Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast: Consensus-Based Progress

Tortillas con Sal

Nicaragua has some of the most advanced and favorable legislation anywhere in defense of the country’s Indigenous peoples, of their property rights and their social, economic and cultural rights. Even so, since the 2012 announcement of the project to build an inter-oceanic canal, foreign non-governmental groups and international news media have tried to exploit false allegations of governmental abuse of the rights of Indigenous groups on the country’s Caribbean Coast.

In fact, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, led by Daniel Ortega, has insisted on ensuring that the very small number of Indigenous people affected by the canal be adequately consulted so as to be able to benefit fairly and appropriately from this enormous nation-building project.

As a result of the May 3 consultative process, the National Inter-Oceanic Canal Development Commission signed a lease agreement with the Indigenous communities of the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government for a total of 263 kilometer of the total over 4,068-km total of those people’s territory. The Rama and Kriol Indigenous people’s representative noted that, “After more than two years of conversations we have managed to conclude this historic consultation process and identify the necessary elements to give our consent.” He went on to point out that the agreement contributes to the communities’ well-being, safeguards their culture and also respects their traditions and the sacred and ancestral sites making up their peoples’ historic patrimony.

The agreement establishes that the canal will be built in compliance with national and international best environmental protection practice, promoting reforestation, mitigation of Climate Change and protection of the regionally important Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. Apart from their land territory, the communities affected also have fishing rights to over 4,413km2 of maritime territory. The communities comprising the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government are : Sumu Kaat, Tiktik Kaanu, Rama Cay, Wiring Cay, Monkey Point, Bang Kukuk, Corn River, Indian River, and Greytown.

This agreement marks another progressive development in the relationship between the Frente Sandinista and the peoples of the Caribbean Coast that originated with the ties between Augusto Sandino and Indigenous communities at the time of the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua between 1927 and 1933. Back then, members of the Miskito and other Indigenous peoples were vital to the success of Sandino’s guerrilla campaign. In 1931, Sandino explicitly addressed the peoples of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast in a declaration entitled “Manifesto to the oppressed people on our Atlantic Coast”.

In that manifesto, Sandino wrote about the slave trade and how “those most involved in that trade were the English. England, France, and other European countries took to piracy after the discovery of America and that is how the European countries came to have their American colonies. For a time, our own Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast was under the dominion of England. Central America became independent from Spain on Sept. 15 1821, but for our natural resources, Nicaragua has been the main target of Imperialist Ambitions.

“In Nicaragua, the Yankee bankers have established a school of traitors to our Fatherland, but here too, in Nicaragua, has emerged our Liberation Army to prove to everyone on Earth that now is not the time of injustice.

“Our army, made up of Black people, Indian people, white people and so on, without race or class prejudice, intends to implant in Nicaragua the principles of human fraternity and to obtain it, to carry out this Supreme Imperative, we ask for the indispensable moral and material help of all the Nicaraguan People.

“Our army understands that our People has been betrayed by its leaders and, for that reason, has remained indifferent to the appeals we have made in earlier Manifestos. Our army is not a vertical command; from its most low ranking soldier to its Supreme Commander, all of us are from rural and urban working families without distinction of class, religion, or education.”

After Sandino’s murder, through the decades of the Somoza dictatorship, the communities peoples of the Caribbean Coast were ignored and neglected. Following the revolution of 1979, through the 1980s, they were caught between the U.S. government’s terrorist war of aggression and the campaign by the Sandinista government to defend Nicaragua’s territory and sovereignty. Not until 1987 and the pioneering law establishing autonomy for the various regions of the Caribbean Coast did the revolutionary Sandinista government finally work out a successful policy with the participation of the Caribbean region’s various ethnic groups. That Autonomy Law foreshadowed by 20 years the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Following the 1990 electoral victory of the right-wing coalition led by Violeta Chamorro, Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast once again fell into a state of abandonment and neglect in line with the absurd Washington Consensus doctrine that government has no active role to play in a country’s economic development and the “free market” will take care of everything.

That all changed in January 2007 when Daniel Ortega took office and took up again the many challenges of promoting economic development for the diverse ethnic groups of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast while also defending their fundamental rights. During this year’s session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Questions, Nicaragua’s representative Johnny Hodgson summarized the advances of the last nine years for Nicaragua’s Caribbean population.

Among other things, he remarked on the 2003 Law 445 recognizing Indigenous common land and property rights. Hodgson noted that, “Despite the fact that Law 445 was passed in 2003, prior to 2007 not one common property title was approved. Currently, 23 territories have been titled for 301 communities, recognizing and restoring the right to communal property of more than 205,000 people of the original and Afro-descendant peoples. The area is of more than 37,000km2, equivalent to 31 percent of the national territory.”

In relation to education and health care, Hodgson explained that, “As well as access to preschool, primary and secondary education, Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast also implements the Autonomous Regional Educational Sub-system one of whose core fundamentals is an intercultural and bilingual focus to strengthen the cultural and linguistic identity of the original and afro-descendent peoples during their humanistic, scientific and technical education. At the level of higher education there are two community universities funded by the State : the University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast and the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University, attending a total of 16,000 students.

“Greater access and quality of health care have increased health coverage for the original peoples and afro-descendent peoples with more than 1.6 million medical consultations along with the appropriate medicine. From 2015, regional hospitals are offering new services so as to reduce the number of transfers for patients from the Caribbean Coast to the capital.” Hodgson might also have noted that in November 2015 the government budgeted US$61million to build a new regional hospital in Bilwi (formerly Puerto Cabezas), the departmental capital of Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean region.

Hodgson added that the Nicaraguan State now recognizes the distinct forms of social organization of 325 Indigenous and afro-descendent communities that have their own communal governments and authorities elected via their own electoral traditions. Those communities are grouped into 24 territories exercising their powers and competence in accordance with Law 445. From 2009 onwards, for the first time ever, a reform to Nicaragua’s budgetary regulations devolved resources to municipal and regional governments assigning funds to be managed directly by the Caribbean Coast Territorial Governments. As Hodgson pointed out in his address, that step has meant that Caribbean Coast communities have been able to make important decisions on the public and private investment projects to be implemented in their territories.

The most important example of this is Nicaragua’s inter-oceanic canal, which has now finally been approved in a comprehensive agreement with the Rama and Kriol peoples. The area of 263km2 affected by Canal is equivalent to 3 percent of the Rama and Kriol peoples’ total territory. Following the approval in 2014 by the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government of permits for the environmental impact studies, there began an extensive consultation process based on international norms like the International Labor Organization’s Agreement 169 and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In his remarks to the UN Forum, Hodgson pointed out that this consultation process based on dialog and consensus sets a unique precedent in Nicaragua’s history and possibly too for Latin America and the rest of the world, leading as it did to the historic agreement of May 3.

The agreement completely undercuts all the ill-informed and often malicious propaganda about the effects of Nicaragua’s proposed inter-oceanic Canal on the local indigenous and afro-descendent communities of the country’s Caribbean Coast. Nationally, the same mechanisms of consultation and participation that have successfully protected indigenous and afro-descendent peoples’ rights and interests have also guaranteed unprecedented levels of political and social stability in Nicaragua that are the envy of its Central American neighbors. They also exemplify the genuinely democratic, revolutionary nature of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in the tradition of Sandino’s “Manifesto to the oppressed people on our Atlantic Coast”.