Monday, September 21, 2015

About that canal across Nicaragua ...

In the 1980s, thousands of North Americans worked in solidarity with Nicaraguan ambitions to decide their own destiny, despite military interference from Washington. If you were in the San Francisco area, you almost certainly encountered Suzanne Baker, earnestly picketing or handing out informational flyers. It was easy to forget, or even not know, that Baker is a professional archaeologist. But she is and she knows whereof she speaks. According to her bio in the Nicaraguan magazine Envio:

Since 1995 she has directed 10 seasons of the volunteer Ometepe Archaeological Project on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island [visible in the lake above] and recorded over 2,000 of its petroglyphs.

Today some of Nicaragua's leaders and a Chinese consortium are moving ahead with a plan to supersede the current Panama crossing with a new canal. In the linked article, Baker enumerates many forms of damage the proposed canal might do:

  • Both the Pacific and Caribbean coastal strands of Nicaragua are known to have significant prehistoric archeological sites, including large shell mounds and other settlement sites. Canal and port construction and associated development may well impact such sites.
  • The canal will cross the Isthmus of Rivas, a fertile agricultural zone with a major population. It also had a dense Pre-Colombian settlement and has numerous archeological sites, most of which have been little researched. Those sites that have been excavated contain rich artifactual remains and have provided information that has begun to increase and change our knowledge about pre-Columbian Nicaragua. There are also potential impacts to historical villages on the Rivas Peninsula, many of which retain remnants of indigenous customs and traditions and seem to be integral to Nicaragua’s self-identity.
  • The canal will pass through Lake Cocibolca, the most important source of fresh water between the Great Lakes and Lake Titicaca. Dredging the lake to make a 500m-wide trench many meters deep and the accompanying siltation, boat diesel and other waste pollution, and potential salinization from future sea level rise will undoubtedly destroy the lake’s water quality. There will also be indirect effects that could affect cultural resources. The islands of the lake, including Ometepe, Zapatera and the Solentiname Archipelago, contain a rich legacy of thousands of archeological sites and features, including monumental statuary, thousands of petroglyph boulders, sites with mounds, ceramics and other artifacts as well as human burials that may be affected by the influx of construction workers, tourists and new settlers. Looting of archeological sites is already a major problem on Ometepe Island and increasing traffic will mean increased looting. At least two major resorts and a construction workers’ camp are apparently being planned for the island.
  • The canal will pass through the Department of Rio San Juan, which today is an important agricultural area. Recent excavations and surveys by the University of Leiden to the north in the Department of Chontales have found impressive prehistoric sites, including those with mounds, monumental statuary and numerous rock art sites. There have been very few, if any, archeological projects conducted in the Rio San Juan department, aside from on Solentiname, and the full extent of its cultural resources is unknown. It, too, may have been an important region of prehistoric settlement.
  • The canal will cross the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS), destroying several major river systems within the Atlantic watershed, including Rio Punta Gorda and its tributaries, Rio Chiquito and Rio Masaya. The huge Atlantic watershed is perhaps the least studied archeologically of any region in Nicaragua. There have been only a handful of archeological projects on the coast and few if any major studies along the river systems of the region. We do know, however, that the rivers were and are major transportation routes and that people have lived along the rivers in prehistoric and historic times. Very interesting petroglyphs have been reported along the rivers, but to my knowledge only one formal study (on the Rio Mico) has been done. There is a likelihood that numerous archeological sites exist adjacent to the rivers.
  • Contemporary people who identify as indigenous, including Ramas and Miskitus, will be affected by the canal. None of these people were consulted before the canal law was passed. This contravenes Nicaragua’s autonomy laws, which require consultation. The Rama people, in particular, have been reduced to a very small group and their traditional territory, much of which has been legally demarcated, will suffer serious impacts. Traditional gathering, hunting, fishing and agricultural areas, as well as sacred sites, may be lost and the Rama-Kriol territory effectively divided in two.
  • There may be submerged archeological sites on the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts and in Lake Cocibolca, including especially 18th- and 19th-century shipwrecks that could be impacted by port construction, canal dredging and additional siltation.

There are plenty of Nicaraguans who think the ecological and cultural costs of building the canal are worth the potential development gains; after all, Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. There are many other Nicaraguans, including Father Ernesto Cardenal, who think the canal a very bad, short-sighted expedient. As it has always been hard for North Americans to understand, Nicaraguans will have to work out their own contradictions.

Graphic: Guilbert Gates for

1 comment:

Susan Leone Starr said...

WOW--I get to disagree with the brilliant Jan! Only a little, probably, and minuscule compared to our agreements. I see this as not at all a Nicaraguan contradiction to work out on their own, because the capital behind this is global, and they are not being left to their own devices. Migrations seem to be on the rise again, so nation-states are pretty much the enemy of the people in this historical moment?

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