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Pearl Watson: A Woman, A Plan, A Canal.
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December 7, 2001
A Woman, A Plan, A Canal
earl Watson always votes alone. Outnumbered among the corporate and government interests on the commission planning a coast-to-coast railroad across Nicaragua, Watson is trying to save her native community of Monkey Point, where the proposed project would begin. The 225-mile, high-speed railroad promises to expand global commercial traffic exponentially, but it threatens to rob Watson and her community of their land and way of life.
Watson, a 57-year-old nurse who runs the community health clinic, has become a local activist with an international audience. The Rama indigenous people have been on the land for longer than anyone can remember, says Watson, who visited the United States on a speaking tour in October. The black people have been there since slavery times. We live in harmony together there, but the government is trying to flood us off our land.
About a thousand indigenous Rama and people of mixed African and Miskito ancestry live in Monkey Point, which sits on the south Atlantic coast about 200 miles east of Managua. And though there is neither road access nor electricity in Monkey Point, there is a valuable deep-water harbor that would serve as the loading and unloading point of the dry canal.
For years the government has been negotiating with two corporations vying to build the project: SIT Global (Sistema Intermodal de Transporte Global) and the favored company, CINN (Consorcio del Canal Interoceanico de Nicaragua), a consortium based in Managua but headed by a New York-based lawyer, Don Bosco, and backed primarily by Asian and European investors. The Nicaraguan National Assembly granted exploration rights to CINN in 1999 and even established conditions for a future contract for construction of the railroad. The government has touted the project as an economic boon that could bring tens of thousands of jobs to Nicaragua.
They say the dry canal is the salvation for Nicaragua, but we would only have development for very few people and international investors, Watson counters. All these big countries and big businessmen are going to get three times richer while the people of Monkey Point get three times poorer.
Though Monkey Point would be a major hub of the operation, Watson and her community were never consulted and, in fact, first heard about the plan via radio and TV in Bluefields, a nearby town. For several years the government and the two companies have been negotiating to build in the territory of the Rama and ethnic Creole people without their consent, says Maria Louisa Acosta, a public advocate representing Monkey Point.
With Acostas help, the community has filed two lawsuits against former President Arnoldo Aleman and Attorney General Julio Centeno Gomez for having backed the 1999 authorization of exploration rights, which Acosta says violates both Nicaraguan law and the nations constitution, which protects indigenous land rights. The indigenous see that they have a right to their resources, Acosta says. The government doesnt respect their rights to live as they have lived forever.
In 1900, the government of Jose Santos Zelaya handed out land titles to his cronies in a ploy to seize control of land along the route of a canal proposed more than a century ago.
A 1988 law under the Sandinista government rendered those giveaways illegitimate. But recently the bogus, 100-year-old titles have materialized as foreign investors excited by the prospect of the dry canal have tried to stake claim to those lands.
At the same time that the government has advocated the construction of the east-west railroad (which would be buffered by a free-trade zone), it has also accepted a World Bank grant of more than $7 million to fund an Atlantic Biological Corridor, a project promoting conservation in the north-south swath of rainforesttwo seemingly contradictory projects.
Though there have been other canal proposals in the past, Watson believes this time its really going throughand that international backing of her community and other Atlantic coast communities is crucial. The country of Nicaragua is not poor; it is the administration that keeps us poor, Watson says. We have lobster, green turtles, fish, the forest, different animals. We want to get sustainable work. We can do anything as a community. We have good minds, but we dont have the strength. That is why I am here [in America] looking for support.