for Al Jazeera America

“It have me worried what the government trying to do to us, to Indian, Rama people,” said Bangkukuk President Carlos Wilson Billis, speaking in the Creole English characteristic of the Miskito Coast. “I’m going to fight it till the last as president.”

But that fight got more difficult in recent months.

Wilson filed a complaint on December 14 alleging that government officials had certified and attempted to install a new president of Bangkukuk, although his term is not up until March 2017.

Acosta said she believes community leaders and members are also being bribed with gasoline and cash to support the canal and pro-canal leaders.

Michael Campbell, of ProNicaribe, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls or emails requesting comment by time of publication.

However, at a government-run panel discussion on autonomy held in Bluefields, the RACS capital, in May 2015, Campbell expressed his concern that “excessive democracy” could deter much-needed investment in the region.

“Communal property is administrated by, and is a sovereign area of, the indigenous and Afro-descendant territories and their communities. There, what we have to guarantee is that efficient processes of free, prior and informed consultation are organized when it comes to private investment, or investment that comes from outside the indigenous and Afro-descendant territories. The processes have to be efficient,” he said. “We cannot have excessive democracy that ends up scaring away investment.”

According to an article in La Prensa newspaper on Monday, Clair, the Monkey Point president and GTR-K member, described what he viewed as intimidation tactics that had occurred over the weekend.

“[T]hey did not allow us to use a legal counselor to review the document in question, and during the three days, they just kept us enclosed, and today (January 10) they even brought policemen to watch the door and keep anyone from entering or exiting the building. They also took us from the territorial government building and placed us in a national government building to be able to control us,” he said.

Clair also told La Prensa that the government had verbally offered $1 million a year for the permanent lease of the autonomous lands that would be required for the canal and its subprojects, but it was not clear who stated that number.

When reached by telephone on Monday afternoon, Clair said he and Wilson are among just 21 or 22 members of the 63-person communal governments who continue to oppose the strongarm tactics and financial bribes of the Sandinista government. 

“I think we need to move quickly and go to the community and make sure them understand what going on, get them feedback,” he said. “This fight is not like before. Before option was we take time, we go to court. And now this government come with stronger way, we need to do something quickly, quickly.”

The GTR-K released a second statement on Monday evening accusing Clair, Thomas and Acosta of making unauthorized and false statements on behalf of the GTR-K regarding the consent process.

Johnny Hodgson, a Sandinista party secretary and the president's delegate to the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS), was adamant that the consent process has been fair and transparent, stressing that the consultations started back in January 2015.

“There has been no pressure from the government to the Ramas,” he said.

Responding to a followup question over email about the alleged bribes, Hodgson stated, “There is no one that can say they got money or was offered money to vote in favor of the consent.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that only an executive summary of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) has been made public. The full report can be found on the HKND Group website.

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