This Christmas and New year I spent four weeks in Central America visiting Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I have to admit, I knew nothing much about either country except for their location and that they are Spanish speaking. I also had vague memories from my teenage years of names such as the Sandinistas, Somoza, Ortega and Chamorro. Normally, I like to find out quite a bit about a country before I visit, but a serious lack of time meant that I really hadn’t learned much by the time I set foot on the plane on the way there!
I think it was actually pretty good arriving there with little or no perception of what to expect. I had a blank slate on which my impressions started to chalk up. No preconceived ideas of the people or the place meant that I took things at face value, listened more carefully to the people to whom I talked and formed my own opinions.
It is a cliche to say that Nicaragua is a poor country but that the people are happy. But the people we talked to did seem happy, they make the most of what they have and work hard. One of the taxi drivers who took us from the ferry in San Jorge to Rivas proudly talked about Nicaragua and its people and he even showed us his house! He also showed us where the Spanish conquistadores and Nicaraguans signed the Declaration of Independence in 1821. A cross and a statue mark the point in the road. He told us about how Christopher Columbus came in 1492 and the Spanish stole the land of the indigenous people and drove them out. He was proud of how all the countries that were colonised by Spain have now achieved their independence and their freedom. There is a real sense here of patriotism and pride in who they are; poor but free after the struggles they have had in the latter part of the 20th century. In the Parque Central there are statues of the people from the FSLN who were instrumental in overthrowing the dictator Somoza. It has taken the country many years to get over the damage caused to the economy by Somoza and, whilst the poverty here is clearly evident, systems are in place and seem to be working.
It isn’t difficult to understand that the Nicaraguans might want to take any opportunity to improve what they have to continue to make life better for themselves. One such opportunity is a new canal, financed by a Hong Kong company, that will cut right through the country. It is envisaged that it will take the traffic that the Panama Canal cannot and will bring wealth and jobs to the people of Nicaragua.
It will also cut through swathes of beautiful countryside, lay waste to sensitive ecological sites and destroy habitats of up to 22 different species. It is easy for those of us in wealthy nations to damn the Nicaraguans for going ahead with such a project on the basis that plants, animals and insects will die when they are really thinking of what is best for the people.
We spent four days in La Isla de Ometepe which is situated in the Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua). The canal will come straight through the lake to the south of the island. It is a beautiful, clean, impressive lake. It feeds the local communities, it is fast becoming an ecological tourist venue, bringing jobs and opportunities for the locals. It is unspoilt and certainly a haven for world weary western tourists. But is that enough for a people who have been downtrodden for generations and who are simply trying to get themselves back on an even economic keel?
It seems though that opinions are split, that the proposal is controversial. There are those who are keen to push it through and those who fear that it could end up being a huge white elephant. In October, San Jorge witnessed demonstrations in the streets against the project. Is it an idea that will bring short term gain and long term loss to a country that has a lot to offer in terms of bio-diversity, especially in a world where eco-tourism is big business and where we are starting to realise what we have already destroyed in the name of progress?
These two articles explore further the impact that such a project will have on the country. I encourage you to read them.