Patricia Orozco is a Nicaraguan feminist and radio journalist with a long history of involvement in social activism and communication from the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship onwards. She is currently active in feminist and media circles, as well as working for women’s rights, community development and grassroots organisation. She was interviewed by the British-Nicaraguan feminist writer and translator, Helen Dixon.
Before talking specifically about the Canal, could you give us a sense of the context of women’s rights under the current government?
I think we have to go back and look specifically at Daniel Ortega when he was the leader of the first Government of Reconstruction and the President during the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s. We haven’t forgotten that he never had any affinity with women’s rights as part of the revolution. When we met with him as women to discuss the violence we were experiencing from men during the revolutionary period, his response was to tell us that our place as women was to give birth to more men, more militia members and soldiers to replace those being killed in the war. That’s the level of sensitivity that he showed to the demands being made by revolutionary women. He also said, like other male leaders, that the revolution came first and after women’s particular rights would be dealt with. This meant that during the Agrarian Reform in the eighties women were excluded from land titles and were made invisible in many different processes in spite of our major participation and responsibilities in the revolution on all levels. It was an archaic position taken by those in the highest positions of power. This gives you an idea of the history of the current government dominated by Ortega, and the thinking of those loyal to him who have remained in the party [FSLN] .
In 1990 the women’s movement declared its full autonomy from any type of de facto political or economic power and over 25 years has developed as a feminist political and social movement that now connects with millions of women across the country. But this contrasts with state policies. While claiming to recognise women’s rights, in practice the government subsumes them to decisions made by the President, his wife and the party. A recent report said that Nicaragua is in sixth place in recognising gender equity but this emphasised the number of women holding public office, but this it doesn’t mean they have genuine decision-making power. And it can’t be equated with women in their daily lives improving their conditions, their access to justice or to the implementation of favourable public policies. And other issues were ignored. You only have to see the rollbacks in women’s rights that have been happening. We fought decades to establish a law penalising violence against women. In the new Criminal Code it was recognised as a public crime and any mediation was disallowed. But a year after it was passed it was reformed and weakened. The following year the regulatory framework for this law was formulated illegally by President’s office instead of the National Assembly (parliament), and this -also illegally- completely changed the aims of the law. It introduced mediation and other procedures that undermine women’s rights by prioritising the “protection of the family” and it reduced femicide to only one specific form. Then there’s the FSLN deal with the Catholic Church to withdraw therapeutic abortion in 2007 and create the absolute abortion ban in 2008. This was accompanied by the introduction of rights for the fetus –using the figure of the unborn child- over the rights of women already born, who have dreams and families and life projects, and who can be condemned to prison for deciding over their bodies, even when the pregnancy threatens their lives. So as you can see the current context has meant a lot a serious setbacks and very little genuine advances in gender equality beyond empty gestures.
So can you tell us about what’s happening with the Canal project? Maybe with a bit of background for those who are unaware of how it started?
In terms of the Canal it began as an initiative that harked back to this idea in the nation’s history, pre-dating the Panama Canal. But it’s come to concretion under this government through an extraordinary law in which the Nicaraguan state gives absolute rights to the licensee – Wang Jing representing the Chinese Company HKND- to develop any project he likes in national territory. When this outrageous law was approved in the National Assembly, the deputies [members of parliament] didn’t read in detail the agreement that was signed by Ortega and Wang Jing, some of which is still a secret. The law was published in English in the Gazette, not in Spanish, which is unconstitutional. On top of this, last year the Constitution was partially reformed and the Canal Law -almost to the letter- was enshrined as part of the country’s constitutional level economic law. All this, thanks to Daniel Ortega and a party that was born defending the poor majority of the population, but is now the greatest ally of big international businessmen, multinational companies and bankers.
So where is this canal going to go?
Four possible canal routes were already being researched under the previous President Enrique Bolaños. HKND and the Ortega government chose one of these four routes – from Tola on the Pacific coast to Punta Gorda on the Caribbean. It’ll split the country in two, create deep environmental damage with its construction and use, and will drive right through the centre of Lake Cocibolca, a symbolic site for the whole country, which will be dredged and contaminated. The massive industrial canal will also go north of the Islands of Solentiname and just south of the double volcano island of Ometepe, which was an indigenous shrine in ancestral times.
The Canal project is made up of 8 sub-projects and some analysts think that it may serve as a smokescreen for the development of these mega projects, which include: the creation of two deep water ports at Brito on the Pacific coast and Punta Gorda on the Caribbean coast; a massive scale damn project, called Atlantida, which will change the Nicaraguan map and the climate in the sub-region; several Special Free Trade Zones; a large commercial airport in the area of Rivas, and a network of highways and bridges to re-connect the two halves of the country. All these projects will radically alter Nicaragua in every way, our entire way of life.
So how are women and their communities being affected?
First of all the canal threatens the country’s largest source of drinking water and water for food growing. At present the islands and 4 municipalities directly depend on Cocibolca Lake for their drinking water and irrigation. Another 21 municipalities are also developing projects to use this same supply of fresh water as rainfall patterns change. Like all natural resources a clean and constant water supply is finite not infinite, and must be protected. Also any impact on the lake will also affect multiple river systems feeding into it, and none of these things have been taken into account.
Then there’s the health issue. The zones where the canal is going to be developed are areas where there are practically no health services, not even health centres with doctors or beds, but simply health outposts or base houses as they’re called, that have very scarce services or medical personnel. What they do is give you pills for headaches, when in the communities they have thousands of recipes for traditional natural medicines. Or treatment for a small wound. And no re-thinking has happened in the health service in terms of how needs will change with all these megaprojects.
We still don’t know what industries are to be promoted in the Special Free Trade Zones, or the logic behind their location along the canal route. If they are anything like the ones we already have, they will probably employ a lot of young women as cheap labour with extensive working hours, endangering their health and personal safety with little or no recourse to the national Labour Code or union organising. And the industries will be free from any taxes, which means they’ll be able to use us as cheap labour and resources and directly export Nicaraguan made products with a minimum benefit to the country.
All these mega projects along the canal route will endanger biodiversity, change the climate and eradicate the way of life of women and their rural and indigenous communities. The Rama Kriol community for example, is recognised in the Caribbean coast’s Autonomy Law as a self-determining community whose land is community owned, not individual property. The canal project has ridden roughshod over the community’s decision-making rights and is being developed by barefacedly grabbing their ancestral lands.
In the other non-indigenous rural areas, the lands will be expropriated by paying people with registered titles a minimal compensation of 500 dollars per manzana (0.70 hectares), which is vastly below their market value. The main problem, women have told us, is that many people in these isolated areas don’t have officially registered land titles because the process to get them is costly and they’ve never needed them. They’ve been there for generations. Most people have the inherited the land from their mothers, fathers and grandparents. When people talk about losing their land, even if they are eligible for the buy-out they say “It can’t be! I’ve invested my life in this land here. I depend on this land!” And we’re not even talking about the large extensions owned by big cattle ranchers, that also exist in this area. Given this situation it means that in fact what’s occurring is a major land grab .
So are women organising in these communities affected by these multiple projects? What are they saying, what actions are they involved in?
In the Rama Kriol communities the women are saying “What are we going to do? We are used to sowing the land, we go down to the river and the sea, and feed ourselves from what nature gives us. This is why money is less important to us because we live from the land and the sea. So what is going to happen with our children?” It’s a monstruous project that’s being imposed upon them and threatens to impoverish their historic way of life, destroy their culture, their communities, their children’s future.
We’ve also just carried out two large gatherings of women in the communities of El Tule and La Fonseca. The women there focused on two main problems. The first was water. If they no longer have access to water from the lake, or it’s contaminated, they’re concerned about where they’ll be able to get their drinking water. And they also need water for their crops. While most of them are not the official owners of the land -because in these areas most of the land is in the hands of the men- they’re still farmers and producers, working alongside their partners and families. So water’s a key issue.
The other thing they’re worried about is their safety and security, both symbolic and real. On a symbolic level because they’ve had people coming in saying ‘We’re going to take your land, we’re going to pay you this amount that we decide’, when this land’s been their life. This prospect of losing the land and their water supply creates a terrible effect of insecurity for the women. This is why they identify security as a major concern.
The other side of the security issue is very real. They say “We’ve managed to ensure that this struggle is peaceful and that no blood is being spilled. We’ve had to go out and stand up in front of the police when they come, as a way of defending the men in our community, our partners, and to avoid bloodshed.” Why? Because they say that the men tend to react to conflict with arms, with machetes. If they hadn’t taken on this role as mediators in defending their communities, the conflict would have escalated a while back. They value highly the marches, the meetings held in the communities, the visits they make house by house to talk about what’s going on.
But as you mentioned before the interview, rural women are much less visible in the photos of larger marches beyond the community. You see many more men. And of course we discussed this with them and about why we don’t see young people or children in the photos. Obviously it’s because of patriarchal mandates – men don’t take charge of their sons and daughters- so the women are the ones who end up staying home to look after children. They also mention health problems that prevent them from taking a more active role, but they say they are participating in actions closer to home. Also if they’re maintaining the house while others participate, that also has value. As reproductive and care work it has economic value as well, even if they are positioned in a traditional gender role in the patriarchal family. They also motivate their older children, daughters and sons, and their partners to participate in the marches. But because of patriarchal culture the men tell them they shouldn’t be there if there might be a conflict with the police, or that they should stay behind to make the food. But also, the women are complaining that the National Council for the Defence of Land, Water and Sovereignty don’t invite them with enough time for them to participate or the information gets to them too late. But they do recognise the important role they are playing within the community talking to family, friends, neighbours and other women. So far it’s only the bravest, most daring women that have been going on the big marches.
The women in these territories recognise Francisca Ramirez as one of their main leaders. She’s on the Council, she doesn’t preside it but she’s a very outspoken member. She says that in her life she’d never imagined becoming a leader as she has done, but the situation she is facing along with other women has pushed her into taking an active role in the struggle against the Canal.
And what about the women’s movement, the feminist movement that’s been growing since the declaration of autonomy at the beginning of the 1990s, are these organised women getting involved?
Yes. On the one hand the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM) has been contributing, mostly within the new structures, both in the Council and on some local levels in the Committees for Land Water and Sovereignty. But they have commented to us that there are a lot of people in these local committees but mostly men. There are few women. In the recent gathering we had in La Fonseca, of the 62 women participants only 2 had been in the local Committee. At the end of the reflection process they decided to take on the challenge and go to the Committee meetings to share in the discussion and decision-making at the very least in their own community.
More recently as feminists and members of the women’s movement we are involved with others in the Nicaraguan Initiative for Women Human Rights Defenders. It was formed 4 years ago but is growing fast and we’ve started an advocacy committee, which is moving ahead with these reflection processes in the communities. The women in the rural communities where we’ve been have said it’s the first time they’ve been to a women’s meeting. They really liked it, it was very attractive to them and they felt recognised and valued. They also said they felt they could speak freely as women about problems that are making them feel very anxious. One of the issues they’ve also mentioned is the national identity cards [cédulas]. They are demanding access to them as citizens id cards, rather than the political parties’ focus on them for voting purposes. They feel that if they don’t have any proof of their identity they are treated as if they don’t exist.
This last Wednesday these processes took an interesting turn, a kind of grounding or refocusing… because a decision emerged to hold a national gathering in Juigalpa with one hundred women. Women that have been in struggles against extractive industries, against multinational companies, or rural women that have achieved a certain level of empowerment and are developing their own projects to resolve their social and economic situation. This includes women from Rancho Grande who have been fighting goldmining, along with women from the La India mine, from Santo Domingo, women who have been challenging African Palm plantations, to give you some examples of people that have been involved in struggles against extractive industries. We’re asking them to talk about why, as women, they’ve got involved in these issues. What have they put into it, what have they gained and learned? What are the strengths that they have helped them get there? We are linking these environmental and territorial struggles to our bodies, as objects of patriarchal policies, exploitation and colonisation.
We’ve also invited Berta Caceres from the Honduran resistance as a member of COPINH [Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras] and who has been persecuted. COPINH and the communities have managed to hold back for the moment the Honduran project Aguas Arcas led by a multinational corporation. Berta will be sharing their story. We’ll also be doing a panel with women from Malpaisillo [near Leon] and women from Estelí who have demonstrated a level of empowerment, of engagement with the land, and with decision-making about their own income that they are reinvesting in themselves no only in their families’ wellbeing and their land. And in addition to these two examples there’s the struggle of women in Matagalpa, from Rancho Grande, who have kept up their resistance to gold mining and from Bocana de Paiwas who have stopped for the moment the development of the Copalar hydroelectric project.
We’re doing this so that we don’t get stuck in a sense of ‘oh poor us, we’re having to engage in this difficult struggle’. We want to make women, and the solutions they are developing, visible. All these women have stories to tell each other. That’s the idea of the gathering. There won’t be any podiums or speeches about feminism. We believe that the main protagonists of this gathering are the activist feminists, the women who are living through these challenges or have achieved important steps in transcending their own histories.
So what are the next steps you’re looking at?
After this we’ll return to the different territories as human rights defenders both to mining areas and to places affected by the canal, because of the way these projects threaten women’s lives and rights on a daily basis. And we’re continuing with research involving women along the canal route, as a collaboration between the Women Human Rights Defenders’ initiative of the women’s movement and the Network for Local Development [Red de Desarrollo Local]. This is good news as the Network is taking very seriously our proposals and perspectives in coordinating the research.
So this is where we are as feminists. The MAM began by coordinating with the organisational structures but as feminists we have achieved an important presence in the communities themselves. In the first even we were accompanied by Darling Munguia a young feminist from Malpaisillo, in the second we had Lidia Amaya and Monica López, who is a young lawyer who began in the Commission to save Cocibolca, and is also now in the initiative and is focusing directly on women’s rights.
So there is now a conversation and a convergence between the women in already established urban and rural feminist networks, professional women and others with the women in the communities most affected by all these extractive mega projects?
Exactly, that’s what we want, what we’re working on. When we decided to define ourselves as Women Human Rights Defenders we weren’t only thinking about things like the right to live without violence, which is being worked on already by the national Women’s Network Against Violence [Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia] and all its member organisations. We believe that there are other arenas of women’s everyday lives in which our rights are being violated. On the one hand there are our constitutional rights, with all of the setbacks I’ve mentioned. But here are all these women fighting for other aspects their rights, fighting extractive industries, multinationals and projects like this one promoted by their own government and its partner HKND. These are women that are defending basic human and women’s rights. This is why our work is growing and producing important results. We are gaining ground by working at a slow and steady rhythm. Because I can’t ask women from La Fonseca for example, that they go home and confront their husbands’ machismo from one day to the next. Of course we’re discussing with them the idea of equal relations and representation, working on processes through which they recognise that they have rights, that their lives and work have a great deal of value. And they’ve liked this aspect very much. Because they’ve given so much. So it’s important that they feel valued. That’s why they also recognise young Francisca Ramirez as a leader, because she represents in a symbolic way the value, recognition and presence that all women should have.
At the end of October all the members of this Council for the Defence of the Land, Water and Sovereignty will be carrying out a national march and at the gathering last Wednesday the women agreed that they’ll invite all the other women from their communities, so that the march will be representative of all of the social sectors and movements that are feeling the effects of the extractive industries and multinationals and who are being squeezed by this economic model being developed by globalised capitalism with the support of the national government.
What kinds of actions around the world can help support these efforts?
We need people to spread the word, as this interview is doing. Use the media to tell the truth about what’s happening with the Canal Project. I’ve been travelling around Central America and Mexico and the Ortega government is doing a campaign telling the story that this Canal project and the 8 additional mega-projects will generate development for Nicaragua, that it will help the population and all that. We are not even seeing the big toe of any genuine development. If this is development then it’s development for the multinational involved. Because here the canal concession was given to a multinational, in this case Chinese, but a multinational all the same. It’s also enabling a major land grab by those in power. That’s not development.
How can you measure development? If you ask the women in the communities they say ‘development means we’ll have water, it means we’ll have land to produce our food and a future for our children’. They’re clear that it’s about a model based on local development. They want to advance, they want to improve their lives, but with this monstrous canal project they will suffer major setbacks in their livelihood and their quality of life.
So we need you to tell these stories and circulate them as much as possible. That’s the best solidarity we could ask for.
 FSLN Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional / Sandinista National Liberation Front. Many guerrilla leaders and other revolutionaries who left the FSLN are now members or sympathisers of the Movement for Sandinista Renovation and the Movement for the Recuperation of Sandinismo.