Indigenous Land Grabbing in Nicaragua


The Republic of Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, which gained independence from Spain in 1821. The 6 million heterogeneous population of the country consists of seven indigenous groups (Chorotega, Cacaopera, Ocanxiu, Nahoa, Miskitu and Rama), Afro-descendants (known as “ethnic communities”), European and Asian descendants. In 2007 Nicaragua voted in favor of UNDRIP, and in 2010 ratified ILO Convention No. 169.

In 2013 the Nicaraguan government approved the construction of a canal that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans without any publicity and prior consultation. At 170 miles length, twice as deep as the Panama Canal, and estimated to cost between 40 to 50 billion USD, the canal is one of the greatest infrastructure development projects in the world. A 50-year concession for the financing and management of the canal was granted to Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Wang Jing, amid uncertainty whether the Chinese government plays a formal part in the project or not.

As of 2016, the beginning of the construction of the canal is still pending. 

Problem statement

The main argument in favor of the canal is that it would create a long-term surge of investments and jobs in the country, during and after its construction. On the negative side, the project creates a huge environmental concern as it will slice the country in two, destroying hundreds of acres of rainforest and wetlands, home to many species, some of which endangered. It also threatens violations of human rights, as the people inhabiting the canal route are facing forced relocation and eviction from their lands.

While the canal threatens the livelihoods of thousands of people along its route, the indigenous Rama people and the Kriol and the two groups that would be most affected, since 52% of the canal route runs through their territories in the Autonomous Region of the Southern Caribbean Coast (RACCS). The Rama number about 5000 people. The majority of the Rama people subside from farming and fishing, with strong attachment to and dependency on their land for survival. None of the Rama or Kriol communities that live in the areas designated for the canal route have been previously consulted, which is in stark violation of national law and international conventions ratified by the Nicaraguan government.

The Environmental and Social Impact Study came out in 2015. Conducted over a period of 17 months, the report warns of the negative impact the canal might have on the Rama and Kriol communities along the Caribbean coast. The report also writes that the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples affected by the canal must be consulted and their consent obtained prior to any construction work. The affected communities have filed a case at the Nicaraguan Supreme Court concerning lack of prior consultations, and are now proceeding with their appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


Research ideas

1. An inquiry into the legal framework in which the building of the canal takes place can shed light on the human rights violation that the Rama people have been subjected to, and might potentially continue to suffer in future. Heavy police presence and crackdown of protesters against the canal building have been occurring since 2014. The state has refused the entry of international NGO lawyers to monitor the situation, and has carried out ‘consultations’ with local communities without the presence of outside experts and advisers. The state’s actions have also violated both international law and international conventions. Nicaragua has ratified ILO Convention 169, which stipulates that indigenous and tribal peoples “shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the land they occupy or otherwise use” (Art. 1) – objectives, which the Nicaraguan state has clearly violated.

Such a project should consist of both a desk study of legal materials and cases relevant to the canal project, as well as fieldwork in the affected area and interviews with local leaders, community members, national and international NGOs and other monitoring bodies.

2. A second line of inquiry can offer a detailed account of the extent to which the Rama people depend on their lands for their physical, economic and spiritual well-being and survival, and the effects the canal project has already had on them. An assessment of the livelihood strategies of the Rama people, and how they might be affected by the canal construction in future, can inform both the academia, decision-makers and the general public about the plight of the ‘invisible’ people on the ground. Activist research (see Hale 2006) and alignment with local structures and interests can provide a good framework for such type of research.

WATCH: This Land is for All of We: A small Rama community in Bangkukuk, Nicaragua speaks out about the Grand Canal Project