HAVANA TIMES — The mega project to build an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua is being touted by the government of Daniel Ortega as the answer to development for the Central American country. At the same time warning signals come not only from environmentalists, social activists, farmers and economists, but also archeologists.
The following article was written by archeologist Suzanne M. Baker for Envio magazine.
The canal and its subprojects will provoke a cultural tragedy
The loss of cultural heritage resulting from construction of the interoceanic canal and its associated subprojects are incalculable. Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of as-yet uninvestigated archeological sites would be destroyed. It would be a tragedy that could never be reversed, and we would never even know what we’d lost.
By Suzanne M. Baker* (Envio)
The huge number of potential environmental impacts that may occur from construction of the Nicaraguan canal and its secondary development projects has been widely discussed in the media. One subject, however, has been largely omitted from public discussion—the great potential toll the canal would have on the country’s cultural heritage, including prehistoric and historic archeological sites, historic structures, and traditional sacred sites of contemporary indigenous groups.
A valuable heritage in danger
Let’s look at just some of the effects the canal could cause along its route:
-Both the Pacific and Caribbean coastal strands of Nicaragua are known to have significant prehistoric archeological sites, including large shell mounds and other settlement sites. Canal and port construction and associated development may well impact such sites.
– The canal will cross the Isthmus of Rivas, a fertile agricultural zone with a major population. It also had a dense Pre-Colombian settlement and has numerous archeological sites, most of which have been little researched. Those sites that have been excavated contain rich artifactual remains and have provided information that has begun to increase and change our knowledge about pre-Columbian Nicaragua. There are also potential impacts to historical villages on the Rivas Peninsula, many of which retain remnants of indigenous customs and traditions and seem to be integral to Nicaragua’s self-identity.
– The canal will pass through Lake Cocibolca, the most important source of fresh water between the Great Lakes and Lake Titicaca. Dredging the lake to make a 500m-wide trench many meters deep and the accompanying siltation, boat diesel and other waste pollution, and potential salinization from future sea level rise will undoubtedly destroy the lake’s water quality. There will also be indirect effects that could affect cultural resources. The islands of the lake, including Ometepe, Zapatera and the Solentiname Archipelago, contain a rich legacy of thousands of archeological sites and features, including monumental statuary, thousands of petroglyph boulders, sites with mounds, ceramics and other artifacts as well as human burials that may be affected by the influx of construction workers, tourists and new settlers. Looting of archeological sites is already a major problem on Ometepe Island and increasing traffic will mean increased looting. At least two major resorts and a construction workers’ camp are apparently being planned for the island.
– The canal will pass through the Department of Rio San Juan, which today is an important agricultural area. Recent excavations and surveys by the University of Leiden to the north in the Department of Chontales have found impressive prehistoric sites, including those with mounds, monumental statuary and numerous rock art sites. There have been very few, if any, archeological projects conducted in the Rio San Juan department, aside from on Solentiname, and the full extent of its cultural resources is unknown. It, too, may have been an important region of prehistoric settlement.
– The canal will cross the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS), destroying several major river systems within the Atlantic watershed, including Rio Punta Gorda and its tributaries, Rio Chiquito and Rio Masaya. The huge Atlantic watershed is perhaps the least studied archeologically of any region in Nicaragua. There have been only a handful of archeological projects on the coast and few if any major studies along the river systems of the region. We do know, however, that the rivers were and are major transportation routes and that people have lived along the rivers in prehistoric and historic times. Very interesting petroglyphs have been reported along the rivers, but to my knowledge only one formal study (on the Rio Mico) has been done. There is a likelihood that numerous archeological sites exist adjacent to the rivers.
– Contemporary people who identify as indigenous, including Ramas and Miskitus, will be affected by the canal. None of these people were consulted before the canal law was passed. This contravenes Nicaragua’s autonomy laws, which require consultation. The Rama people, in particular, have been reduced to a very small group and their traditional territory, much of which has been legally demarcated, will suffer serious impacts. Traditional gathering, hunting, fishing and agricultural areas, as well as sacred sites, may be lost and the Rama-Kriol territory effectively divided in two.
– There may be submerged archeological sites on the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts and in Lake Cocibolca, including especially 18th- and 19th-century shipwrecks that could be impacted by port construction, canal dredging and additional siltation.
In sum, untold numbers of archeological sites are threatened with destruction as a result of this neoliberal mega-project.
Archeology: A science that reveres the past
To put this potential destruction in perspective, we need to ask why we should care about archeology and other cultural resources in Nicaragua. The point of the following historical digression is to help explain the exciting possibilities of Nicaraguan archeology and its contribution to knowledge of the past, as well as the weakness of the discipline in Nicaragua and its relative lack of importance to the general public. The implications will become clear.
With the world increasingly homogenized by technology and capitalist globalization, archeology can help highlight both our common humanity and our differences. Every culture is formed by its history and has something unique to contribute.
Written records of Nicaragua’s history only go back to the 16th century, and these Spanish records were clearly biased by a lack of knowledge of indigenous culture. But for thousands of years Nicaragua was a land bridge for the movement of ancient peoples from north to south and south to north, many of whom remained in this place and developed distinctive cultures that contributed to the formation of contemporary Nicaraguan identity.
Today the only way to tell the story of these peoples is by studying their material culture—that is, their artifacts and sites—through archeology and by studying and preserving the remaining traditions and cultures of Nicaragua’s unique indigenous peoples. As the British archeologist Grahame Clark put it, archeology is a way to “cultivate a reverence for the usages, history, and traditions of all peoples including our own—and not merely of all living peoples, but of all peoples who have ever lived… Let us view all histories and all prehistory in a world perspective; in honoring the achievements of our own and of all other peoples, we are after all acknowledging our own humanity.” Nicaragua’s prehistory, history and contemporary cultures are unique and irreplaceable, and deserve to be preserved not only for Nicaragua’s children, but for all of humanity.
Nicaragua is the least studied country in Central America
With this said, however, we also need to acknowledge that archeologically Nicaragua is the least known country in Central America. There has been far more archeological study in countries to the north and south than in Nicaragua. Until recently this lack of scholarly interest could be attributed partly to the absence of the stunning monumental architecture and often spectacular artifacts found in the more complex societies of Mesoamerica to the north and in South America. The turbulent history of insurrection, revolution, counterrevolution and US embargo during the 1970s and 80s undoubtedly discouraged many, although not all, foreign universities and archeologists. There has also been a lack of internal resources and/or priority in supporting and training Nicaraguan archeologists and students.
In the last 10 to 15 years, however, interest in Nicaragua’s heritage has accelerated among foreign and national archeologists, encouraged both by peacetime conditions and by increasing infrastructure development. For example, we can point to archeologists from the University of Calgary in Canada who have worked extensively on the Rivas peninsula and in Granada; to the University of Leiden in Belgium whose archeologists are finding extraordinary sites in Chontales; and to my own work recording Ometepe Island’s fascinating petroglyphs. More recently, Florida Atlantic University has begun work in Chinandega and the University of Winnipeg has initiated study on the Caribbean Coast.
The struggles of national archeologists
Perhaps most important for the future of Nicaragua’s cultural resources have been the often heroic struggles of national archeologists to work in their profession and to record and conserve archeological sites out of love for Nicaragua’s past. It hasn’t been easy. After the triumph of the revolution in 1979, the Sandinista government found that Nicaragua had no trained Nicaraguan archeologists, but through Cultural Patrimony’s Archeology Department it prioritized reaching out to history students at the national universities who were also interested in archeology. With few resources these mostly young people learned about archeology from visiting archeologists and while doing practical work. A few even pursued studies abroad.
Some from that generation still work in archeology in Nicaragua, sometimes in government positions or with foreign archeologists when the opportunity arises, and some are self-financed or volunteer their time. Unfortunately, many have had to follow other professions because of a lack of archeological work, especially after 1990, when the neoliberal governments severely cut the budgets of the Cultural Patrimony and National Museum, resulting in the loss of many jobs in archeology, history and historic preservation. During all of these difficulties, the work of Nicaraguan archeologists has been ongoing, especially including projects sponsored by the Cultural Patrimony and by the Archeological Documentation and Research Center (CADI) at the National Autonomous University (UNAN).
Over the years, CADI was the only institution in Nicaragua that has had a formal training program in archeology, a research program sponsored by UNAN-Managua’s History Department. Its professors and students have conducted large and small surveys and excavations throughout Nicaragua. Recently CADI/UNAN archeologists have been cooperating with the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University’s Center of Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast (BICU-CIDCA) to inventory sites in the Caribbean Coast’s Rama-Kriol territory, a vast area that is largely unknown archeologically.
Unfortunately, UNAN has stopped accepting students who wish to study and specialize in archeology this year, offering the reason that there are no jobs for students after they graduate. To my knowledge no university in Nicaragua now has an archeology program, and few even teach archeology classes as a discipline. This is doubly unfortunate in that the canal, if built, could require the work of many archeologists to even begin to mitigate the damage to cultural resources.
In general what little information we do have about Nicaragua’s prehistory isn’t disseminated widely to the general public or even to the schools. Furthermore, academics haven’t been good about publicizing their studies or making them understandable to the general public (often a fault of archeologists everywhere). New discoveries, however, are providing exciting information about Nicaragua’s past and challenging some long-held ideas about the country’s prehistory—including beliefs about the Nicarao and Chorotega peoples, iconic ancestors for many Nicaraguans.
The ERM Study: Exciting new information
Returning to the canal issue, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the international company hired by HKND Group, the concession holder for the potential canal, to conduct its environmental impact studies, included cultural resources in its investigations. A short summary of the archeological survey was released to the press in early 2015.
Briefly, the ERM cultural resources investigative team included 29 people, including archeologists, anthropologists and architectural historians. The archeological survey, which was considered only a baseline study, was done over six weeks in the summer of 2014 by three teams of 6-8 archaeologists. The architectural team spent only two weeks documenting significant historic architectural features.
The general proximity of the canal 217 archeological sites had been previously identified and, during the six-week survey, 213 more pre-Columbian sites were found and over 14,000 surface artifacts collected. Mound features, shell middens, potential funerary features and numerous ceramic and lithic artifacts were located. In addition, 105 “built heritage” (“patrimonio arquitectónico”) sites, presumably historic architectural sites, were reported together with 12 “living heritage” (“patrimonio viviente”) sites of importance to contemporary people. Of these 330 new sites, 65% (214) were categorized as low “sensitivity,” presumably referring to importance, 25% (82) as medium sensitivity and 10% (33) as high sensitivity.
More questions than answers
This brief summary raised more questions than answers. Unfortunately, it didn’t include a map of the areas surveyed, indicating only that there was “selective surface reconnaissance” in Rivas, areas to the east of Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca, and the Caribbean area. The exact length and total area of the lands surveyed are not given nor do we have any idea of where the majority of sites were found.
According to hearsay evidence from several archeologists familiar with the project, the majority of the surveyed area was on the Pacific Coast, which was relatively more accessible. They also said that in some places landowners refused admittance to archeologists because of hostility toward the canal. One archeologist estimated that perhaps only 1% of the length of the canal was surveyed and didn’t include much if any of the rivers where a dam is proposed or most of the secondary project locations.
Sample areas were selected based on GIS computer sensitivity modeling, but such modeling requires both environmental data and some baseline information from previously recorded sites. The vast majority of archeological survey has previously been done on the Pacific Coast, with only a few studies on the Caribbean Coast, and virtually no archeological work completed on the river systems of the interior. How sensitive can a computer model be when vast areas of the country have not yet been studied even in a cursory way?
No subsurface archeological testing was done as part of this study. Surface indicators aren’t generally sufficient to completely evaluate a site’s relative importance, since knowing the existing number and types of subsurface data categories is crucial for assessing information potential.
The ERM study is only preliminary
The ERM summary does say that “many more presently unknown sites likely exist in the Project area.” If less than 10% of the project has been examined, then we can extrapolate that thousands, if not tens of thousands of sites may still to be found. If only the over 100 newly discovered high to moderate sensitivity archaeological sites were subjected to testing and full data recovery, one archeologist estimates that it would take more than 10 years to do adequate excavation given weather conditions, often difficult logistics and the number of archeologists available to do the work.
Thus far we know little about how much additional work is currently being planned or whether or how much funding—from either governmental or private sources—will be available for future studies. This is a central issue. The ERM archeological study must be seen as a very initial and preliminary work, not in any way a fully realized environmental impact report (EIR).
The normal progression with respect to international standards is an initial study (such as the present ERM work), then a full-scale EIR, which would require intensive surveys and test excavations to evaluate sites, and, finally, recommendations for further data recovery and other forms of mitigation of projected impacts. This should be done prior to any project construction.
EIRs for large infrastructure development projects may take years to complete—sometimes ten or more for projects much less complex than the Nicaragua canal. This isn’t a criticism of the quality of ERM’s efforts or competency—we have yet to see the full study and the ERM archaeological staff had very qualified and respected professionals in its leadership. But it was working on an impossibly short schedule in the best of circumstances. A six-week survey, even with over 20 archeologists, is a very short time given the size of the territory that will be impacted.
We’ll never know what we’ve lost
ERM itself noted in its summary that, given “the large areas of un-surveyed areas outside of the Pacific Region of the country, the Nicaragua Canal Project has the potential to have a substantial positive impact on our public and scholarly understanding of Nicaraguan history and culture, especially aspects of its pre-Columbian past.” We know so very little about the pre-Columbian past of most areas of Nicaragua that there’s no doubt this statement is true, even if only minimal data recovery work is done for the canal project.
What is also true, however, is the tremendous and incalculable loss of cultural heritage that will occur with the potential destruction of the thousands upon thousands of sites that will in all likelihood never be investigated. This cannot be over-emphasized. Their destruction will be a tragedy that can never be rectified, and we will never know the full scale of the information loss.
My hope is protest
A journalist recently asked me whether archeological sites could stop the canal. It’s very rare that big infrastructure projects anywhere in the world are stopped when strongly supported by stakeholders that include governments, large capitalist companies and wealthy individuals standing to gain great financial benefits. Projects can and have been stopped, but usually only if people loudly and effectively protest.
It is my hope that the majority of the Nicaraguan people will sufficiently value their precious environmental riches, including their cultural heritage, to raise their voices against the huge overall destruction the canal will bring.
(*) Suzanne M. Baker is an archeologist specializing in rock art and a partner in Archaeological/Historical Consultants in Oakland, California. Since 1995 she has directed 10 seasons of the volunteer Ometepe Archaeological Project on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island and recorded over 2,000 of its petroglyphs.