It’s been three weeks since I started my journey through this country on search for opinions and experiences regarding the project of the Nicaragua-Canal and I have had an adventure I never imagined before.
An extensive description of the law on which the canal project is based and an analysis of the current political situation in the country would go beyond the scope of this little report. Instead I want to focus some of my own personal experiences over the past few weeks.
I was very fortunate to meet people of the social movement that is working to abolish the “Law 840” which is the legal ground for the construction but violates dozens of articles of the country’s constitution. The movement is called “
Consejo Nacional en Defensa de Nuestra Tierra, Lago y Soberanía” which translates to “National Council in Defence of our Land, Lake and Sovereignty”.
First, I spent several days with members of the movement on the western part of the country (around Rivas and on the Island Ometepe) after which I, quite spontaneously, travelled towards the far Caribbean east in a 30 hour bus and truck odyssey. This is were I accompanied some activists on a six-day field-trip to inform local farmers and indigenous people about the effects of a possible canal project. People in the areas we visited live mostly autarchic from agriculture and fishing and without any connection to a public electricity, water or telephone network…
I learned how to go on horseback (nine hours on the first day!), walked for hours and hours and cruised in Panga-boats on picture-perfect jungle rivers passing by mangroves, crocodiles and turtles. I ate endless amounts of rice, yuca, beans and fresh cheese and tasted tropical fruits I had never heard of before – not to talk about the delicious fresh coconut milk we drank (all of the above happened without any sign of stomach problems, by the way.) I slept in hammocks and on wooden floorboards and interviewed dozens of small farmers and indigenous people.
Now the end of my time in Nicaragua is getting close and I have mixed feelings or, as we say in German, I have “one laughing and one crying eye”. After a few days of relaxation I will visit some more areas near the Pacific for interviews and portraits before I’ll be heading back to Berlin.
Anyway, presently I find myself in my hammock Ometepe Island with hours of interview material, several thousand photos and endless stories, many of which are so wonderful, sad or simply unbelievable that I still need time to come to terms with.
How and where I will present all this upon my return is for the most part still written in the stars. So let me take you on my journey with a selection of photographs…
Please note (at the risk of repeating myself): I will largely spare the (political) perspective on the “canal situation” in this article. Speaking of “sad stories” above I mean in particular violations of human rights like denial of freedom of speech, repression of opposition and violence as far as torture in prisons by the current government. The eyewitness reports and experiences need further portrayal and the political aspects I will display all the more in a different context.
So let me instead show you more of this country that I love and have come to love even more during this trip. Simply be aware that the whole story (of a photograph) is hardly ever visible at first sight.
On my first day, Jefree, 24, environmental activist, lawyer and member of the organisation “POPOL NA” explains to me in a one-hour interview the law on which the canal project is based and its implications. “Punta Gorda” (“Fat Tip”) is the place on the Atlantic coast, where the canal is supposed to start. At this point in time I am still unaware of that indeed and how I will get there. “Dream and Catastrophe” – a handbook about the law that was passed by the government in 2013. I visit a meeting of members of the “National Council in Defence of our Land, Lake and Sovereignty” with the human rights organisation CPDH in Managua. Throwing one’s hand up in horror is all that comes to mind when reading the law. Lively debate. Boys are playing soccer at the shore of Lake Nicaragua (“Lago Cocibolca”) where soon the world’s biggest ships are suppose to pass through. Members of the National Council and I arrive at the small village “Esquipulas” on Ometepe Island for a meeting. We are welcomed with enthusiasm (and fireworks) by local residents. Approximately 15 minutes after the beginning the local government switches off the electricity affecting not only us but the entire village – it’s one of the usual harassments, people explain to me. Little impressed they continue the reunion for another two hours with candle light and torches. Melba Cruz, 72, Cook, Esquipulas/Ometepe: “I inherited the farm from my parents. We produce rice, corn, beans and bananas. We do not want a canal. They flew over the island with airplanes. People say they are photographing our land. God gave us this big lake; all kinds of species live in it like fish and crabs. The lake is not just essential for us; especially the very poor need it because this is where they find their food. For me the whole thing isn’t good…for nobody I believe. I am afraid of loosing my land and my farm that I have sacrificed a lot for. I would rather die here than go away. Everyone here feels this way. If workers come we will chase them away.” Doña Melba prepares our breakfast: Gallopinto (rice and beans), scrambled eggs, fried plantains and cheese. Beach impression on Ometepe Island. I am on the way to the east of the country. Our truck has a flat tyre. Scepticism and curiousity. While waiting for the next truck in a small restaurant and I joke with the grandmother. As customary in Nicaragua (at least) three generations live under one roof. Also, I buy a gallon of water – a wise decision as it turns out later because we won’t pass any shop during the next six days. We cross this river with our truck. It’s been dry season for past three months approximately which means very little and infrequent rain fall if at all. During rain season the suspension bridge in the background is often only just above the water surface, as I’m told. “Hold on!” is the motto – even if you were able to snatch one of the “comfortable” spots on top of the bags of sugar, rice and other merchandise. A morning impression – it’s 6.30am and I have been awake for about an hour and a half already. Last preparations and backups before we’re hitting the jungle. Vamos! I can’t wait. I too have learned by now how oranges are pealed and slurped here. View to the shore. Pablo (left), 37, farmer and teacher and Medardo, 36, farmer und delegate for the opposition party in the regional parliament are actively fighting against the canal-law and will be two of my travel companions. We meet our fourth comrade: “Chepito” (vaguely translates to “the little one”, in real life José Chavarría), 49, farmer and one of the coordinators of the information campaign in the region. Turns out he is the one who knows everyone and almost every night we will sleep at friends of his. The least luggage possible. Of course the handbooks have to be part of it. I leave my laptop and take only the absolutely necessary. Sharpening machete. Elegant, right? Not so elegant however was my choice to wear a white T-shirt. It now has approximately the same colour as my jeans. A little snack for breakfast – quite handy to be sitting so high up… An old couple is sitting on the veranda of their farm. They also live in the territory that would be affected by the canal and would have to leave their land. I look back to their farm during today’s constant tropical drizzle. I now understand why Medardo advised me strongly to buy rubber boots in the last village we passed – although we managed to cross this swamp drily via the “bridge” visible at the bottom right of the picture. We continue our ride across a plain passing by endless farms. The riders amongst you might know about the pains riding across country causes for legs and butt. But hey – with views like this one really doesn’t care. Girl at a farm. First activity in the morning as soon as it’s bright outside: milking cows. The milk is collected in a wooden tub – during the next few hours cheese will be extracted. Coffee is on the stove already. Shadow play. I conduct one of the many interviews with Medardo. Today we walk about three hours to a village for a reunion – a jungle river is a great refreshment. A spring with fresh water is of course even better although I’m still sceptical and only take a small sip. Apart from that I drink the well water only after a half hour treat with my anti-bacterial tablets. Beauty. We arrive at “Las Brisas” – the name derives from the fresh breeze on this hill. In the distance one can already guess the Atlantic Ocean. In this village Medardo, Pablo and Chepito will speak to about 100 people today about the canal-law. Country dog. Impression. For church service everyone dresses in their best outfit. Curious look. Also in the countryside people know how to spent their leisure time, often with the national sport baseball. After walking back again for three hours we still have to ride for about an hour. At the next farm I have a feeling of luxury (seriously): there is a wooden floor! This feeling disappears shortly after though when, whilst having a shower standing on a wooden plank in the mud, I spot a fat spider next to me. Here is an impression from the next morning when Pablo is waking up. There is time for washing today – the place for drying is as usual the wired fence so that the strong wind doesn’t blow anything away. Papaya for breakfast. After an hour we arrive at the location for today’s reunion. Again, many of the farmers hear about the canal-law for the first time. Just before dusk we arrive back at our farm – here is a photo of Chepito, Pablo und Medardo (l-r). Even though there is only reception in villages hours away, most people have a cellphone. And this model is definitely more suitable for the humid climate than my iPhone which broke during my trip. But luckily there are plenty of talented (and cheap) technicians around the capital so that I am now in touch with the world again. Not a nice view, the water in this pond. Ecological awareness is not common unfortunately. Breather. On the road we meet many families. For most of them it is the first time that they are being photographed by a curious “Chele”. (The word is used for white people in general and derives from “Leche”, meaning milk) After having walked mostly through deforested areas that are now being used for stock farming and cultivation of corn, beans and much more, we finally pass a long strip of “real” jungle today, including a coconut-snack. After drinking the milk through a small hole the coconut is chopped in half to scratch out the flesh. After endless exertions we finally reach the Caribbean cast! This feeling of happiness can not be described with words. Roberto, 38, fisherman und farmer. He is part of the Rama tribe and speaks a distinctive English dialect. The bay in the background is where he catches his fish. In the morning he throws out his fishing nets and pulls them in at night. The Rama are indigenous people at Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. His ancestors already lived here when Columbus “discovered” America. His hands are marked by life. Also, he has just caught our dinner. A warm breeze, clouds that are tearing up, soft waves: sunrise in the Caribbean. Another one of these moments where I simply stand still and love life. Roberto makes his way to the fishing grounds in his logboat. Abandoned by the government: about a decade ago the previous government build a school. It has not seen either maintenance workers or teachers in a very long time. Some boys have caught a snake and are now having a great time scaring other kids. (According to villagers it isn’t poisonous so I too dare walking up relatively close.) David, 23, farmer, fisherman and Rama. He tells me that he doesn’t really know much about the canal-project but that he is scared that his community will be forced off their land. He also says that 95% of the community are against the project. The remaining few percent are apparently teenagers, who have received enticing (financial) offers from the government. Several other members of the community report the same later – without asking them specifically about it. This is the view of the bay of Bangkukuk (also: “Punta de Aguila” = “Eagles Tip”). In this area – about 5-10km northeast to be exact – a deepwater port is planned. Approximately 10km south from here is the mouth of the river “Punta Gorda” where the canal is supposed to begin. Today there is a meeting about the canal-law in Bangkukuk (in the building in the centre of the image). Impression. Pablo is reading parts of the wording of the law. For lunch we have rice, yuca and pork – slaughtered only hours ago for the occasion. In the afternoon one of the elders takes us a few kilometres south in his Panaga-boat from where we will have to walk about half an hour to get to the mouth of the river “Punta Gorda”. Rough sea. Me, happy on the beach. Tropical birds. We have to climb across washed up logs to make our way south. Never in my life have I seen a beach this rough and untouched by humans. To my left the waves break in, to my right there are palm trees and seemingly impenetrable plants covered in tropical mist. Beauty. And it’s me again! Tired and relived. As you can see we have waded through rivers. In the background is the mouth of the “Río Punta Gorda” and the Atlantic Ocean where the canal is supposed to begin. Portraits in tropical morning light – here: Chepito. Our hosts: Francisco, 45, and his family. My heroes: Chepito, Medardo and Pablo (l-r). Arrival of the “Ruta”, the public transport around here. Water reflexions. We leave the “Punta Gorda” and continue our way on a tributary. No comment. We exit the boat and walk for another hour to make it to the village. You won’t believe how refreshing a “rubber boat bath” can be… Dirt road: in the rain season impassable with motorised vehicles. Then people only travel by horse or Panga-boat on filled rivers. A typical form of transport: IFA trucks from the GDR. Back in civilisation: Granada, a picturesque colonial town, receives me with the yearly international poetry festival. Over the coming days there are countless poetry readings and concerts many of which I will enjoy outside and for free on warm summer nights. I can’t quite believe my luck und am overwhelmed by this contrast. Tamarind-Chia-Juice. Karel, 23, is part of a group working against the canal-project in the village “El Tule” on the southeastern side of lake. Juana, 50, came up to me in the fishing village “San Miguelito” and wanted to be photographed. Arnolfo Sequiera, 53, Quebrada Seca, supports the coordination of activities against the canal-law in the region San Miguelito. Good catch and critical look. 100% Nicaragua: Old school buses and volcanoes. After exciting weeks I allow myself a break on Ometepe Island. This exactly is the view from my hammock where I am typing these words…