Black Land Ownership and Megaproject Development in Nicaragua
Afro-Nicaraguans have been living in the shadow of infrastructure megaprojects for more than a century as both landholders and laborers. Settled by West Indian migrants in the nineteenth century, the community of Monkey Point was first slated for port and railway construction in 1904. In our day, the Nicaraguan Interoceanic Grand Canal threatens to expropriate 263 square kilometers of territory titled to the community and its indigenous neighbors. Like early infrastructure megaprojects, canal construction would transform community people from landholders to landless wage laborers. Their historical experience with dispossession underscores the value of black land ownership and how vulnerable it remains today.
Nicaragua has long pursued infrastructure development as a means to raise the country’s standing in the global economy and unite a divided nation. After the state militarily annexed the Atlantic coast in 1894, it established a settler colonial regime that favored Indo-Hispanic mestizos over the indigenous and Afrodescendant inhabitants of the region. These communities maintained their claims to the land and self-determination throughout the twentieth century, recently securing title to their ancestral territories. In the face of this resistance, state infrastructure projects that connect the Pacific and Atlantic regions fulfill nationalist longings for unification under mestizo racial rule.
The community of Monkey Point does not appear in the historical record except as a geographic locale or as a site for the construction of state-sponsored megaprojects. Women elders from the community, however, narrate a rich oral history of arrival and settlement passed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers. The women describe their ancestors’ migration to the region as an effort to escape racial oppression elsewhere and establish an autonomous fishing and farming community. These first families lived alongside indigenous Rama people and developed an egalitarian tenure system that gave their descendants equal access to community lands regardless of gender, status, or place of residence. The practice encouraged community identification and social cohesion even when women and men left Monkey Point to find work to supplement the rural subsistence economy.
Wage labor was a double-edged sword for women. The wage gave women economic autonomy from men, but the work reproduced forms of racial and gender servitude that smacked of slavery. Women’s stories connect the experiences of their enslaved ancestors with later generations of community women who worked as domestics in white households for wages. They describe this work as fraught with race-gender-class hierarchies and characterize the employer’s home as the sphere where white women’s racism was most keenly felt. These gendered histories emphasize black land ownership as a source of stability and empowerment in a racist society and convey a fine-grained analysis of oppression that links the African diasporic past to contemporary territorial rights.
The women’s stories also highlight historical moments when political elites and foreign capitalist interests sought to usurp community lands. After annexation, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya spearheaded a $2.6 million venture, the Monkey Point-San Miguelito Railroad, funded with foreign loans. The project was based on a proposal for an interoceanic railway originally conceived by British Royal Navy captain Bedford Pim in 1853. Railroad construction brought hundreds of workers to Monkey Point and resulted in 22 kilometers of completed line before a Conservative revolution toppled the Zelaya presidency in 1909. Women elders describe how the rural social order was turned on its head during these years. Monkey Point was transformed from an autonomous black settlement to a capitalist enclave where foreign engineers and managers viewed black and indigenous people from the region as little more than laboring bodies. Meanwhile, President Zelaya granted vast titles for their lands to his political allies. After the collapse of the Monkey Point-San Miguelito Railroad, the Nicaraguan government made a short-lived effort to revive the venture in 1920 at a cost of $6.2 million, but the project then lay dormant for more than seventy years.
Monkey Point people stayed on the land until the outbreak of the U.S.-funded Contra War in the early 1980s. Some men joined the contras to fight the revolutionary Sandinista state, but most families fled north to the city of Bluefields or south to Costa Rican refugee camps. When the conflict subsided, they returned and began to reconstruct their community. Allied with indigenous Rama people, women leaders from Monkey Point mobilized for territorial rights, which were now guaranteed by Nicaraguan law. But a decade of armed conflict followed by drug war militarization and renewed infrastructure development produced more insecurity and violence.
The first postwar infrastructure proposals came in the form of competing high-speed railway or “dry canal” projects under neoliberal administrations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These proposals led to clashes with foreign land speculators, driving further demands for territorial recognition, which the community people eventually won in 2009 after the Sandinista Party returned to power. But titling did little to protect the newly recognized Rama-Kriol Territory from land dispossession when the Sandinista government initiated plans to develop the Chinese-backed Interoceanic Grand Canal in the 2010s.
Ominously, infrastructure projects slated for the region have only gotten more ambitious and predatory over time: Dry canal proposals in the 1990s cost $1.5 billion, whereas the current wet canal project is priced at $50 billion. The canal concession, Law 840, further grants the concessionaire the right to expropriate land to build an interoceanic railway, petroleum pipeline, international airports, free trade zones, and any other infrastructure deemed necessary for the operation of the canal. If the project moves forward, the Nicaraguan government will place part of the Rama-Kriol Territory under “indefinite lease,” permanently alienating local people from their lands. Political elites promise that the canal will bring jobs and prosperity, but the community of Monkey Point has resisted the project, choosing land ownership over unskilled labor in a Chinese-dominated canal zone.
It is unclear if the Interoceanic Grand Canal will be built or flounder as the most recent failure in a long line of defunct infrastructure projects slated for the region. Regardless of the outcome, the canal proposal has brought conflict and fear, heightening the sense of precarity that has conditioned community life since the war years. My book on Afro-Nicaraguan activism, Black Autonomy, details how Monkey Point women and men have responded to this state of siege. But to understand black autonomy as a form of oppositional politics rooted in race pride, self-determination, and communal land ownership, one must look to the African diasporic past as much as to contemporary conditions. Women’s oral history illuminates that past with nuance and intimate detail, revealing how their social memory empowers community activism for territorial rights today.permission.