This photo project started with the worst night's sleep I've ever had, or, to be more precise, the only time that a pig was slaughtered and butchered next to me at 2AM. I was staying with Esteban, a plantain farmer, and his family. A surprisingly cold wind ripped throughout the night. When they offered me a blanket, I accepted it merely out of good decorum, never imagining that it would be the one thing keeping my teeth from chattering in a tropical country.
The family dogs took random umbrage and vented with steadfast ferocity, and the roosters, perched in the tree a meter behind me, cried out at uneven, pre-dawn intervals. And then I heard it. It was a pig letting go, screaming for its rapidly fading life. It's a sound that cannot be faked, and one that took me a second to register. A table was brought out and Esteban began to butcher the freshly-killed pig while his wife stood by to help clean.
I tell you this because it explains the vital situation here in Nicaragua. This all happened so that Esteban's wife could make tamales for the family's trip to the beach that weekend. But what could be considered a foodie's wet dream is actually about survival in Rio Grande. I'll start from the beginning.
At the end of last year, Wang Jing, an obscure Chinese billionaire and CEO of a telecoms company, started to throw fistfuls of cash (a reported $10 million a month) at one of the most colossal construction projects in history: a shipping canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Why? To create a path for global trade, with apparently no affiliation to the Chinese government whatsoever.
It was around this time I came across an article describing the sheer scope and scale of this impending canal project, which had been planned despite no kind of public vote being conducting among local residents. I hopped on a flight to Nicaragua, where I had lived three years previously, to talk to some of these residents and to take photos of those whose lives had been directly affected by the construction.
This was how I ended up at the home of Esteban, whose two farms – his livelihood – would be eradicated by this mammoth canal project.
While I was there, I found out that the one member of the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Nicaragua's ruling government party) who abstained from voting for the project was removed from office, despite being a publicly elected official.
This is deeply ironic coming from a country that has shed blood overthrowing their strict dictatorship for a democracy during the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1970s. Now the country's president, Daniel Ortega – the very man who was once leader of the revolution – was taking the Nicaraguan land and putting it into the hands of a nebulous Chinese corporation.
Needless to say, the residents are angry. There was graffiti all over the area I visited that screamed, "Daniel verde patria" – loosely translated into "Daniel's a traitor", or, perhaps more aptly, "Daniel's a sell-out".
People know that there's somebody gaining vast amounts of wealth from this deal, but it's certainly not the plantain farmers in Rio Grande, the fishermen in Boca del Brito or the family in El Coco that gets its drinking water from the lake – the largest body of fresh water in Central America, which will be imposed upon by the construction path. And it's certainly not the indigenous people on the other side of the lake, whose lands were supposed to be protected by law, but whose government has failed them.
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These people will be forced to find new land not just to farm on, but to make new homes. But there's no guarantee that they'll find similarly fertile land, especially since they'll be tussling with 200,000 other Nicaraguans who are also being relocated. They will have to restart their farming processes altogether, too, but mango trees take five years to bear fruit and avocado trees take seven. As well as this, many residents do not have the money to transport their livestock to their distant new homes.
While visiting one of the grass-roots protest meetings in the town of Balgue, on the island of Ometepe, I was told that fighting the canal is a "just cause" and "worth the taking up of arms" – if it were to come to that. People's land can now be bought for a tenth of it's original value, despite the Chinese conglomerate's enormous budget, which is said to be around $50 billion. I was also told that the Chinese corporation HKND will have possible control of this canal and its affiliated projects for over 100 years and that they will be completely exempt from paying tax.
To date, there have been more than 40 protest marches across the length of the proposed canal – that's 277 kilometers. For a country that passionately continues to honour Augusto Sandino, the leader of a revolt against the US incursion into Nicaragua in the 1920s and 30s, the fight against the canal isn't over. And it may not have even really begun.
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