Nicaraguan Farmers Protest Canal Threat
The farmers are demanding that Law 840 be revoked: “They want to expropriate our lands,” decry the protesting population in San Miguelito.
Thousands of farmers from the communities of the San Juan River and Nueva Guinea marched this Tuesday to demand that Law 840 be revoked. It is officially known as the Special Law for the Development of Infrastructure and Transportation in Nicaragua Relating to the Canal, Free-Trade Areas and Associated Infrastructure.
Starting at noon, farmers from a dozen different communities met in El Dorado, under the jurisdiction of San Miguelito in the department of Rio San Juan, to then walk three kilometers to El Dorado number 3, where they finished with a press conference.
Rural leader Francisca Ramírez, a member of the National Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, arrived at El Dorado from Nueva Guinea to lead the march, along with the organization’s current president, Medardo Mairena.
“The Nicaraguan government is giving us a tough fight. The government is supposedly there to safeguard our rights, but here we have a government which has abused our rights,” said Ramirez.
The 89th protest march has taken place four years after 61 Sandinista legislators approved Law 840 which allows Chinese businessman Wang Jing and his company HKND to expropriate lands from farmers at their own discretion.
Lawyer Monica Lopez said this march proves the power of the call for farmers to come together. “This march and the Punta Gorda march (which took place last Saturday) are a more than conclusive message four years later. And farming communities who have been fighting in an extraordinary civil manner will continue to mobilize,” Lopez stated.
Although the government still hasn’t begun the process of expropriating land, nor have they called for bids for building anything, Lopez clarifies that protests will continue until the Law, which she considers a real threat, is revoked.
They marched without police
The protest left at noon and people marched three kilometers in an hour. In spite of roads leading to the meeting point in the El Dorado 1 community being in poor condition, farmers traveled in trucks, on motorbikes, mules and horses so they could meet at the protest’s departure point.
The most remarkable thing for many farmers was the fact that the police didn’t come and they were allowed to march.
Jose Maria Calderon, a resident in El Dorado 3, lost an eye when the police repressed a march in 2014.
Today, Calderon uses glasses to hide the eye he’s missing, but he warns that he will continue to take part in protests for as long as he lives.
“We are marching for the land that belongs to us. They want to take our lands. We have the right to work them. God gave us these lands to work on,” Jose Maria Torres, another protester, said.
Enrique Saenz, an economist and former legislator, reminded us on the Esta Noche TV show, that one of the promises the Government made was economic growth as building work on the Canal progressed.
“In 2014, we were going to have 10% growth. Later, this would increase to 15% and a million jobs would be created,” the former congressman said.
“Wang Jing offered grants to 50 Nicaraguans to go to China to specialize their training. He mentioned that he would donate 10 ambulances and 10 pieces of fire equipment and that he would renovate hospitals, but to date, nothing has happened. If he hasn’t been able to meet all of these promises, it will much more difficult for him to meet the promise of raising $50 billion USD [for building a canal],” Saenz claimed.
Facing the hypothesis that the canal will never be built, there are still threats that stem from Law 840.
Saenz believes that the content of the Canal Law gives broader rights to Wang Jing and his consortium for 100 years, to hand over, mortgage and give everything that has been granted as collateral to third parties. Furthermore, it allows the Chinese businessman to operate financially without having built the Canal.
“All of national territory is being compromised, not just the Canal route. He can not only negotiate the rights he’s been given by any means, but he can do this with whoever he wants, without the government being able to oppose him. There is even an order which states that financiers who come to operate in Nicaragua are not required to register or report themselves to the Bank Superintendence, explains the economist.
According to Saenz, the real threat is that the platform which forms the project becomes a support structure for the transfer of funds from sketchy and illegal origins, under the protection of this concession.
And what if another government comes along?
The scenario that a new democratic government can propose to revoke this law in the future is also uncertain. In Saenz’s opinion, the law was structured so that this could never happen and his argument is founded on the attempts the government made to stop this law being revised by other sectors of society.
“There is a basis for putting forward an objection to this law. However, with the number of resources that the ruling group has, the terms of the law allow them to buy land at extremely low prices, taking advantage of the concession terms. Even if the Canal is never built, farmers and landowners will always be under the threat of having their land dispossessed,” the former congressman explains.
According to Wendy Flores, a lawyer at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), Law 840 is a blank check as it has been conceived so that if any political movement interferes with the project and causes it to not be implemented, the State is forced to pay damages caused to the company for any project.
“Just how much these damages or losses will amount to remains unknown. They still haven’t started the project, but they can say that they have lost millions because they weren’t able to build it,” Flores explained.
“Who is protecting Nicaragua? President Daniel Ortega or members of the Great Canal Committee should answer this question. We should be prepared for financial speculation and for the transfer of funds under this concession,” Saenz believes.
Sovereignty and human rights are being damaged
Over 120,000 people are being threatened with forced resettlement.
In December 2015, Wang Jing and then vice-president Omar Hallesleven inaugurated the first “works” on the Interoceanic Canal in Brito, Rivas. However, the only thing they did was widen a small 6 km road which connects a farm to the sea, which isn’t even paved.
And even though no construction work has been licensed yet, farmers are denouncing the threat of expropriation under the terms of Law 840, which allows the licensee to appropriate their land along the canal route or anywhere else for the land registry price, which is much lower than market prices.
The Human Rights Group, Cenidh, believes that Law 840 violates constitutional rights of property and citizen participation, as the general population were not consulted.
Over 30 appeals for unconstitutionality were rejected in a short space of time by the Supreme Court, while farmer movement protests have been violently repressed.
“Violations of human rights have been presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR), the issue of police repression, sovereignty and the lack of consultation with indigenous peoples,” explained lawyer Wendy Flores.
She added that the International Human Rights Foundation had carried out a study, coming to the conclusion that about 120,000 people would be displaced with no fair compensation.
According to the Cenidh lawyer, even if the canal is never built, the threat of expropriation still exists. The only way to change the law is if it’s revoked by the National Assembly with an initiative put forward by the population or legislators themselves.
Today, the Cenidh is working together with organizations to create a petition to send to the OHCHR to support the farmers’ movement, which will be signed by those people affected who have appealed for protection and own property within the canal area.