By Gastón Mazzaferro | Translation by Nadia Sol Schneider


On April 18th 2018 the streets of the major cities of Nicaragua were crowded by citizens, most of which were young adults in a protest against President Daniel Ortega and Vice Rosario Murillo.

Even if the main speculated cause for the public outcry was the attempt to reform under new guidelines their deal with the International Monetary Fund with the collaboration of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, little is said about the fire occurred in the Indio Maíz Reserve ten days prior, which played a big role in the cascading events preceded by a cycle of demonstrations started in 2014 with the sanction of a bill to create an inter-oceanic highway to unite The Atlantic and Pacific Ocean through the country.



We could say that Nicaragua’s history is the story of attempts to build a Canal to unite The Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The first of these projects date from the XVIII century when what we know today as Nicaragua was a province from The Captaincy General Of Guatemala, that belong to the Spanish territories in the Americas. But since then, the Canal never came to fruition, not even with American funding in the XIX century when Nicaragua was part of the Central American Republic, and later, as a sovereign country.

The comings and goings around the construction of the Canal were decisive since the Nicaraguan Independence until the completion of the Panamá Canal in 1914 and the signing of Bryan-Chamorro Treaty that same year, establishing The United States a right in perpetuity for the construction of the Canal when conveniently believed, as well as permits to establish bases in Nicaragua in order to protect the Panama Canal.

The project unleashed backlash between world powers and foreign intervetion took place, being also crucial in the outcome of the Central American National War caused by the invasion of the american filibuster William Walker who in the mid-1800s established English as de facto language and restored slavery.

And moreover, after the problem was frozen for almost a century, since 2013, the Canal reappeared strongly in the public debate. In that year, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved Law 840, which established the legal norms for the concession and construction of the Canal. The company in charge of all this would be the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Investment (HKND). It’s worth clarifying that the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was canceled in 1970.

But, who could oppose the realization of a frustrated project for more than a century? Well, here is where the problems start, because the construction plan of the inter-oceanic Canal brought with it more drawbacks than virtues and more losers than winners.


The enactment of Law 840 was controversial from the beginning, both for its normative and its content. The first problem had to do with the company appointed for the construction of the canal. Not only did HKND lack experience in this type of project, but it had also been created suspiciously recently. In addition, the process by which it was appointed did not include a public bidding process. The contracting conditions were also extremely advantageous for the company: it was granted not only the construction but also the concession of the Canal for fifty years, renewable for another half century. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for this issue, the project was approved without prior environmental and cultural feasibility studies.

This problem becomes even more severe when looking at the specific content of the regulation. In principle, the law establishes the possibility of expropriating numerous lands, while allowing the realization of other independent projects adjacent to the Canal, for which the confiscation of adjacent territory was also foreseen, granting important rights to investors who could keep large portions of land and diverse natural resources.

The plan established the construction of the Canal around the Punta Gorda River, passing through the Autonomous Region of the South Caribbean Coast, an area densely populated by indigenous peoples and peasants who live self-sufficiently. Particularly, the bill stipulates the possibility of expropriating 52% of the lands of the Rama-Kriol peoples, which are protected constitutionally and by various laws that recognize the land ownership of native peoples.


It should be noted that the native population of the area lives from the natural resources of the place, being mainly fishers, therefore, the construction of the Canal would prevent access to water and consequently, their main resource.

Although the government established the possibility of compensating those whose lands are expropriated for the construction of the Canal, the inhabitants of these towns have a big problem: they have the possession of the land, but not the property, which belongs to the State meaning that they would not even receive compensation since the law establishes that the required public lands would be given free of charge to the investors.

To this we must add that the legal mechanism was designed in such a way that, even without the realization of the Canal, the land could be expropriated for other types of businesses.
As of today, the project has not been completed and is stalled, but the law is still in force.

All of this set off alarm bells for those affected. The Rama and Kriol peoples, as well as the Black Creole Indigenous Community of Bluefields and the Council of Elders of the Miskitu Community of Tasbapounie quickly denounced the unconstitutionality of the project, claiming that they were not consulted when Law 840, which directly affected them, was drafted.

This initial complaint was joined by 31 other appeals of unconstitutionality: the largest number of complaints against a law in Nicaraguan history. All of them, however, were rejected in December 2013 by the Supreme Court of Justice.

This led to the beginning of massive protests by the native communities against the Canal project. The first large demonstration took place in December 2014 in Managua and although it did not have major incidents, those that followed were successively repressed by the government. In total, between 2014 and 2018, about 90 demonstrations took place. So when the outbreak in April last year happened, the discontent already had a tradition. However, the trigger would end up being the fire at the Indio Maíz Reserve.

The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is one of the most important tropical rainforests in Central America. As indicated on its website, it covers some 2.639 km2 —ten times the size of Managua— 70% of which are ancestral territories of the Rama and Kriol peoples. The reserve has a fundamental ecological role, around 500 species coexist there and, as such, has specific legal protection with access being restricted to a large part of the reserve.

However, in April 2018, a fire devoured 5.000 hectares of the Reserve. The incident reportedly started days earlier in the Siempre Viva community in San Juan de Nicaragua. In spite of a request for help from the government to put it out, the aid arrived three days later, when the fire had already spread through the Indio Maíz Reserve. The fire was, presumably, started voluntarily in order to expand the agricultural frontier, as is the case in the Amazon and Argentine wetlands.

This led to numerous protests against the government for the negligence with which the case was treated. In parallel, the reform of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute was announced. The flame of discontent that was lit in 2014 was about to explode.



It is estimated that the protests, which began in April 2018, left a toll of more than 300 dead. To that we must add that 30 opposition leaders were imprisoned at the time. The environmental problem in Nicaragua also coincides with a deep crisis of its political system that has its origins in the late 1990s. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, by its acronym in Spanish), once deeply revolutionary, has swung since its return to power in 2006 between alliances with sectors it had been historically opposed to, such as the Church, liberal and conservative politicians, and the business sector.

Last year, new elections were held, which were won by the Ortega and Murillo formula. In the previous months, most of the candidates were imprisoned or are now in exile. Regarding the Canal, it continues to be stagnated. Law 840, on the other hand, is still in operation.

Suggested reading:

  • Acosta, M. L. (2016). El Impacto de la Ley del Gran Canal Interoceánico de Nicaragua sobre los Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes de Nicaragua. Cuaderno Jurídico y Político, 1(2), 21–31. (in Spanish)
  • Antunes, A. A. (2018). Del canal al espejo: ¿quién es el pueblo en Nicaragua? En A. A. Antunes, C. E. Villacorta, & E. de Gori (Eds.), Nicaragua en crisis (pp. 135–151). CLACSO. (in Spanish)
  • Arnaiz Burne, S. M., & Dachary, A. A. C. (2014). EL CANAL INTEROCEÁNICO DE NICARAGUA: UNA GEOPOLÍTICA CON HISTORIA. Desarrollo Regional em Debate, 4(1). (in Spanish)
  • Fernández Hellmund, P., & Romero Wimer, F. G. (2019). Crisis política en Nicaragua: un análisis para su comprensión. Tensões Mundiais, 15(28), 273–294. (in Spanish)

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