September 25, 2007

DEBATES OVER THE FUTUREOF AUTONOMY IN Nicaragua grew intense and urgent in August, when news of negotiations between the central government and a Taiwanese lumber company hit the front pages of Managua papers. Within days, leaked confidential correspondence reached the hands of Sandinistacosteiio legislatorRay Hooker, who went public with the details. Equipe Enterprise S.A., a fully-owned subsidiary of a large Taiwanese lumber com- pany, had requested a government concession of 375.000 hectares of prime rainforest in the northeastern coastal re- gion, with full tax exemption for five years and 80% exemp- tion for the next fifteen. On August 26, the government signed a "letter of intent" to move forward with the deal. Equipe's plans included the cutting of virgin timber, and the production of plywood and derivative products. The news provoked vigorous protest from autonomous government leaders, who denounced the concession as a return to Somozadays, when the coast was sold off to foreign companies, creating short-lived economic booms, great dam- age to natural resources, and no long-term benefits for coast people. Equipe Enterprise countered with statistics of jobs to be created and promises of reforestation. The company also went to great lengths to win the approval of key central government officials, such as Jaime Incer, minister of the Nicaraguan Natural Resources Institute (IRENA). In prepa- ration for the deal, Incer was treated to a tour of the company's operations in Malaysia, which left him convinced that the company was "intelligent" and responsive to ecological concerns. Quite apart from the debate over economic benefits and ecological impact, the Taiwanese concession represents a violation of the autonomy law and a distressing lurch back- ward to the practices of the Somoza era. The central govern- ment is formulating major, long-term development plans for the coast without notifying autonomous government offi- cials, or consulting the region's inhabitants. When Sumu Indian leaders of the organization SUKA- WALA held a press conference to express their concerns, they focused on the unfortunate history which made them deeply suspicious of the company's promises. Company bosses in the Somoza era "always saw us as racially inferior, as less than human," Sumu leader Ronas Dolores recalled. The government should recognize our community land rights first, added Taymon Robins Lino. To make the concession without that prior step is to treat Sumu people as nothing more than "curiosities in a zoo."

Tags: Miskitu, Nicaragua, autonomy, indigenous politics

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