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On a Sunday morning on the Nicaraguan island of Rama Cay, Becky McCray visits with her family in her parents’ home over a breakfast of beans, coconut rice, coconut bread, and thick coffee, with the grounds still swimming in the bottom of the cup. The food was prepared over an open fire in a wall-less kitchen building; the aroma of coffee mingles with the wood smoke and the salty sea breeze.
Like other traditional homes built by the Rama, Nicaragua’s smallest indigenous group, McCray’s parents’ wooden home sits on stilts. The planks of the floor and walls are fitted together loosely, so you can see chickens scratching underneath from inside. The roof is made of thatched palm leaves and the windows are square holes, with solid wood shutters to close out violent evening winds.
Ten of McCray’s 11 adult siblings still live on Rama Cay, a 22-hectare island that rises from the water like a set of oversized goggles about a kilometer and a half off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. The island is home to roughly half of the Rama’s 2,000 or so community members; McCray and another sister traveled from Bluefields, the closest city, 20 minutes by motorboat up the coast. Some of their children, aged two through 11, race through the house. The family members joke with one another in Rama English (also known as Rama Cay Kriol), the native language for most members of the Rama community. This English creole is incomprehensible to speakers of standard English.
One brother talks about his upcoming fishing trip—he’ll fish from a traditional wooden dory on the open ocean and sell his catch on the mainland. Fishing is his primary source of income, as is common for Rama men. Elsewhere on the island, both men and women are preparing their canoes for a trip inland to plant corn, beans, and breadfruit in their farmland.
Unlike most Rama, Becky McCray has a college degree and speaks fluent Spanish. In between laughing with her siblings and nephews, she discusses her work as a legal defender for indigenous communities in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region. Recently, most of her personal and professional energy has been focused on protecting the Rama’s territory from being bisected by an interoceanic canal.
“Where they are going to put the canal is where our people go to fish. They survive by that,” she says.
The Rama’s territory, along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, stretches roughly from the Costa Rican border north to just south of Bluefields. Their territory is shared with the Kriols, descendants of Africans who adopted the Rama way of life centuries ago. The Rama-Kriols hold a communal title not only to the nine settlements where community members live, but also to the 4,843-square-kilometer territory where they fish, hunt, and farm. If current construction plans for the canal go ahead, that territory will be severed in two. The massive Nicaragua Canal planned by a secretive Chinese billionaire, Wang Jing, and managed by his company, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND), will stretch from the Pacific coast, across Lake Nicaragua, to the Caribbean coast and is destined to wipe at least one Rama village off the map. It will also make travel between the northern and southern parts of the territory impossible, at least as the Rama travel now, in small motorboats and wooden canoes. The Rama’s fishing grounds will no longer be safe in the path of 400-meter-long megaships approaching the canal. Rama farming techniques involve elaborate field rotation and substantial travel to reach the fields; the canal will both reduce the available farmland and render much of it inaccessible.
Although the Rama community is among the least powerful groups in Nicaragua, an international court case currently underway gives them and other canal opponents a glimmer of hope.
Nowhere is concern about the canal more acute than the village of Bangkukuk Taik, about two to three hours south of Rama Cay by motorboat over the open ocean. The isolated village is home to about 140 people, including 15 or so who still speak Rama, an indigenous language in the Chibchan family related to languages spoken as far south as Colombia. Bangkukuk Taik is among the most isolated of the nine villages in the Rama-Kriol territory and is the only place where there are regular classes in Rama for children. The Rama in Bangkukuk Taik have the deepest knowledge of traditional farming, hunting, and medicine, like how to hunt deer at night and how to collect iibu seeds and use the oil as a cough and headache medicine.
Under the current canal route, Bangkukuk Taik will become the canal’s Caribbean-side deep-water port and will be called Punta de Águila. (Bangkukuk Taik means “Eagle Point” in Rama; Punta de Águila has the same meaning in Spanish.) The wooden houses on stilts will—critics assume, based on the proposed port location—be destroyed and replaced by high-rises and port infrastructure. It’s hard to imagine people used to walking barefoot and hunting and fishing for their livelihood fitting into the slick, modern city represented in mock-ups of what the finished Punta de Águila will look like. The current residents of Bangkukuk Taik will be forced to move.
McCray has been trying to prevent that from happening for more than two years. The day before the canal concession law was adopted by the National Assembly, in June 2013, she and four other members of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government traveled from Bluefields to the capital, Managua. They hoped to testify against the law they feared would destroy the traditional way of life in the Rama territory.
Just as their bus to Managua was preparing to depart, three police officers boarded and demanded McCray and her companions gather their belongings and disembark. McCray insisted on seeing the police officers’ identification. They refused. After a tense 10-minute standoff, the group was allowed to go. The following day, McCray and her companions watched in dismay as the law was adopted. “We didn’t get a chance to say anything,” McCray remembers. “They didn’t respect us, they didn’t give us a chance to defend what we were claiming.”
Nicaraguan human rights lawyer Maria Luisa Acosta is McCray’s primary source of legal support and has represented the Rama in all of their legal challenges related to territory since the late 1990s. Acosta filed a legal challenge to the canal concession law on July 1, 2013, just weeks after it was approved. Like the 31 other legal challenges to the law—based on environmental factors, human rights, and national sovereignty—the Rama’s legal case was dismissed. The Supreme Court said the lawsuits were invalid because the law passed the National Assembly with a wide majority and because the major development project took precedence. (Acosta and other canal opponents think the challenges failed because Nicaragua’s Supreme Court is controlled by the ruling Sandinistas.)
According to both international and Nicaraguan law, indigenous people must give their “free, informed, and prior consent” to any project that will affect the community’s territory or way of life. According to Manuel Coronel Kautz, the president of Nicaragua’s Canal Authority, the National Assembly had documents from the Rama-Kriol government giving permission for the canal to be constructed prior to the vote that granted the concession—though he has not been able to produce those documents. Telemaco Talavera, the spokesperson for the Canal Commission, has similarly stated to the Nicaraguan press that the Canal Commission has all the necessary permission from the Rama-Kriol to carry out studies and other actions on their territory.
The Rama-Kriol government disagrees. In a press release just after Talavera’s announcement, it clarified that it had provided permission solely for environmental and social-impact studies. The first permit was granted in November 2013—several months after the concession was signed into law. The Rama-Kriol government claims that it yielded to pressure from the national government and only granted the permit after environmental consultants contracted by HKND and escorted by the military entered Rama territory, causing alarm within the communities.
Citing the government’s failure to obtain free, informed, and prior consent to use Rama-Kriol lands as part of the canal construction before passing the concession law, Acosta filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in June 2014. The following December, she asked the IACHR for precautionary measures, which would prevent work from proceeding on the canal until the Rama had been properly consulted. The IACHR is a part of the Organization of American States and hears complaints about human rights abuses from around the Americas.
In March, Acosta, McCray, and five other canal opponents traveled to Washington, DC, for the IACHR hearing. McCray represented the six indigenous groups whose territory is affected by the canal route; the others spoke about canal-related environmental impacts, police repression of protesters, and other human-rights violations. McCray was nervous as she read her remarks in Spanish. She cited three articles in the concession law that explicitly give the Canal Commission the right to expropriate indigenous land, and then she accused the government of violating international norms in the way it conducted community consultations, perhaps most blatantly by paying villagers—many of whom are illiterate—to come to the meetings. (Those villagers, Acosta claims, were then pressured into signing documents that they could not understand.)
Thomas Antkowiak, a law professor at Seattle University and a specialist in the Inter-American human-rights system, believes the Rama’s case against the canal is, under international and even Nicaraguan law, ironclad. But that doesn’t mean the IACHR will halt canal construction, which officially began in December 2014 on the Pacific coast, or order that the concession law be changed or overturned. Like other international organizations, the IACHR depends on its member states. In lower-profile cases, Antkowiak says, member states usually abide by the commission’s decisions. However, when international law conflicts with a high-profile project, it’s more complicated.
In the case of Belo Monte, a major hydroelectric dam in Brazil’s Amazon, indigenous leaders filed a complaint in front of the IACHR in 2010, and in 2011 the commission found in their favor, ordering the Brazilian government to stop all construction on the dam until the indigenous communities had been properly consulted. The Brazilian government announced that it would ignore the ruling and then broke off its relationship with both the commission and the Organization of American States. The IACHR subsequently backtracked, saying in a statement that the indigenous leaders’ complaints were not really about the lack of consultation but about whether or not the dam should be constructed at all. The commission removed its requirement that the government consult with the indigenous groups.
In the Nicaragua Canal case, the IACHR issued a summary of the March proceedings in late June, which included a confirmation that the commission had asked the Nicaraguan government for proof that they adequately consulted with the Rama and studied the environmental impacts. In Acosta’s view, this is a step in the right direction. “It’s the first time someone is demanding that the government provide information,” she says. “None of the [other] international organizations or regulators have done so yet.”
The deadline for Nicaragua to respond to the request is confidential and is released neither to the press nor to the petitioners. As of publication, neither the Nicaraguan representatives nor the IACHR will comment on where the case stands. When it’s issued, the actual reply from the Nicaraguan government—which the IACHR will base its recommendations on—will also be confidential. If the government fails to respond or ignores the recommendations, the commission can recommend that the case proceed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica. The court’s rulings are legally binding for the 25 states that have accepted its jurisdiction—which includes Nicaragua.
Although the concession agreement with HKND doesn’t make any special references to indigenous territories, Kautz, the president of Nicaragua’s Canal Authority, insists that indigenous peoples will be treated differently than regular landowners. Aside from the Rama, whose territory would likely be the most impacted, at least four other indigenous groups would face disruption if the canal proceeds. Nicaraguan law explicitly bars indigenous land from being bought or sold; that means the land will be rented, not expropriated, says Kautz. Yet, critics say that because this is not expressly stated in the concession law, the land is vulnerable to seizure.
In fact, Acosta and other opponents say that, as written, the canal concession law gives HKND the right to expropriate land anywhere in the country, regardless of whether or not the canal is built. Acosta worries that the Rama will lose their territory—displaced by golf courses and beach resorts—even if the Nicaragua Canal is never built.
The last time the Rama territory was seriously threatened was in the late 1990s, when the Nicaraguan government planned a dry canal (an overland route for cargo) that would have bisected the community’s territory. Legal challenges against the dry canal were unsuccessful, but it was never built for political and economic reasons.
Maybe the Rama will dodge unwanted development a second time. But it will take a sustained fight from the community and international support. The case at the IACHR is probably the Rama’s best chance for meaningful international intervention, but it remains to be seen whether or not this glimmer of hope is enough to protect their territory and keep their culture alive.