The cost of "development": "The government sees Nicaragua as their estate and us as their animals"

By Josefina Salomon

When Francisca Ramirez saw a group of Chinese businessmen walking by her home in Nueva Guinea, a small village 400 kilometres east of Managua, guarded by local police officers and carrying measuring devices, she immediately knew something was terribly wrong.

A few months earlier, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had announced the start of a new grandiose project that he claimed would lift the country out of poverty. The Grand Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua is one of the most ambitious engineering projects in history. Spanning approximately 275 kilometres will connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and divide the country in two.

Francisca and her neighbours found out about the project when they saw the president talking about it on television. She says no one asked them what they had to say about it, which is surprising considering it would effectively leave them homeless.

Hills near the region of La Fonseca in Nicaragua Hills near the region of La Fonseca in Nicaragua
Amnesty International/Tom Laffay

“What are you doing here?” Francisca remembers asking the men.

“This land is no longer yours,” she says the men responded.

And just like that, a new obscure chapter opened for the community.

President Ortega has sold the venture as a sure way to lift the nation out of poverty. With nearly 30% of people living on less than two dollars a day, Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America.

He has promised that the Canal will create thousands of jobs and attract foreign investment – the Hong Kong based HK-Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Limited is already set to foot a large portion of the 50 billion dollar bill the construction will require.

But a look at the fine print suggests these shiny promises will quickly turn into something a lot more sinister.

Fisherman's load goods on a boat in Puerto Príncipe, Nicaragua Fisherman's load goods on a boat in Puerto Príncipe, Nicaragua
Amnesty International/Tom Laffay

The construction of the Canal was approved through Law 840, passed by the Nicaraguan Congress on 13 June 2013. The law also allows for a dozen related sub-projects, including an airport, two ports, a pipeline, a railroad track, and two free trade areas.

But, as an Amnesty International report recently pointed out, the new law, passed despite the lack of consultation with local communities, effectively opens the door to all manner of future projects without the need to ask those living in the affected areas for their opinion.

In practice, the law means nearly 120,000 people are at risk of losing it all. Their land, their homes and their livelihoods. Nicaragua has a population of almost six million.

The environmental cost of the project could also be devastating, with kilometres of fertile land and a large portion of the Great Lake of Nicaragua, the largest source of fresh water in Central America, likely irreversibly damaged.

Protest against Law 840 and the negative impacts of the Nicaraguan Canal project Protest against Law 840 and the negative impacts of the Nicaraguan Canal project
Amnesty International/Tom Laffay

“Taking away our land is like killing us”

Francisca never thought she would ever be a human rights activist. Born to a family of campesinos, she has dedicated her life to working her land and selling her produce in local markets.

But she now lives with the frightening prospect of losing the home she built for her four children and the land that provides their subsistence.

“I have worked the land since I was 12 years old, I do not know how to do anything else,” said Francisca, passion in her voice, as we talk in Managua.

Francisca’s community, La Fonseca, sits in the middle of one of the most fertile areas of Nicaragua. Around 2,000 people live there, nearly half of whom are children. They produce beans, Malanga (a type of sweet potato), corn, wheat and cheese.

Since we found out about the construction of the Canal, life has become unbearable. Our lives depend on the land. Taking our land away is like taking our lives away
Francisca Ramírez, Indigenous Leader

“Since we found out about the construction of the Canal, life has become unbearable. Our lives depend on the land. Taking our land away is like taking our lives away,” Francisca said.

So she decided to fight back. Francisca now dedicates her every waking hour to fighting the most powerful economic and political interests in her country. She was not prepared to give up everything she had spent her life building.  

“We started talking amongst a small group of us and then we started to organize ourselves. We started to take to the streets to protest because they do not respect our rights, they do not consult us. The only thing they tell us is that we are going to be evicted,” Francisca said.

We started to take to the streets to protest because they do not respect our rights, they do not consult us. The only thing they tell us is that we are going to be evicted
Francisca Ramírez, Indigenous Leader

But her campaign did not sit well with the authorities, who see Francisca and her community as a threat.

Community leaders and human rights defenders like Francisca who are vocal about their opposition to the Canal have been threatened and harassed.

Those who had dared to take part in any of the more than 90 demonstrations organized across Nicaragua have been brutally repressed.

Francisca Ramirez visiting the cemetery in La Fonseca, Nicaragua Francisca Ramirez visiting the cemetery in La Fonseca, Nicaragua
Amnesty International/Tom Laffay

Francisca herself has suffered a number of attacks. In 2015 she was arrested, and then again a year later. She has been threatened and harassed more times than she can remember.

“Since 2013, when the law came out, we have been persecuted, attacked, our rights have been violated. It is a very sad story. We have been demanding justice for four years and for four years no one has listened to us,” Francisca said.

“A project that violates people’s rights and that does not take into account what people think cannot be a development project. What kind of future can we have if they do not take our lives into account? The government is toying with our lives.”

A project that violates people’s rights and that does not take into account what people think cannot be a development project. What kind of future can we have if they do not take our lives into account? The government is toying with our lives
Francisca Ramírez, Indigenous Leader

“The government has not offered us an alternative. We have done everything possible to try to get them to listen but they don’t. This government is blind, deaf and dumb to everything, they do not see our reality.”

This is a very tough fight. “How do you do it?” I asked.

“I keep going because giving up the fight would mean starting to die,” Francisca said as she picked up a call from home. Her phone never stops ringing.

Francisca Ramírez portrait Francisca Ramírez portrait
Amnesty International/Tom Laffay