Nicaragua’s Rama Indians face peril from canal and migrants

Edwin McCrae, a Rama Indian, strolls along a muddy path in the jungle with the ease of someone completely at home in the natural world. He occasionally swings his machete to lop off a low-hanging branch. He quickly cuts a walking stick for a visitor struggling to maintain his balance.

McCrae’s goal is to show the visitor the remnants of a railway line abandoned more than a century ago, now devoured by jungle. It’s what’s left of another grand plan to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Nicaragua.

McCrae doesn’t talk much about the current plan for a canal, even though it would upend the world he’s known far more than the ranchers whose presence nearby are his primary concern. And another stop on his tour.

“We’re tired of telling them,” he says of the ranchers in the lilting English Creole that is widely spoken by the Rama Indians in this part of Nicaragua. “We tell, no, can’t come in. But they still comin’ in. We tell them, no don’t come in because it’s the Rama territory.”

McCrae says the police and the army do nothing to stop the land invasions of what he calls the “Spaniards.”

“We tried, mister, we tried lots of things. We Rama people, we protect the animals. We hardly cut down woodland. We not do that.” The settlers, he says, want the Rama to leave so they can build more cattle ranches. “But we not give up. We’re not giving up till we die.”

The Rama are one of the complicated legacies of Central American history that could well vanish if Nicaragua builds its canal. They live in scattered communities along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua in what was once called La Mosquitia, or the Mosquito Coast, under British dominion until 1860 when a treaty turned it over to Nicaragua.

Since then, Nicaragua has struggled to incorporate the heavily indigenous region but with only limited success. Many coastal dwellers, including the descendants of African slaves, known as Kriols, also refer to those from the Pacific side of the country as “the Spaniards;” Nicaragua is a region they feel is distinct.

As for the plans for the canal, McCrae is only vaguely aware – as are most Rama, many of whom are barely literate and have only vague comprehension that the Atlantic terminus of the canal would be just a few miles south of Bangkukuk, where McCrae lives.

Construction of the canal under a 50-year concession to a Hong Kong company, HKND Group, almost certainly would force the few hundred Rama who live in Bangkukuk from their ancestral lands. Under those plans, a vast area of sea off their oceanfront village would be hemmed in by a 4.3-mile-long jetty. Inside the breakwater, the company would dump excavated material from the canal, building wharves and a container port to handle up to 2.5 million 20-foot containers a year.

Mega bulk carriers and massive container ships would arrive. Employees at the port would live on Rama territory. The Rama way of life, dependent on small-scale farming, fishing and some hunting, is likely to end forever if the project goes ahead.

“It’s going to totally affect the community of Bangkukuk. The people are going to have to move and go somewhere else,” says Rupert Allen Clair, who sits on the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government, which oversees the vast communal lands that belong to the Rama and the Kriol, who live in separate villages.

Bangkukuk is also known as Eagle Point, the English translation of its Rama name, and McCrae’s hike starts from his wooden stilt house. It wends through a field scattered with laurel trees, then enters a thick forest filled with almond and other hardwoods. The early morning light barely penetrates the canopy.

A voluble 43-year-old, McCrae spends much of the hike talking about the colonists and cattle ranchers encroaching on the huge autonomous region, totaling 1,570 square miles, that on paper gives legal communal title to the Rama and the Kriol.

McCrae stops and taps his machete, creating a metallic clink with something underfoot. He’s found the partially buried railway track. To either side, the jungle has closed in on an old railway bed, all that remains of a grandiose plan more than a century ago to build a rail link from the Atlantic coast to Lake Nicaragua, the vast body of water that dominates the Pacific region.

The 179-mile railway was to connect Monkey Point on the coast with San Miguelito on the lake. But by the time President Jose Santos Zelaya was overthrown in 1909, barely 10 miles of the railway had been built. The project was abandoned.

Leaders of the territorial government are far from united on what position to take on the current canal proposal.

Some members of the territorial government, which is in Bluefields, the biggest city on the coast, took their concerns March 16 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, telling its board that the canal would affect 40 percent of the 1,570-square-mile community-owned land.

“We don’t want the canal. The procedure the government is using is not the right procedure,” Clair says.

But Hector Thomas, a Rama who is the governing council’s president, is somewhat inclined toward the project. He says the canal company would help push mestizos off Rama land. He’s heard that the canal company plans to pay rent to the Rama and the Kriol in perpetuity for use of their communal land for the canal. How much is not yet clear.

Legal impediments remain. Laws bar the renting of communal land for periods of longer than a decade. Those laws would have to be changed or ignored, something that Thomas notes has not been insurmountable in the past.

“It’s not to say we broke the rule, we just bent it,” Thomas says.

Bluefields has a distinct Caribbean feel, with its brightly colored wooden clapboard architecture. Rama living there are far more aware than those in outlying communities of what may lie around the corner. They have access to computers and the Internet, while in Bangkukuk cellular phone signals have yet to arrive.

“The canal is going to be like a hurricane in its impact,” says Ervin Hodgson, an academic who is one of only a handful of Rama with a graduate degree.

If a hurricane of change is coming, most of the residents of Bangkukuk are only vaguely aware of its churning force. Their hamlet is isolated, reachable only by boat. There is neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Each house has a solar panel and batteries, sufficient to power a music player or light a bulb or two in the evening. Residents ask visitors for information about the canal and offer naive assertions that they have the power to overturn the project.

“They have to comply with what we say,” says Gregory Ortiz Hodgson, a community leader, seated in a rustic two-story structure in the center of the hamlet that serves as a public meeting hall and guesthouse. But then doubt creeps into his voice. “Maybe the government going to make promise, and not comply.”

At stilt houses around the hamlet, Rama people grow more animated talking about the mestizo invasion than the canal project, seemingly oblivious to its disruptive potential. They share their joy at a lifestyle tied to the planting seasons, hunting in the forest, the tides and fishing.

“We like to get in a boat, paddle around. We go fishing out there. We get turtle in turtle time,” says Ronald McCrae, a 43-year-old Rama. “I like my fish. I like my wild pig. I like my deer, my gibnut,” referring to a burrowing rodent that can weigh up to 22 pounds and is a prized delicacy. “All my children were born here. I want to stay. I don’t want to go nowhere.”

A few months back, officials showed up by boat. They had surveying tools. They set three concrete property markers, one of them behind McCrae’s house.

“The Chinese, they come here. Three times,” McCrae says. “They said they were just measuring the tide. It’s a lie. We never said nothing.”

A neighbor, Henry Albert Presida, is perplexed by talk of the canal. “The Rama people don’t know what the canal is. They don’t know if its something good or something bad for them.” He looks offshore toward Booby Cay, a rocky outcrop a few miles away. If the port is built, the breakwater will block access to the cay. Huge ships will pass close by, and the rich fishing ground may diminish.

“You get snappers, yellow tail, drum, mackerel. You catch jack, snook, shark, green turtles, iguanas. Just that cay is valuable,” Presida says.

A 10-minute walk away, along a beach and over a hill, is the stilt home of Jose Luis Castillo, who says, “We may look poor but we are rich. If you want to have a coconut, there is the tree. If you want to have breadfruit, the tree is right there. The orange tree is here.”

Castillo, an elder at age 65, says Rama people are tied to the local region.

“There are sacred grounds with ancestral burial sites. There are tombs. Hundreds of years ago, the ancestors lived here,” he says in Spanish. He then offers an astute observation about how the Rama view the perils looming before them. “We’ve never seen this canal,” he says, “but we see the mestizos all the time.”

The colonists and cattle ranchers are a cancer, he says, who only want to make their ranches larger by chopping down forest. “They don’t have title. They buy with just a paper. They sell (land) among themselves.”

The government does little to prevent the encroachment, even rewarding the settlers with corrugated zinc roofing. Politicians come calling, trying to capture the votes of the colonists and promising that they won’t be removed, even though they’ve squatted and clear-cut land that is declared a federal nature reserve and legally bequeathed to indigenous groups.

Authorities in Managua, the capital, say the canal project may halt migration toward the Atlantic. They pledge that the rent paid to indigenous communities along the route would help them obtain basic services and a steady revenue stream, even if their communities have to be relocated.

“Many of these communities live in conditions of poverty, even extreme poverty,” says Telémaco Talavera Siles, spokesman for the canal project. “They don’t have roads or basic services. They don’t have education. They will get all of this. Moreover, they will have income in perpetuity that they don’t have now. These people will be better off.”

Back in Bluefields, Donald H. Byers, head of the Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast, scoffs at those promises, saying the Rama culture is slowly dying out. He notes that only a couple dozen people remain alive who can speak Rama, a language of the Chibchan linguistic family that stretches down the coast to Colombia.

“They are all really old. If the Rama lose those old men and don’t rescue it, that’s it. They lose their identity,” Byers says.

Before a visitor leaves Bangkukuk, Ortiz makes an appeal, speaking with the unusual syntax common to Creole: “We want the government to tell we plain and straight what’s going to be (our) benefit or if we going to be losing. We no want they come with money and we must go.”

The screech of cicadas fills the air, a reminder that the jungle sometimes can swallow up even the best-made plans for progress.