MANAGUA – While most criticism of Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River has come from Costa Rica, some of the more recent objections have been homegrown.
Since Costa Rica first denounced Nicaragua’s alleged military-backed river-dredging incursion into Tico territory last October, most Nicaraguans have rallied around their flag.
But on Nicaragua’s remote and fiercely independent Atlantic Coast, the mostly indigenous and Afro-descendent populations have a stronger immunity to the patriotic fever that has spread across the rest of the country. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the first loud voice of domestic dissidence to the government’s river-dredging effort is coming from a little-known community leader on the Caribbean coast.
Rupert Allen Clair Duncan, president of Communal Government of Monkey Point, a remote southern-Caribbean coastal community of 280 people, claims the Nicaraguan government has overstepped its bounds in its enthusiasm to dredge the San Juan River. Instead of simply cleaning the historic river delta as promised, Clair said, the Sandinista government has cut a new channel to redirect the water flow further south, depriving Nicaragua’s indigenous and black Creole communities of their natural resources.
The results of the government’s dredging efforts, Clair worries, will be to open a new river mouth that will permanently dry the historic waterway used for transportation among remote communities in the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).
While the government insists its dredging operation will recuperate the San Juan River’s historic flow, which has been slowed to a trickle by years of sedimentation buildup, Clair says the effort could have the opposite effect. The Creole political leader says instead of deepening the existing river mouth, the government is altering the historic water flow to an even greater extent.
As a result, he said, the nine local communities – or 4,000 people – of the Rama-Kriol regional government who once backed the Sandinistas’ river-dredging plans are now becoming increasingly alarmed by how the project is taking shape.
“What they doing is something different from what dem said they was going to do,” Clair told The Nica Times in a recent interview, speaking in Creole English. “So that’s the problem what we having with dem.”
Clair said the government has refused to consult with the affected Nicaraguan border communities or provide them with pertinent information.
When pressed on the issue, he said, Sandinista authorities have told local community leaders that the river row is a matter to be settled between the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican governments, and that it doesn’t concern them.
“What we saying is the government must come and make a previous consultation so we can know what dem doing and we can tell dem how it going to affect us,” Clair said. “But dem just doing what dem want.”
Still, Clair insists, Costa Rica’s complaint that Nicaragua has cut into Tico territory is misinformed.
“The part dem cutting is totally Nica-raguan,” he said. “The territory belongs to we, to Nicaragua.”
Clair said the real crime that’s being committed is not against Costa Rica, rather the environment and the indigenous and Creole Nicaraguan communities that will be affected by the dredging.
“What dem doing is they going to destroy our natural rivers and what we have by opening another [river] bar and making a new access from the lagoon to the sea and closing up the two natural bars that have been since time exists,” he said.
If the government’s dredging operation, headed by former guerrilla leader Edén Pastora, succeeds in rechanneling the river flow south through a new mouth, the old river will dry and local communities will become increasingly isolated, Clair said. Transportation between rural coastal communities will become more complicated as people are forced to travel greater distances on dangerous open seas rather than navigating internal rivers, he stressed.
Plus, Clair said, fishes, crocodiles and the whole ecosystem of the region could be put at risk. When community leaders have tried to raise these concerns to the government, their voices have fallen mostly on deaf ears, he lamented.
“Dem don’t pay dat no mind. What dem want to do is do what dem need to do to keep going,” Clair said.
Unwelcome Military Presence
Clair said the nine communities of the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government are also alarmed by the increased Nicaraguan military presence in the region and the new defense laws that threaten to militarize the border region even more (NT, Dec. 3, 10, 2010).
Creole and indigenous leaders worry that the defense-law package, particularly the National Defense Law and the Border Law, will be used to increase the military’s role in the region and confiscate communal border land in the name of national security (NT, Dec. 10, 2010).
Clair said the communities of the Territorial Government of the Rama and Kriol are not against the military defending Nicaragua’s territory, but he said the central government must consult with local authorities before militarizing an area that has its own regional authorities – a process he and other indigenous leaders claim started well before the defense laws were passed last December.
“Before you militarize a zone of indigenous people you have to consult the people to know if that is okay,” he said. “But what dem doing, they just throw the military there and they start to militarizing the zone.”
Clair said the increased troop presence in the area has scared off what little tourism the area once had.
For that reason and others, Clair is spearheading a regional movement to try to get the Nicaraguan Army to relocate its naval base outside of Monkey Point.
The Territorial Government of the Rama and Kriol last month publically accused the Nicaraguan troops stationed in Monkey Point of threatening locals with weapons, stealing supplies from the community health center and raping minors.
Naval Capt. Angel Fonseca, head of south Atlantic operations, rejected the allegations and accused Clair of trying to discredit Nicaragua’s armed forces.
The naval captain told El Nuevo Diario’s regional correspondent in Bluefields that any allegations of rape by military officers should be processed in the appropriate channels.
Local Development Comes First
Clair has also taken a local leadership role in protesting the Sandinista government’s efforts to attract Iranian investment to construct a $350 million deepwater port at Monkey Point.
Though the port plans don’t seem to have advanced much since the Sandinista administration first announced them in 2007, Clair said the government is still pushing the idea and officials from the port authority in Managua have visited the area several times in recent months.
But as president of the regional government, Clair says his community will oppose any development efforts that don’t take its needs into consideration, or threaten to displace them entirely.
“The governments from Nicaragua, the Liberals and the Sandinistas, none of them ever do anything for Monkey Point. And now what them going saying we have a vision, we have a dream, and we have a project to build Monkey Point and take the people from Monkey Point and set them somewhere else, we don’t know where,” he said.
“So we telling dem, ‘Before you do that, come sit down and talk with us and tell us what you planning to do’,” Clair added. “Before you think and talk about deepwater port, go and talk about what you do to help this community develop first, and then we sit and talk. But if we don’t have no type of development here, we can’t talk.”
The river-dredging experience has helped the community of Monkey Point learn the importance of demanding consultation and consensus, Clair said. Otherwise, all future megaprojects will be met with resistance.
“If you build the port first and don’t pay us no mind, the same thing you going to do afterwards when you get what you want,” Clair said. “So we can’t think about that first, we got to think about we first.”