SARDINAS BEACH, Tola – A polemic land dispute over a pristine slice of Pacific coast beachfront came to a head recently after a judge trying to clear land for a U.S.- owned eco-surf resort backed down to a crowd of machete-wielding indigenous protestors.
The standoff was the latest run-in in the 3- year-old land battle in which a local community has clashed with police and U.S. developer Phillip Christopher, who last year – by his own admission – fired rubber bullets at protestors who he says came on the property with machetes and stones.
“It’s an away game, so to speak,” Christopher said, referring to how he’s had to adapt to the wild-west circumstances of defending rural property in Nicaragua.
Eviction attempts and an ongoing police presence at the disputed beach property has the indigenous community pleading for the Sandinista government to live up to its promise not to evict campesinos from their property.
“Our community can’t stop the investment coming in. We possess this beautiful beach that has awakened the greed of investors,” said the indigenous group’s legal representative, Geovanny Loáisiga.
Christopher, a Missouri-born investor, insists the local group’s land is farther inland, and questions the Nahualap community’s ethnic indigenous claims.
In what is one of several land quarrels in the Tola region – a surfer’s paradise to the north of the booming surf mecca San Juan del Sur – the indigenous community celebrated a ruling in their favor last December by Tola Judge Astrid Fonseca. But the sentence, which orders Christopher to pay damages, hasn’t been executed. Christopher says the ruling was flawed since it was against the wrong party – himself – instead of his Flor De Mayo development company, the registered owner of the land.
But the indigenous community’s momentum in the courts hit a wall in February, when Loáisiga’s home was raided before he was arrested in Rivas on orders of a higher district judge for allegedly withholding a court document. He claims he was held illegally for a week without charges. The Nica Times tried contacting the Rivas police chief but didn’t get a response by press time.
The Rivas judge then ordered the Nahualap indigenous group, a community of about 4,000 who have been guarding the beachfront around the clock on rotating shifts, to be removed from the 1.4 kilometers of disputed beachfront.
But when the judge showed up on the beach territory with three cops to execute the eviction order on April 10, she yielded to a throng of indigenous campesinos who were backed by a handful of U.S. activists armed with cameras.
“It’s not my intention to create a blood bath,” Fonseca said, before walking away from the cheering crowd.
The Nahualap community claims their ancestors have been living on the land since the 17th century, and they trace communal ownership to an 1877 deed.
But Christopher says that deed never included the disputed 12 manzanas of beachfront where he plans to build his ecofriendly resort that would transport surfers around on solar-powered golf carts.
Though Loáisiga claims the land Christopher bought in 2005 from an indigenous family didn’t include the beachfront, Christopher insists it does. He points to a GPS assessment he recently did of the property, which he claims was more accurate than previous measurements.
“It’s not as if we’ve tried to take land from anybody. It’s just that science has improved,” he says.
Extortion and bribery allegations have been slung back and forth in the escalating quarrel. Yet neither side seems interested in throwing in the towel.
“From a financial standpoint, we’re in,” Christopher told The Nica Times in a recent interview. His group of 24 U.S. investors has already put $4 million into the $26 million project, he says.
Loáisiga, meanwhile, spent much of last week filing a slew of complaints with human rights organizations in Managua – the NicaraguanHumanRightsCenter, the National Assembly’s Ethnic Affairs Committee and the Ombudsman’s office – against what he claims was local police harassment of indigenous beach dwellers last Monday. He says the Sandinista government should live up to its promise of not using police to evict campesinos from their land.
It’s a point Ortega has repeated in several recent speeches.
“We’ve been very clear,” Ortega said at an April 12 speech in Masaya. “In Nicaragua, the authorities of public order, along with the government, won’t be used to remove families from their homes or to evict campesinos from their property.”
Though the Sandinistas have been publicizing Ortega’s visits to poor neighborhoods such as the one in Masaya, where he hands out property titles to the poor, Phillips is quick to point out that he too has a photo of himself with his arm around Ortega.
Loáisiga says the indigenous community isn’t opposed to investors on principle.
Several other foreigners have concessions for smaller projects around the land once inhabited
by the native group.
“The land can only be used on concession with the community’s consent. But they have to respect our culture, customs,” Loáisiga told a group of mostly U.S. activists at The Casa Ben Linder meeting house in Managua the day before last week’s beach stand-off in Tola.
Christopher questions whether the Spanish-speaking group qualifies as indigenous under 1914 and 1918 Nicaraguan laws. But insists he wants to help regardless.
“I don’t care, because a community is a community,” he says.
Christopher says that if his development weren’t a year and a half behind schedule due to the legal dispute, his company would already have created some 200 jobs for the local community. His resort would provide housing for employees, he says.
“We want these cultures to come together,” he says. “The day this ends, I forgive every local.”He says he’ll be reluctant to forgive the indigenous community’s leaders, though.
Christopher says he hopes his project will receive a shot in the arm soon, when it receives expected municipal construction permits.
“We believe we’re doing the right thing, so we’re going to fight… if (the Nahualap group) try to sell the property, we’ll step on whoever buys it,” Christopher says. “Legally.”