North and South

The idea of using Nicaragua as a location for a trans-oceanic canal has been around since the French made the first proposals in 1786. Since then, the Spanish, Danish, and the United States have all expressed interest in building a canal across the country. Since the United States abandoned its commission to build a canal in the early 1900’s, all other interest seemed to be brushed aside as well. Until now.

With the new century came new interest in the impoverished and easily exploited Central American country. In recent years, Chinese investors began looking into building a canal. Before long documents were signed, laws, were passed, and the idea of a canal was quickly becoming a reality for the Nicaraguan people. However, just as the country will be divided if or when the canal is actually built, Nicaraguan opinion on the channel is as opposite as north and south. Throughout my travels in Nicaragua, I have had the opportunity to meet with several organizations and talk with local individuals from varying backgrounds about their stance on the matter.

Coming into Nicaragua three weeks ago, I had a pre-formed bias on the canal from what I had learned about it while in the states. By my third day in the country, after having a conversation with my Spanish professor in San Juan del Sur, Lucia, I was already hearing new information and opinions that backed what I knew. My GLI focus being clean water, I was fascinated with what she had to say.

According to Lucia, most people in the coastal town can afford to buy purified drinking water and only use tap water for cleaning. However, the poor cannot and suffer from kidney problems as a result. The canal, which will come out a mere 11 km from San Juan if built, will endanger and add additional pollutants to the region’s water table. To counter this, extra chlorine will be put in the tap water. For the poor who drink the tap water, this will mean increased occurrence of kidney stones and renal diseases.

The next week in Managua my class met with a representative from the Humbolt Center at the University of Central America. The Center, which runs several environmental projects throughout Nicaragua, has been studying the potential impacts of the canal since 2013. It was during this meeting that I learned the depth of the environmental and social injustices that have been and will be inflicted as a result of the canal.

For starters, in regards to social injustice, every Nicaraguan has had their constitutional rights exploited by the signing of the concession document which gave China the right to build the canal. The document was passed into law, law 840, over the period of seven days (most laws take between two and three years to be passed in Nicaragua) without consulting the people in any way. One of its clauses states that any new law passed against the canal will be overturned, which basically places law 840 above the constitution. On top of being constitutionally exploited, those living in the direct path of the canal will be the recipients of additional injustices. They will be forced from their homes with minor compensation for their land and  property. (A mere 300-500 cordobas a hectare or about $4.50-$7.50 an acre). Also, as of right now, the government has no plan for the relocation of people displaced by the canal.

To top off the wrongs being committed to Nicaraguans by their leaders, when made public the 200+ page concession document was only printed in English. A vast majority of the Nicaraguan people speak and read only Spanish, leaving them unaware of the realities of the future canal. Unable to do their own research, they are left vulnerable to the press, which releases only what they government wants people to hear. They believe the rumors that the canal will produce jobs and increase economic growth. As for the latter, perhaps the economy will grow. But it is likely any introduced commerce will be in the form of foreign investment and tourism, both of which only take away from the cultural integrity of a people. Regarding jobs, the belief that the canal project will raise the poor out of poverty by creating thousands of jobs is completely and utterly false. China has announced it will only be hiring Asian workers and, unlike Panama who gained complete control and benefit of its canal after 100 years, the Nicaraguan canal will indefinitely belong to China.

When it comes to the environment, the injustices begin to multiply. While studies performed by the Nicaraguan and Chinese governments insist the canal will not cause any extensive damage, the Humbolt Center believes differently. Starting at the most basic level, the proposed canal will be a 278 km trench dug across an entire country. It will divide the country into a north Nicaragua and a south, creating a physical barrier for both people and animals. Families will be separated from their loved ones and employees from their employers. And while the government’s scientists insist animals will be able to swim across the canal, this is simply not feasible. With the building of the canal, one of the largest animal corridors in the world which stretches from Panama to southern Mexico, will be cut in half.

Just as all people were exploited in the passing of law 840, all regions of Nicaragua will be degraded in the building of the canal. The canal will go through the rainforest of the east, Lake Nicaragua, and the lowlands of the west. In addition to the land being dug up to build the canal, there will be an impact zone stretching several dozen kilometers on either side of the canal for its entire zone which will be subject to erosion, deforestation, and pollution resulting from the building, operation of , and any new infrastructure related to the canal. A lake will be made to feed water to the canal’s system of locks which will flood a massive portion of eastern Nicaragua and displace an enormous number of families from their homes. When it comes to building the canal, Nicaragua has given China the right to any resources within in the country that they may need.  They have given them the right to access all lakes, rivers, and seas within and around the country as well as complete control over the land, sea, and air associated with building the canal. To sum matters up, Nicaragua no longer owns its natural resources, China does. And while the government would like people to believe otherwise, you can’t dig a trench across a country without inflicting serious environmental damage.

Many Nicaraguans views on the canal fall in line with that of the Humbolt Center. They fear for the environmental health of their country and see through the government’s lies related to the creation of jobs. Nevertheless, many Nicaraguans share an opposite viewpoint. They believe the canal is harmless and that it is the solution to all the countries economic problems. We spoke with one women who owned an eco-lodge in the Solentiname Islands who firmly believed the canal would make Nicaragua prosper. She informed our group that a company  independent of the government had come in and done a study of Lake Nicaragua, her island’s host lake, and concluded that the lake would not see any environmental impacts. Personally, I find this hard to believe as the canal will introduce both salt water pollution and chemical/gas pollution from the passage of ships. Seeing as the lake is home to a unique species of freshwater sharks, this could be a very serious threat indeed. However, her economic argument had more validity. Following the proposed canal have come the proposals for several resorts and the prediction of a significant increase in tourism. While it’s true that this will create many new jobs, it won’t necessarily eliminate poverty completely.

The proposed canal has divided the Nicaraguan people. Nicaraguans are either for it or against it. They either believe it will harm the environment or it won’t. They think it will revolutionize the economy or ruin it. Maybe the canal will be a God send to the people. Or maybe they are about to lose all but their sovereignty to a foreign nation. Maybe the environment will see minimal damage, or maybe, as seen time and time again when humankind  tries to alter nature, they are only setting themselves up for disaster. Unfortunately its situations like these where all you can do is watch and wait and hope that somehow, through all these injustices and divisions and perhaps also by spreading information as I have just done, people are brought together to experience a more just future.

The Gift of Words

Our bus skidded to a stop and with a sigh of relief I peeled my eyes from the side of the road and the drop off to the valley floor below. As the dust settled on the single, gravel lane I took in our surroundings. To the left a short, barbed wire fence stood guard before the two huts making up another of the homes in the Sontule community. On my right, a second road branched off of our lane and disappeared into the trees. We had just come from a meeting with the women’s coffee cooperative of the UCA Miraflor region after which our group of students had been divided into pairs and sent to stay with different families around the community. Glancing at Modesta, our host mother, for confirmation that this was our stop, my travel partner Emma and I grabbed our bags and exited the bus. Two other pairs of students also followed their hosts off the bus. One group was led through the fence on our left and the rest of us set off along the path to the right.

Modesta was a full foot and a half shorter than me and the wrinkles on her face told me she had seen many years. She seemed small and fragile and I was reluctant to hand her one of my bags when reached out to help. Her thin arms, however, were not as frail as they appeared and she hoisted the duffle with ease. I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d carried heavy objects long distances. As we wound our way along the ridge, the trees often parted, revealing stunning views of the northern Nicaraguan mountains on either sides of us. Though not nearly as extreme as the Montana Rockies, they were beautiful just the same. Skin slick with sweat from the high, twelve o’clock sun and stomach rumbling with hunger, I was grateful to finally arrive at what would be my home for the weekend. Modesta showed us to our room, set my bag on the table, then left to prepare lunch. Emma and I lay down our bags as well then went to explore.

The building our room was in had two other bedrooms and a dining/living room. It was here that we ate lunch with Modesta and two of her grandsons. The other building on her property was the kitchen. Inside, pots, pans, cups, and silverware filled the shelves. A clay stove in the corner sent smoke spiraling up and out through the space between the tin roof and the wooden panels that made up the walls. A stone-lined path led the way down the hill to an outhouse and a view of the far off town of Esteli. Throughout the day, dogs ran in and out of the buildings and a kitten was always darting between feet and around the flower pots. People came and went. Sometimes there was a horse tied up to the fence and sometimes there wasn’t. It was hard for me to tell who actually lived there and who was only visiting. Thinking back on it now I don’t think anybody in the community lived in one house alone, rather the community itself was home and they all shared the buildings with everybody else.

Late that afternoon, Modesta’s grandson Hanir led us back to the first house our group had met at. Along the way we picked up our classmates as we passed their houses. Once all together, we were taught about the process of growing coffee. Afterwards, we hiked to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunset and hear the story of a local man and his family’s experiences during the Contra war of the 80’s. By the time six o’clock came it was already dark. Hanir brought us back home for dinner and we went to bed early.

The next day, May 30th, was Mother’s Day in Nicaragua. Rumor had it Mother’s Day was a big deal in this part of the world but with that in mind, nothing could have prepared Emma and I for the day we had in store. At breakfast, Emma and I wished Modesta a happy Mother’s Day. Her deep eyes and wrinkled checks exploded into a smile as she gave us hugs and a chorus of “Gracias mis niños!!!” She told us she’d be hosting a mother’s day party that evening and with that we finished breakfast and took off down the road again for the school. There, we learned about how primary and secondary school worked in the community. Three teachers taught all 12 grades. Each teacher had their own, one room building and set of supplies. However, they were extremely lacking in many of the basics. It was amazing to me how they could organize their day in such a way that all the age groups received the attention and lessons they needed and that the children could understand their teachings with such a limited supply of pictures, diagrams, and maps. Nevertheless, Sontule’s children made do with what they had and were happy. They had never known anything different so how could they not be?

With a basic understanding of how the school system operated, our group of students from the University of Montana spent the remainder of the morning preparing a set of geometrical garden beds for the kids to grow vegetables. From there, we left to another community to learn more about the coffee industry and some of the flora in the Miraflor reserve. Back in Sontule, Emma and I hurried up the road to Modesta’s. We were late and worried we’d missed the forewarned party. Upon our arrival, however, we saw the party was just beginning.

The night began with Emma and I being introduced to several of Modesta’s children and grandchildren. Twenty-some people from the community and from Esteli mulled around the yard chatting with each other. Everyone was related to Modesta one way or another. I was delighted to discover one of her grandson’s, Uriel, had gone to university and learned English. At long last I was able to converse with someone other than those in my class! Although Emma was able to translate a bit for me, there was still a lot she couldn’t say and it was frustrating not being able to converse directly with most people. After dinner with Modesta and a few of her relatives, we socialized with the family, and then were herded into the living room with everyone else. I don’t know what I expected was going to happen but the following events surpassed anything I could have imagined.

Once the last of the family had trickled in and claimed a chair in the circle that filled the room, Uriel gave an introductory speech. When he was done he told Emma and I he had thanked everyone for being there to celebrate Mother’s Day and to honor Modesta and that to start things off one of the grandsons wanted to dance for Modesta. A couple guys fiddled with a radio until a local station began to play. The young boy began to dance in the center of the circle. People laughed and cheered and clapped as he moved to the music in the flickering candlelight. After a minute or so he stepped to the side, grabbed my hands, and pulled me into the circle with him. I smiled and laughed with the rest as I tried to mimic his footsteps. We danced for a while and then he grabbed Emma and danced with her too. He finished up with another solo and then the family transitioned to the next event of the night.

One of Modesta’s sons grabbed a guitar while several grandsons clustered around him. He began to play and the boys began to sing. Eventually, those sitting in the circle joined in, their voices ringing together as they sang the praises of Nicaragua. I’m sure if someone had stepped outside in Esteli that night they too would have felt the pride and love poured into those songs flowing out over the mountains. As I listened a grin begin to spread across my face until my cheeks were frozen in a permanent smile. What an experience! To be here, in this little hut with this beautiful family and to be able to listen to them singing the songs of their nation and their culture. When their voices faded Emma and I joined the others in shouts of “Otra! Otra! Otra!” and they came together to sing one last song. I didn’t want the music to end but it was time for the main event, the reason we were gathered here tonight, to begin.

Uriel stood up again and thanked those who performed. He then either gave some instructions or everyone just knew what to do from there, for one by one, each member of the family stood up and gave a short speech to Modesta. I can only guess what they were saying but with putting together their tones of voice, Modesta’s tears of joy at their words, and the fact that it was Mother’s Day I’m pretty sure they were thanking her for everything she did in the family and sharing reasons why they loved her. After each son, daughter, and grandchild spoke they gave Modesta a hug and presented her with a gift to a polite round of applause.

If it was possible for my smile to grow any wider it did. Tears filled the corners of my eyes as I watched and listened. I was in awe of what I was seeing. Here were these people, who lived in the deepest kind of poverty, who slept in huts and baked in clay ovens, who pumped their water from wells and hadn’t a spare penny to spend on themselves. Yet they had all gone out of their way to save up and buy their mother/grandmother a gift for this special day. I suddenly felt very aware that Emma and I hadn’t brought anything to give. I did a quick, mental scan of everything I’d brought with for our weekend in the mountains but none of my belongings seemed fitting as a gift. Yet I wanted to give Modesta something. Suddenly I realized a gift didn’t have to be physical. I could give the gift of words. Leaning over I whispered to Uriel, “If I wanted to say something, could you translate?” He nodded yes and when the last of the relatives had spoken and presented their gifts he stood up and announced that Emma and I would like to speak.

Emma went first and, after saying a few sentences in Spanish, I stood up and faced Modesta. “Hello,” I started. “I’m sorry I cannot say this to you in your own language and I’m sorry Emma and I have brought nothing to give. But we give to you our gratitude for allowing us to stay in your home.” I continued on, thanking her for her hospitality, for sharing the food on her table and the beds under her roof. I thanked her for her kindness and for welcoming us into her family and letting us join in their celebration of Mother’s Day. Uriel, standing a few feet behind me, translated my words after each sentence. When I was done everyone clapped one last time as Modesta gave me a hug and we resumed our seats.

The remainder of the night consisted solely of conversation and the passing of the guitar between one another. Little by little family members wandered out the door and headed down the road. We bade farewell to Uriel and various other relatives we had spoken with over the course of the evening and when all but a few were left, we made our way to bed. As I lay awake beneath my mosquito net that night listening to a baby cry and the fading whispers of the remaining guests, I replayed the last couple hours in my head. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been there for such a special occasion, such a unique, cultural experience. What an amazing experience it had been! Listening to the traditional songs, seeing the kindness and selflessness of the Nicaraguan people and of those who had so little yet gave so much. And perhaps most memorable of all, despite the language barrier, still being able to give a gift myself: the gift of words.

Poverty and the Environment

Being an Environmental Studies student I’ve taken whole classes based on the relationship between people and the natural world around them. One common correlation made in such classes is that between the poor and polluted environments. I’ve been taught that, more often than not, the poor live in and around polluted areas while the wealthy experience the luxury of healthy, environmental conditions. The poor carry the burdens of pollution and climate change and feel the effects of environmental exploitation more strongly than other social classes. Similarly, damage to the environment inflicted by society cannot be addressed until the issues of poverty and other social inequalities are met. Having been taught all this in recent years, I never truly understood the correlations until seeing them firsthand in Nicaragua.

After arriving in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, one of the first things I noticed besides the stunning beaches, quaint shops and houses, and constant motion of the people was the litter. It was everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. Bottles, bags, cans, wrappers and more blanketed the forest floors along every highway, dirt roads, and driveways. As my trip led me to other regions of the country this observation did not change. (With the exception of the northern, rural mountains and the southern river border with Costa Rica where populations were so small and poverty so extreme that they didn’t have anything to throw out as litter.) Litter blustered across highways and gathered in ditches. It congregated in back yards and was raked into piles to be burned. Smoke spiraled up from communities at all hours of the day and night accompanied by the distinct and unpleasant smell of burning trash. It was disgusting. I looked around and was disappointed in the Nicaraguan people. My first thoughts were ‘How could they let it get this bad? How can they throw their things out into the roads, the lakes, the forests, and not care about how it looks or the damage it does to the environment? How can they drive these roads every day and not feel the desire to do something about the trash? Not organize to clean it up?’

It took a few days for me to realize why they didn’t, why they couldn’t do anything about the pollution and why it got to be a problem in the first place. Poverty. When you’re worried about feeding your children and buying clean water and paying the electric bill (if you can afford electricity) it’s hard to justify paying for proper waste removal. When you work all day and have to take care of your children and other assorted relatives at night and prepare the plantains for the week and do the laundry or work a night shift at the family store or restaurant you don’t exactly have time to volunteer picking up trash along the road or lake shore. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at its finest. Until the people have their basic needs (food, shelter, and safety) met they won’t worry about anything else. Likewise, when your government is still focused on implementing new and better education programs, health care, and transportation systems and campaigning so the current president will get reelected for a third consecutive term, they can’t afford the resources to fund any sort of trash clean-up program.

My first week in Nicaragua was spent solely in San Juan del Sur attending a language school during the day and participating in various cultural activities in the evening. For the second week, my companion Emma and I traveled back to Managua (the capital of Nicaragua) to meet up with professors Dan Spencer and Patrick Burke and the other members of our two week study abroad. We met with several organizations and people in the city and countryside who provided me with further examples of the interconnectedness of poverty and the environment. One of our first meetings was with a women’s health center that was developed to serve a region of the capital where women were dying of unknown causes. The psychologist from the center who met with us explained the source of the problem which they uncovered with a little investigating. The shores of Lake Managua (the immense body of water along which the capital is nestled) had once been used as a dumping grounds for the city’s waste. When a new location for the dump site was chosen, the old site was filled in and upon it the poorest of the poor built their communities. Over time, the buried waste festered and seeped its way into the people’s soil and water sources. This, in combination with living in close quarters to the extremely polluted lake, meant it was only a matter of time before cancers and other diseases broke out within the community.

Similar stories were told by and about workers on tobacco and sugar cane plantations. Just like the poor in the cities who, being desperate for a home, were left to live in the least desirable locations, desperation for an income leads the poor in the country to take up the least desirable jobs. When it comes to agriculture, Nicaragua does not have the same regulations on chemicals as the United States and some very toxic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on cash crops. As these chemicals are absorbed into the soil and as rains wash them into waterways, their concentrations have grown to dangerous levels in certain drinking water reserves. Resulting from this, in the sugar cane town of Chichigalpa, 3-4 people are dying a day of renal and other cancers. Meanwhile, the wealthy who can afford purified water and work and live away from chemicals and waste, are unaffected.

Also in regards to the issue of clean water is the proposed trans-oceanic canal. The canal will bring in salt water and added pollution to water sources of the communities it passes. For towns like San Juan del Sur where only those in deepest poverty drink the tap water which others use solely for laundry and personal hygiene, health problems are predicted to explode. Many of the poor who drink the tap water already suffer from kidney problems and any added contamination (or chlorine added to counter contamination) will only exemplify the occurrence of kidney stones and cancers.

However, it’s not only the actions and events in Nicaragua taking a toll on the nation’s poor. As is the case around the world, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more evident and are no exception to the poverty-environment relationship. While staying with rural families working on coffee farms in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, we saw why Nicaragua is the 11th country most affect by climate change in the world. Coffee must be grown within a very specific temperature gradient and in the tropical country of Nicaragua these temperatures are only found at higher elevations. However, with warming, global temperatures, the elevations at which coffee must be grown is becoming higher and higher, reducing the land available for coffee production.   The families we stayed with were entirely dependent on the coffee industry when signs of climate change first appeared and they are now struggling to find  additional sources of income to compliment their dwindling coffee crops. Likewise, climate change is altering the patterns of the dry and rainy seasons that Nicaraguan farmers rely on. The rainy season is becoming rainier and the dry season drier. Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, meaning many farmers are putting their crops in too early or too late. The result of this is little or no harvest and a diminished income for the year.  Altogether, climate change is wrecking havoc across Nicaragua and not only is it being felt by just the poor, but it continues to sink the poor further into poverty.

For me, it took a trip halfway across the world to truly understand the relationship between poverty and the environment. While everyone contributes to waste, to climate change, and demands the food products being laden with pesticides, it’s a very narrow margin of society that feels the negative outcomes. Unfortunately, it is the poor of the world who suffer the most negative effects and until social and economic equality are achieved environmental issues cannot be addressed and environmental justice will not be served.